Back to School Calculator Buying Guide

July 20, 2023

A calculator might be one of the hardest things to shop for during back-to-school shopping season. After all, many types of calculators are available — from scientific calculators and graphing calculators to basic calculators. And they come with all sorts of features and at different price points.

So, how do you wade through the dozens of options and pick the one with all the functionality and features you’ll need and want? Here’s a guide for choosing a school calculator that fits the bill.

Review Your Class List

The functionality you’ll need largely depends on what classes you’re taking or plan to take. For example, science, engineering, and math classes may require a scientific calculator that can perform complex calculations, including trigonometry, logarithms, statistics, and exponents. 

Keep in mind that scientific calculators are a broad category. You may need a graphing calculator, a more sophisticated type of scientific calculator that can plot coordinates and produce graphs on a high-resolution screen.

Certain business and finance courses may also require a scientific or graphing calculator, depending on the complexity of the math involved. Or they may require a financial calculator designed to perform finance-related calculations, such as depreciation, true market value, and internal rate of return.

Other classes (think history or communications) may necessitate a basic calculator that can perform the main four functions of math — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — plus a couple of other tasks, such as calculating square roots and percentages.

If your teacher’s list, class syllabus, or introductory materials don’t specify needing a calculator — and you’re concerned the class may require one — consider contacting your teacher to ask. It’s good to have your calculator before the class starts so you have it ready when you need it.

Remember that every student should have at least a basic “pocket” calculator among their school supplies. Classes in all sorts of topics and disciplines require numbercrunching at some point, and having a calculator in your backpack or desk makes sure you’re ready for it.

Texas Instruments

Top Calculator Picks

Understand Your Exact Needs

Several brands and models of calculators have their own list of features. Generally speaking, the higher the price, the more functionality and features you’ll get.

To find the right kind, consider the types of equations and tasks you’ll do. These questions can help you select the right calculator:

  • What specific types of tasks will you do in your classes? 

The syllabus, class description, or teacher may help you determine that. Make sure any calculator you buy can handle the calculations you’ll need it to do.

  • Will you need to use the calculator for a specific exam? 

Standardized tests, such as AP tests and the SAT, often allow calculator use, but only certain models.

  • Will you need the calculator for future classes?

You may need a more sophisticated calculator if you plan to take more advanced math, science, and engineering classes. Buying a more advanced calculator now could make sense, so you don’t have to upgrade in a year or two.

This Texas Instruments Calculator Chart can help you identify which calculator model is appropriate for different courses.

Consider the Extra Features

Choosing the right calculator doesn’t completely boil down to need. Additional features might be worth spending extra money on to make your experience more efficient and enjoyable. 

For example, some graphing calculators — like the TI-84 Plus CE Color Graphing Calculator — include full-color screens, making graphs easier to read and allowing for color-coding. Some graphing calculators — like TI-84 Calculators — also come with preloaded applications that could be useful, depending on the calculations or tasks. 

Some features you might want to consider:

  • Adjustable screen contrast, allowing you to dim or brighten your screen as needed
  • Storage of past calculations you’ve performed so you can review them later
  • Ability to quickly translate fractions into decimals, and vice versa
  • Ability to input equations in proper notation and how they appear in, say, a textbook
  • Larger-than-average screen for easier viewing and the ability to view more graphs at once
  • A manufacturer’s warranty that covers you if the calculator malfunctions in the first year or beyond

Also, consider how the calculator is powered. Some require disposable batteries, such as AAAs, but many now include rechargeable batteries or run on solar power. Not worrying about buying and replacing calculator batteries can be a big relief.

Specialty Calculators

Choosing the Right Calculator for You

Ultimately, you’ll have to select the calculator that will serve your needs best in the school year ahead — and, hopefully, for many years to come. Spend some time researching calculators and comparing their functionality and features. The right one will likely become apparent as you look more closely at their specific offerings.

Finding the right calculator doesn’t have to be rocket science, but it can help you become a rocket scientist.

About the author

Kelly Spors is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis. She previously worked as a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, covering small business and entrepreneurship.

All content provided herein is for educational purposes only. It is provided “as is” and neither the author nor Office Depot warrant the accuracy of the information provided, nor do they assume any responsibility for errors, omissions or contrary interpretation of the subject matter herein.