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The Best Graphing Calculator for AP Calculus

Updated: Feb 15

This is the graphing calculator most math teachers would recommend for any high school or college math course. Buy it early on and use it for every math class including AP Calculus, ACT/SAT and beyond.

You will need a graphing calculator for the AP Calculus exam as half of the exam is non-calculator and half of the exam is calculator based. There are four sections of the AP Calculus exam:

1. Multiple Choice No Calculator

2. Multiple Choice with Calculator

3. Free Response with Calculator

4. Free Response No Calculator

College Board outlines a list of approved calculators. For AP Calculus, your graphing calculator needs to have four major functions:

· Graph a function in an appropriate screen

· Solve an equation numerically

· Find the derivative at a point

· Evaluate a definite integral

Any graphing calculator can perform those major functions. The single best advice for choosing a calculator is to go with what you know. You want to go into the AP Calculus exam feeling confident that you know how to use your calculator effectively and efficiently. If you’ve been using a Texas Instrument TI-84 or a Casio FX-CG50 graphing calculator for the last few years in high school, stick with it!

If you haven’t been using a graphing calculator, you get to start fresh. If possible, see what your AP Calculus teacher recommends. When I taught AP Calculus, I had students with TI-83, TI-84 (or TI-84 CE is the same calculator but with a color display), TI-Nspire, and Casio. It was nearly impossible to go through the commands on all of these calculators during class. And to be honest, I had always used a TI-83 and TI-84 so I was learning the Nspire and Casio along with the students. We had to search videos for the various processes, so they did a lot of learning on their own. That’s why I recommend sticking with a calculator you know, or the one your teacher knows best.

Most Popular Calculator for AP Calculus

The TI-84 (or TI-84 CE) is the most popular calculator for students, as it’s the most popular among high school math teachers. It’s my #1 choice. Any math teacher will know how to use the TI-84 so you can ask for help instead of learning commands on your own.

But there are some benefits to the other calculators.

Cheapest Calculator for AP Calculus

Casio FX series calculators are the cheapest of the bunch, currently priced around $80. In comparison, TI-84 Plus CE runs about $120, and TI-Nspire CAS is about $150.

Learn more about Casio calculators.

Calculator with the Most Features

The most advanced calculator I’ve worked with is the TI-Nspire CAS. CAS stands for Computer Algebra System, which means it can solve numerical equations. Refer back to the four main functions we need for a graphing calculator, and solving equations numerically is crucial. While this calculator can solve an equation you enter in the calculator screen, the other calculators can still solve equations but in an unconventional way.

For the other calculators, you have to solve equations graphically. I’ll provide two different ways for how this could work. Say you’re trying to solve the equation for x: 2x-1=sin(x).

First, you can graph y1= 2x-1 and y2= sin(x). Make sure you’re in radian mode for Calculus!

To find the solution, it would be the x-value where these two equations are equal, or where they intersect. Once you graph the two equations, you’d find the intersection point. You want to find the exact intersection, not an estimate using the Trace feature. On a TI-83 or TI-84, the commands would be “2nd” “Trace” “5. Intersect.” Then the calculator asks, “First curve?” and “Second curve?” to see which functions you’re looking to find the intersection. Click “Enter” to select each function, and “Enter” a third time when it asks about a guess. The calculator should produce the intersection x=0.8878622 and y=0.7757244. Remember we are looking for the x-value that makes this equation true, so the final answer would be x=0.8878622 or x≈0.888 rounded to three decimal places.

best calculator AP Calculus
The solution is the x-value of the intersection. Produced by Desmos, a free graphing calculator.

The second way to solve that equation would be to subtract the sin(x) to the left side, making the equation 2x-1-sin(x)=0. You would enter y1= 2x-1-sin(x). Graphing the function, you would look for the x-intercept/zero as the solution. On a TI-83 or TI-84, the commands would be “2nd” “Trace” “2. Zero.” Using the arrows, you’ll scroll left of the x-intercept (below the x-axis for this example) and click “Enter” then use the right arrow to go to the right of the x-intercept (above the x-axis for this example) and click “Enter” and “Enter” a third time when it asks about a guess. The calculator should produce the same result, x≈0.888.

You can see this is several more steps than just typing the equation into your TI-Nspire CAS and having it produce x≈0.888.

Graphing Calculators for the ACT or SAT

In addition to AP Calculus, it’s worth considering which standardized test you plan to take.

If you plan to take the ACT, the TI-Nspire CAS is not allowed. So you may have to purchase (and learn to use) a separate graphing calculator for the ACT. This is another reason I prefer the TI-84 as it works for any math class or test.

The SAT allows for any of the calculators I’ve mentioned here.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you don’t have a graphing calculator at the very beginning of Calculus or if you happen to forget your calculator at school, Desmos has a free graphing calculator to help you complete your homework assignment. However, I recommend using this as a last resort and not daily practice. You want to be familiar with your graphing calculator for tests and the AP exam. The more you practice on your calculator, the quicker and more confident you’ll be!

All of the calculators I’ve mentioned here (and any other graphing calculator) will be quite comparable. You’ll be able to solve the same problems, just with different steps or buttons. Like comparing different cell phones, the choice comes down to personal preference on cost and features. I’m confident you can learn and succeed in Calculus with any of these graphing calculators!

Read more Calculus tips in my other blog posts including whether you should take AB or BC Calculus, how to study for AP Calculus tests, and how to pass Calculus.

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