Splendor in the graphs

In this extra nerdy back-to-school edition of our monthly Gadget column, we examine graphing calculators.

TI-83 Plus


In my high school clique, your graphing calculator acted as a status symbol. A Texas Instrument (TI) 83 was a Toyota, a TI-85 was a Lexus, and if graphing calculators could have 24-inch rims, you’d find them on the TI-86s. Yeah, I ran with a dangerous crowd. The TI-83 has maintained its place in the market and it’s no surprise. The sturdy design withstands a backpack beating and the buttons and controls are as straightforward as possible. Though it has slimmed down over the years, the layout and display are largely unchanged. Students will find they can use this calculator from algebra through advanced calculus, and it’s allowed in PSAT, ACT, IB, SAT and AP testing. Nowadays, the TI-83 can download apps, but don’t expect Angry Birds as the limited selection tends toward function and education. Compared to the smartphones most students carry, the TI-83 is archaic, clunky and single-purposed. But this bare bones approach holds nostalgic. $100.

TI-Nspire CX Handheld


This updated TI graphing calculator boasts 3-D graphing, a thinner design, a wider range of uses, including chemical and advanced mathematical computations, and a full-color screen that supports photos—for when you really need to display hot air balloons behind a graph. Unlike most TIs, this features a rechargeable battery and a touchpad that replaces the D-pad on the TI-83 Plus. You can’t help but question if TI is trying to appeal to a smartphone world—as evident even in the overly convoluted name—but it remains obvious, from the 100MB of internal memory to the screen, this is no smartphone. These additions make the TI-Nspire the Lamborghini of this generation of graphing calculators. There’s a lot of flash and some added functionality, but, as with the TI-86 of my school years, it’s mostly just to show off. $160.

Algeo Graphing Calculator


If you can convince a teacher to allow a smartphone in class, there’s no reason it can’t do everything a graphing calculator does. There’s a wide variety of free graphing calculator apps for Android and iOS, but the Algeo Graphing Calculator caught my eye for its simplistic approach. The app doesn’t guide your hand as much as a TI product, so someone struggling with the concepts won’t find it very helpful, but it’s intuitive, and easy to edit/review formulas and equations. Did we mention it doesn’t cost $100? Don’t count on using it during the SATs or any other formal test, but if you’re looking for something that’ll get you through a college course or as an aid as you help your kids with homework, go with Algeo or another free app and save the money. You’ll need it for tuition. Free.