Which calculator should you buy? The complete guide to choosing the right calculator for school mathematics.
Update! This blog is now also available in video form here: (original post below)
As a teacher and tutor one of the questions I am asked most often is about what calculator to buy for maths at school. I’ll give a short and longer answer here – my short answer is:
- Year 9 or below (up to age 13/14) – the Casio fx-85GTX
- GCSE, IGCSE and A-level – the Casio fx-991EX
- A level mathematicians and further mathematicians might think about also having a graphical calculator like the Casio fx-CG50 but these are expensive and absolutely not a necessity
Students and parents are often worried about which calculators are allowed in the exams and every calculator on this page is allowed in all UK GCSE, IGCSE and A-level calculator exams. Yes, even the graphical calculator is technically allowed in GCSE exams (although they are really not needed at that level!).
And now for my slightly longer answer – I’ll set out below some more information about each of these calculators and help you choose the perfect calculator for your studies. (This post is not sponsored by anyone but please do click on my affiliate link if this has helped you make your decision!)
Casio fx-85GTX – Recommended for years 7 to 9, OK for GCSE and IGCSE
This is the calculator I would recommend for students early on in secondary school (age 11-13) before they start properly preparing for GCSE and IGCSE. It’s a nice basic level scientific calculator and the cheapest option that can in theory get you through school mathematics. It lets you deal with fractions nicely and can do things like prime factorisation and recurring decimals well. Because it doesn’t have so many functions as the more advanced calculators it’s easy to use for younger children, but this does mean it is missing a few functions that can be helpful in GCSE and IGCSE exams.
The biggest drawback of this calculator for GCSE compared to the FX-991 is that it doesn’t have the equation solver. This lets you easily check your answers to simultaneous and quadratic equations questions in the exam. Also, if you are even considering doing A-level you may as well get the FX-991 instead. Whilst you could survive with this at GCSE it is missing some essential statistics features for A-level.
Pros: Cheap, easy to use for younger students. Has all the essentials for GCSE and IGCSE examinations.
Cons: Lacking some desirable features for GCSE and you’ll definitely need to replace it for A-level.
Casio FX-991EX – Recommended for GCSE, IGCSE and A-level
This is the calculator I would recommend for GCSE and IGCSE students and is essential for A-level. It can do everything the fx-85 can do, but has lots of extra tools. In particular the equation solver is super useful for GCSE and IGCSE and there are statistical functions that are absolutely essential for A-level. Although it is still very user friendly, there are a lot more menu options on the fx-991 compared to the fx-85 which makes the fx-85 a little easier as a first calculator for a younger student. It’s also double the price so if you’re buying it for a student who tends to lose things you might go for the cheaper option until they are closer to their exams. Having said all that, if you’re going to buy one calculator for school it should definitely be this one!
Pros: Everything you need for GCSE IGCSE and A-level Mathematics!
Cons: More expensive than the fx-85 and slightly more complicated for a younger student.
Casio fx-CG50 Graphic Calculator – Optional for A-level Maths and Further Maths
There are lots of options out there for graphical calculators and Casio’s FX-CG50 is a very good one. It has a lot of more advanced features like drawing 3d graphs, spreadsheet tools, histograms and other statistical features. It also has some neat features that allow you to scan a QR code and get your calculator output straight onto your phone or computer. But graphical calculators do take a lot of getting used to and although it looks like they can do a lot of exam questions for you there’s also a lot of work in learning how to do it. And in a world where smartphones give us easy access to online maths tools like Wolfram Alpha graphical calculators have become a harder sell.
Having said that, you can’d go on Wolfram Alpha in your exam and your school might not let you have your phone in class, so the ability to plot graphs in exams is a big plus (though most questions will still make you show working). If you’re doing A-level maths, especially Further Maths, you might also enjoy the process of learning how the calculator works. So I’d say there’s definitely a place for these still, but they are very expensive and are absolutely NOT required for A-level maths. But to answer my most commonly asked question about these…
Graphical calculators absolutely ARE allowed in A-level exams (in fact they are also allowed in GCSE/IGCSE exams) so long as the memory has been reset to delete any possible programmable content (as you can write and save a lot more to the memory of these).
Pros: A fun tool for keen mathematicians. Will plot graphs for you in exams. Your teacher will be impressed by your commitement.
Cons: Much more expensive than a standard calculator. Takes time to learn how to use. Features that used to make these super useful are now widely available on smartphones.
So now you have all the information you need to choose which calculator is right for your studies. Let me know using the contact form or on Twitter if you have any questions or comments or if you think there’s another calculator I should add to the list!
Here are some extra videos I’ve made about using these calculators: