For a third consecutive year, Cemetech is here to help you figure out what you need to know to be prepared for Back to School with a new graphing calculator. In 2012, we presented three separate articles: Part 1: which calculator to buy, Part 2: how to get games and programs on your calculator, and Part 3: learning to program your graphing calculator. This year, we are starting out with a guide to selecting from the baffling array of graphing calculators now available to high school and college students. What calculator should you get, and what accessories will you need to help you get the most from your purchase? Don't worry, as Cemetech has you covered. I'll help you pick the best calculator for yourself, your child, or your students.

As you may know, Texas Instruments currently holds the lion's share of the United States graphing calculator market, and has the most widely-recognized lines of graphing calculators. Casio fills in as the second-place contender, with HP weighing in in third place. I'll take you through five majority categories of calculators that you might be interested in getting: the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition, the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition, the TI-89, the Casio Prizm, and the TI-Nspire CX. All five of these calculators are accepted on standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT (with one exception). All five are powerful, (relatively) modern graphing calculators, and with a few small caveats, all would be appropriate for the average student. However, even among these top contenders, the playing field is hardly level.

:: For more advanced math, the TI-89 Titanium is a good choice. If you or your student is interested in math, science, or engineering, or is entering a math-heavy college major, this is probably the right calculator for him or her. While the TI-83 Plus / TI-84 Plus series can solve numerical expressions and do 2D graphing, the TI-89 can solve symbolic expressions and do 3D graphing. It can do symbolic differentiation and integration, both important features for many higher math and engineering courses where the ability to memorize differentials and integrals is no longer the focus. While its features are applicable to any level of math, its power and sophistication are likely to make high school teachers hesitant to accept it in classes and exams. Caveat: The ACT exam inexplicably does not allow the TI-89 series. The SAT allows it. The TI-89 Titanium runs between $120 and $140. Perfect for higher-level college math, science, and engineering courses.

:: Last of all, the TI-Nspire CX is the latest in TI's Nspire product line. The TI-Nspire and TI-Nspire CAS had 4-bit grayscale screens, while the TI-Nspire CX and the TI-Nspire CX CAS have color screens, like the Casio Prizm. The CAS varieties have symbolic Computer Algebra Systems, like the TI-89, while the non-CAS versions are more like the TI-84+SE in terms of features and target audience. The TI-Nspire's operating system is based around the idea of Documents, in which you type calculations, enter equations, and draw graphs. It has templates for linear, parabolic, circular, elliptical, and hyperbolic equations in which you can enter coefficients and graph the result. The OS has a "Scratchpad" for quick calculations, and like the TI-84 Plus series, variables shared between the calculation and graph modes. It can perform all of the trig functions you need for math classes. You can name your own variables, and are thus not limited to the A-Z variables of the TI-84 Plus, and variables are "linked" with graphs so that when you change a variable, a graph that uses the variable will be updated as well. The Nspire tries to emulate computer interfaces in that, for example, ctrl-C copies text. The TI-Nspire is between $160 and $180, depending on whether you get the CAS or non-CAS model. If you have an iPad, consider the TI-Nspire Apps for iPad, an App version of this calculator. A late entry to the graphing calculator race, a color screen calculator centered around the idea of "Documents". Good for some high school students.

The Final Verdict:

With more graphing calculator choices appearing and more options available to consumers, a better but more confusing selection now confronts students, parents, and even teachers. The bottom line is that if you already have a TI-83 Plus or TI-84 Plus (or Silver Edition), there are very few reasons to trade up to a more expensive calculator. It's still sufficiently feature-filled for all but the highest math classes, for which you might want a TI-89 Titanium (or an HP Prime, which at the time of writing we have not yet gotten our hands on).

If you are looking to get a new calculator, your or your child's teachers may recommend a TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition or a TI-Nspire CX, in which case you should follow their advice. Remember, all four models mentioned herein are accepted on the SAT and ACT tests, so none win or lose on that count. For high school students getting a new calculator, the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition is the best choice, while the Casio Prizm and the TI-Nspire CX are secondary options. The Casio Prizm is a modern color screen calculator with the simplicity of the TI-84 Plus, while the TI-Nspire goes off in a new direction with its interface. As it has locked-down programming features, we in the programming community often criticize it, but it is a powerful math tool. Both the Nspire and the Prizm have color 2D and 3D graphs, algebra, trig, and geometry features.

If you're looking to take college higher math, science, or engineering classes, the TI-89 Titanium or the TI-Nspire CX CAS are the calculator for you. The Casio Prizm may also be useful, as the community is working on building symbolic CAS features, but such features are currently incomplete. The HP Prime may also be a powerful contender, but we haven't yet tried out the device. Finally, if you're a programmer, or you want to encourage your student to be a programmer, the Casio Prizm or the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition are the best options. Both allow BASIC and assembly programming, while the Prizm also allows open native C programs and Lua programs.

Good luck with the hectic rush that is Back to School, and I hope this guide helped make at least one decision easier. If you need help picking a calculator, getting games and educational programs for your calculator and onto the device, or you want to learn to program, just stop by Cemetech and chat with us. We're always happy to help.