Types of Calculators


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

1. Choose an appropriate calculator.

2. Describe the difference between standard algebraic notation and Reverse Polish Notation. 

A calculators can be a terrific time-saving tool, but only if the operator is skilled at using their particular calculator to perform the particular calculations needed. Therefore, it is essential to both select an appropriate calculator, and to gain a measure of skill and familiarity with that particular calculator.

Selecting an Appropriate Calculator
College students are often asked to purchase a particular make and model of calculator by their professors. There are also some instances where a calculator could be so powerful that a teacher or test proctor would not allow a student to use it.

Handheld calculators often perform basic operations, and have a memory feature. These are wonderful tools, but of limited use in many scientific, technological, and engineering applications.

TI-501 Handheld Calculator

Graphing calculators, however, are more powerful and versatile, often with special features for solving engineering problems. In addition to displaying graphs, they are often programmable. 

Here are some examples from three of the most popular manufacturers. Click on the hyperlinks to visit manufacturers' Websites.

Texas Instruments has a variety of models. Some interface with a computer, and with a calculator based laboratory

(The entire guidebook for the TI-89 is available for free download here.)

Texas Instruments TI-89 Graphing Calculator
TI-89 Graphing Calculator
The TI-92 Plus, though costly and larger than most graphing calculators, is one of the most powerful.
TI-92 Plus
TI-92 Plus Graphing Calculator
Hewlett-Packard is another popular manufacturer. Some HP calculators feature Reverse Polish Notation, mentioned below.

HP 49g Graphing Calculator
Casio is a successful competitor in many consumer electronics areas. Casio offers an array of graphing calculators.

Casio ALGFX2.0 Graphing Calculator
Criteria for selecting a calculator should include cost, features, ease of use, durability, documentation, expandability, and support. Some students are glad they had asked their teachers for their recommendations of specific calculator models.

Reverse Polish Notation Some find it more convenient to enter formulas as algebraic equations, using an "equals" key to submit an expression and get an answer. An alternate system commonly used by Hewlett-Packard and some other manufacturers is Reverse Polish Notation (RPN).
If you wanted to find out the value of 53 cubed using a standard algebraic notation calculator, you might enter:
  • 53
  • ^
  • 3
As described by HP in a download from
to find the value of 53 cubed using an RPN calculator you might enter:
  • 53
  • 3
  • yx
Values are entered on an ordered "stack."


Whichever calculator you choose, be sure to read through the owner's manual thoroughly. Practice with a variety of different problems. You may find that "playing with a calculator" is a terrific way to review and learn mathematics.

All information is subject to change without notification.
© Jim Flowers
Department of Technology, Ball State University