A calculator is one of several back-to-school essentials you'll find on the classroom shopping list every year. During the middle school and early high school years, all you may need is a basic calculator. However, as math and science get more involved, you may need calculators for school to perform multiple operations.
There are several types of calculators to choose from, which may cause confusion on which type to buy. As calculators get more complex, they're often more expensive. You may be wondering whether you need to spend over $50 for one, especially when some calculators are for sale that cost under $10. This guide will explain the different types available and point you to the best calculators for school.
Calculators come in many sizes and styles. Some run on battery or solar power, while others can be plugged in. For school purposes, you can rule out electric calculators that require a plug, as well as the printing calculator that accountants and store owners use. That leaves you with the standard function, scientific and graphing calculator.
Best standard function calculators for school
A standard function calculator is usually the least expensive and most commonly found. You can get a quality basic calculator for under $10. It typically features an 8- to 12-digit display and performs the basic types of calculations such as multiplication, addition, subtraction, division, square root and percentage calculations. The best calculators for school are:
The small and lightweight calculator from Office Depot weighs less than half an ounce, is inexpensive at only $5.99 and fits in a pencil case or pocket. The calculator is dual-powered using 2 LR44 batteries or solar. Parents of mIddle-school students will find this model to be a good option when a portable, low-cost calculator for simple math is needed.
Small enough to fit in a pocket
Dark, durable color
No cover to protect the keys
Only displays up to eight digits
Number buttons are small
Casio MS-80B standard function desktop calculator
A quality desktop calculator with extra features for less than $10
Casio's MS-80B is more ergonomic than other calculators because of the larger, palm-size surface and angled numerical display. It's low-cost for $7.99 on Amazon but has more features than a basic calculator. You'll find it can perform currency and tax conversions and even calculate profit margin, making it an ideal choice for business/economy students.
Solar-powered with battery backup
Large eight-digit angled display for easier viewing when placed flat on a desktop
Extra functions for percentage and currency calculations
Getting familiar with the functions can take some work
The larger format is no longer pocket-size
Deli Mini standard function calculator with case
A small but strong enough calculator to handle a few bumps
If your calculator doesn't fare well in your backpack and you usually need to replace it mid-year, a metal calculator could be more durable than the plastic shell versions. The Deli Mini has a metal body, rubberized keys and a removable cover protecting the LCD display from scratches and damages. Although the body is heavier-duty, it's still small and slim enough to slip into a shirt pocket if needed. The calculator's cover has a cleverly integrated interior pocket, perfect for holding a small notepad or a few business cards. This calculator may survive the school days and stick around into your business years.
Dual-power solar with battery backup
Longer-lasting metal shell
Water-resistant, flip-open case has room for a small notepad or business cards
Some customers report that the case doesn't fit properly
The vinyl-like case could be of better quality
Best scientific calculators for school
A scientific calculator is able to handle more complex and multi-step calculations. They're often required for math courses such as algebra, geometry and statistics, as well as for science and engineering. Scientific calculators are typically more expensive than a standard function one, although you can find them for as little as $10.
Texas Instruments TI-30XS MultiView scientific calculator
When math goes beyond basic, the TI-30XS is ready to handle it.
Texas Instruments is well-known among calculator nerds for producing some of the best devices at a reasonable price. The TI-30XS retails for $20 and comes packed with high-level-math functions and a four-line display. That's impressive when you compare it to other two-line models that retail for a higher price.
In addition, this is a calculator you can grow into. There is enough functionality for more advanced students while still keeping it simple enough for those new to scientific calculators, thanks to TI's exclusive MathPrint mode. It will allow you to work in common math notation until you get the hang of more advanced equations.
Loaded with advanced features for a low price
Multiple calculations are possible, and you can compare results from the same screen
Approved for use during ACT, SAT and AP examinations
The color and styling may not appeal to everyone
Some users find it's not very intuitive, making it hard to use
Sharp EL-W535TGBBL 16-digit scientific calculator
A versatile scientific calculator for beginners and hundreds of functions for advanced users
It's a great option for someone who knows math or science will be their major but hasn't set a definitive direction yet. There are 422 non-graphing functions possible, making it likely it can calculate nearly anything you can think of.
The large display can handle up to 16 digits over four lines. It's dual-powered solar power with a battery backup. The WriteView display allows students to see symbols and expressions like they'd find in a textbook. Those new to a scientific calculator will appreciate the PC simulator available to teachers, so they can display calculations to a class for everyone to follow along. For more advanced users, equation editing and playback is a lifesaver. Work backwards to review your process and edit calculation mistakes without having to start from scratch.
Start fresh from any of the screens by pressing the home button
Three definable keys allow you to save custom functions
No printed manual
Sliding cover may be prone to breaking
Best graphing calculators for school
When a standard function or scientific calculator won't do, a graphing calculator is probably the answer. It's the most advanced type of tool for finance, statistics, calculus and more. However, it often comes with a significantly higher price tag. Depending on the features, you could pay as little as $40 and more than $100 for one. However, as the saying goes, you'll get what you pay for. Unless you time the purchase with a sweet sale, it's likely a decent graphing calculator will cost you around $100.
Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus CE
A graphing calculator with a high-definition color display
When you need a calculator that can perform well and deliver a flawless image, the TI-84 CE is a great choice. It retails for $150, although you may sometimes find it on Amazon for $105 or less. The TI-84 Plus CE has a high-res, full-color backlit display and preloaded graphics and apps. Its new and improved design is slimmer and 30% lighter than previous versions to make it perfectly portable. As you can imagine, the screen probably takes up a significant amount of the battery's juice. The TI-84 comes with a rechargeable battery and USB cable to save you money on replacement batteries.
Crisp, color display
It comes with MathPrint for common math notation mode
The backlit display is prone to scratches
Some reports of short battery life
HP Prime graphing calculator
A calculator with a touchscreen display that adds functionality you didn't know you needed
Leave it to HP to jazz up the graphing calculator. The modern, brushed metal design and sliding cover definitely set it apart from the basic model you're probably used to seeing. You may wonder why you'd need a multi-touch, 16-bit display -- until you start using it. It's usually easier to navigate by tapping the app tabs at the bottom of the screen than navigating buttons. And depending on the app, you'll get a new perspective when working with 3D models when you can drag your finger to move the object.
If you're a visual learner, the extra money may be worth it. If you're looking for justification for the price, consider the 256 MB of memory it comes with. It's far more than most graphing calculators on the market have.
Sleek, brushed metal design
Large 3.5-inch multi-touch display
Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery
Depending on your experience level, maybe a steep learning curve
Some users complain that the software freezes or locks up
How did we choose these products?
There are thousands of calculators available for sale. Finding the right one can be overwhelming. To narrow down the list to a small handful of models, we looked at pricing, quality, customer reviews, intuitive feel and the functions available. No calculator is perfect, so we mentioned each model's benefits and drawbacks to help you determine whether it would be right for you, based on your needs.
Which is the right one for you?
The best way to decide which type of calculator is right for you starts with what you'll need it for. Most schools will make suggestions that tell you whether you need a graphing, scientific or standard calculator.
If you're investing more than $30 on one, look for an advanced model. The extra features will give you room to grow into it, so you don't have to purchase a new one every year. Although it may seem difficult to use at first, you should be able to get comfortable with the calculator over time. That being said, be sure the calculator you choose has a well-written manual available that spells out how to use all the functions.
Lastly, consider whether you'll be using the calculator during testing, such as AP or SAT exams. Not all calculators are approved for use during testing, which could leave you in a pinch on an important day. Fortunately, most education-based calculators will show on the packaging or in the manual if they're approved for exam use.
What's the difference between a graphing and scientific calculator?
Both calculators go above, and beyond the basic operations, a standard calculator performs. A graphing calculator usually has a larger screen to display objects and graphs, while a scientific calculator displays two to four lines of information. Graphing calculators are typically more expensive than scientific calculators, although it can vary based on the features.
How do I pick the best scientific calculator?
When shopping for a scientific calculator, your display is one of the most important aspects to consider. Look for one with at least two lines, although four lines are ideal. That way, your entry and the solution are both on the same screen. Having a review or replay mode can save you lots of time.
The type of calculations you'll be doing will likely require several steps. A small error along the way can affect your answer. If you have a replay mode, you can go back and work through your calculations to find and edit the error. Otherwise, you would have to delete your work and start all over again to get it right.
What classes require a graphing calculator?
A graphing calculator has many uses. Depending on the school you attend, you may need one for varying levels of algebra. Since a graphing calculator displays the concept on the screen, expect to need one for geometry, trigonometry and calculus. Graphing calculators are also useful for science and business studies. Some subjects include statistics, finance, chemistry, physics and more.
Can I use a graphing calculator on a test?
Most graphing and scientific calculators can be used during a test. In some cases, having one may even be required if you're planning on taking an AP or college entrance exam such as the SAT, PSAT or ACT.
Are there alternatives worth considering?
If you're looking for an alternative to any of the three types of calculators, you could opt to use your smartphone or a tablet as a calculator. Most come with a standard, pre-installed calculator app. In vertical mode, the calculator looks like a standard model. But if you rotate it, it usually refreshes as a scientific calculator.
Smart devices could also be a versatile alternative because of the apps available. You can download different calculators onto your device so you can switch between a standard, graphing and scientific calculator. Best of all, you'll be able to view your expressions and formulas on a higher-resolution screen than you'd typically find on the most expensive calculator models. However, a smart device may not be allowed for use during a college entrance test. It's best to find out whether you can use one in advance. If smart devices are forbidden, you'll need time to work with -- and familiarize yourself -- with an approved calculator for school.