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It's been a while for me. My son is now asking the question. Many thanks.

Edited: 7 Jan 2008, 2:00 p.m.

What physics course(s)? And, will he be taking higher math courses, too (like calculus)?

For the first two or three semesters of intro physics courses (mechanics, E&M, modern physics), anything with scientific notation, trig, and exponential/log functions should be adequate. Square root and square are mighty convenient, too!

I used to teach both algebra- and calculus-based intro courses and I never used, nor expected my students to have, anything more complicated.

In the HP line, the new 35S should do nicely.

I took calculus back in the days lo-o-o-o-ng before calculators and managed quite handily. The fancier HP and TIs are apparantly thought to be almost necessary for such classes now, though. Others here can comment on that.

Unless the college/professor/syllabus state otherwise, I agree with Dave that a basic scientific calculator is sufficient, and that the 35s would be a good choice.

Some math classes have a recommendation for a specific graphing calculator. Two years ago I took a Linear Algebra class for which the TI-85 or TI-86 were listed as a requirement. I used an HP 49g+ due to my preference for RPN, and it worked out fine. Because I wasn't using one of the recommended calculators, the professor was not able to help me with the calculator, but I didn't need any help. Actually the professor had a hard time helping students with the TI-86 due to his own unfamiliarity with that model.

What's the best calculator for a college Physics course?

That depends on the instructor. Some insist on graphing
calculators (sometimes a specific model). Others forbid
them during tests, allowing non-graphing models only.
Still others do not allow programmable calculators
(which would rule out the HP 35S mentioned above).

I had a General Chemistry class in which graphing and programmable calculators were not allowed on tests. I used an HP-32E. I considered using a DIYRPN with all support for models other than the 32E removed, but I wasn't sure that I'd be able to convince the professor that it met her requirements.

It has been 10 years for me now that I finished my degree in physics but at the time I found the units calculation ability of the 48 (now 50) series invaluable.