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Best Graphing Calculators for Calculus I and Calculus II

Updated on February 23, 2017
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TR Smith is a product designer and former teacher who uses math in her work every day.

In most high school and college calculus courses, a graphing calculator is required or strongly recommended. These hand held calculators are indispensable for graphing the curves of functions in Cartesian, polar, and parametric coordinates. They numerically estimate derivatives and integrals, compute the values of expressions given in summation or product notation, accept statistical inputs, and run programs written by the user.

Graphing calculators also have built-in solvers for finding numerical solutions to equations that cannot be solved algebraically, for example, the zeros of g(x) = xe^x - 60*ln(x). They have statistical analysis tools and can be programmed to perform specialized tasks that are not already built-in. Here are reviews of the two best graphing calculators on the market, the TI Nspire CX CAS and the TI-84 Plus.

See also: Best TI-84 Alternatives and Best Graphing Calculators Like the TI-84.

 Texas Instruments Nspire CX CAS Graphing Calculator (Image via Amazon.com)
Texas Instruments Nspire CX CAS Graphing Calculator (Image via Amazon.com)

Texas Instruments Nspire CX CAS Graphing Calculator

Buy it on Amazon.com

The TI Nspire CX CAS is not only a graphing calculator but also a computer algebra system (CAS). This means it can manipulate and simplify algebraic expressions and has a more powerful solving engine. It also has more built-in functions, especially for finance and statistical analysis.

One feature of this calculator that is great for calculus students is the template for inputting integrals. Instead of entering the parameters as a comma-separated list on the TI-84 Plus, on the TI Nspire you can see the parts of the integral on the screen and input the function and limits of integration.

The latest version of the TI Nspire has a color touch screen with many more display options than the TI-84 series and the TI-89, which the Nspire is a successor of.

Like the TI-84 Plus reviewed next, the TI Nspire CX CAS graphing calculator has capabilities for graphing parametric and polar functions, recursive equations, regression analysis, one-variable and mutli-variable statistics, and of course it is programmable.

Some drawbacks are the learning curve in getting to know all of this calculator's abilities. If you previously owned a TI-89, the input structure and location of the commands will be familiar. If you only owned a TI-83/84, it will take some getting used to. This calculator is great for doing homework because it can perform complex calculations much faster than a TI-84. A calculation that might take 2 minutes to finish on a TI-84 will take at most seconds on the Nspire.

Before using this calculator on an important exam it is crucial that you become comfortable using it, since the interface is not that intuitive. Spend some time reading its documentation and trying out all the features before you take it to a test, otherwise you will spend more time figuring out which buttons to push rather than solving problems.

Another disadvantage is that this calculator may be considered too advanced and powerful to be used on an exam. If this calculator is not on an approved list of devices for your class, you should get TI-84 Plus instead.

Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator (Image via Amazon.com)
Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator (Image via Amazon.com)

Texas Instruments TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator

Buy it on Amazon.com

The TI-84 Plus is a more affordable graphing calculator than the TI Nspire CX CAS, but it has all of the features calculus students need, and all of the functionality for doing advanced math and complicated calculations that require multiple lines of input. Although it does not have a computer algebra system, it does have numerical solving capabilities. It also computes limits, derivatives, and integrals numerically.

Programming is easy once you learn the fundamentals of Texas Instruments' TIBasic language, meaning you can program it to solve quadratic equations, or output answers to physics problems. Like the TI Nspire, it has alphabet keys, so you can also write notes in the program editor. The TI-84 Plus's letter keys are not on a separate keypad, unlike with the TI Nspire, so writing can be a bit time-consuming if you need to shift between letters and numbers.

TI graphing calculators are great for doing statistics homework; you can plot discrete points and fit regression curves to the scatter plot.

Some computations may timeout on the TI-84 Plus, especially if you are integrating functions that have rapidly growing exponential factors, even if the function itself does not grow. For example, try integrating the function

f(x) = [e^(200x)]/[x + e^(200x)]

from 0 to 1000000. Even though this function has a horizontal asymptote at 1 for positive x values, the TI-84 will not be able to handle the large exponential inputs. To get around this, you must input the function in its equivalent form

f(x) = 1/[xe^(-200x) + 1].

User Guides/Instructions for TI Graphing Calculators

Amazon sells a number of user guides published by third parties, for example, the For Dummies series makes manuals for the TI Nspire CX CAS and TI-84 Plus. These books are rich in examples and explain how to take advantage of the calculators' great features.

You can also download free user guides from the Texas Instruments website.


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    • cool7 profile image

      cool7 4 years ago

      I'd also recommend HP 50g. It's very good as well.

    • StuartJ profile image

      StuartJ 3 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      I agree with cool7. Some of the to HP calculators are worth looking at too.

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