What’s the best calculator for the CA Surveying Exam?

While studying for the surveying exam you’ll notice that most problems will give you an angle in terms of minutes, degrees, and seconds (aka DMS; e.g. 5°36’46”)In most cases this is no big deal, but during the computer-based exam when you’re pressed for time and the clock’s ticking you need all the help you can get to increase your speed. Not only that, most problems will give you numerous DMS angles where you have to add a lot of things up.  I understand the importance of DMS since it is more precise than decimals, but it can get pretty frustrating smashing your calculator buttons for what seem like an eternity just to enter one angle!

Luckily, I believe there is one calculator that stands out above the rest when it comes specifically to the surveying exam, and that is the Casio FX-115 ES PLUS (and yes, its allowed on the national and CA specific exams). Why? Because of this button right here:

With just one push, this button lets you enter the degree, minute, second AND convert back and forth between DMS and decimal degrees. There’s no need to scroll to a menu or press any additional buttons, and trust me this is a lifesaver! I’ve recently taken the April 2017 CA surveying test, and my biggest worry was my speed. I honestly believe this button saved me a good 5 minutes on the 2.5 hr , 55 question exam . Yes, this is a big deal!

While it may sound like I’m some Casio representative, hear me out: I was a Texas Instruments (TI) man my whole life, and my calculator of choice had always been the TI-36x Pro  Also, I took an online surveying preparation course and the teacher really recommended the TI-89 Titanium (which I already owned) for its ability to enter DMS angles quickly. However, I noticed that while both calculators are superb for normal calculations, entering DMS angles is very clunky on both. On the TI-36x pro, I have to scroll to a menu (e.g 2nd -> Math -> scroll to DMS -> degree /minute/or second) each time. On the TI-89, it’s just 2ND-> degree/minute/or second, but still, why should I have to poke my calculator twice if I don’t need to? On the FX-115, all I need to do is press that one button and I’m golden baby.

Here’s my demonstration of adding 5°36’46” and 1°33°37 on the three calculators above. See for yourself how easy it is on my FX-115 ES PLUS:

It took me 7 seconds to do this calculation on the FX-115 ES versus 12 seconds on the TI-89, and 18 seconds on the TI-36x Pro.  If we compare the time it takes to complete this problem between the FX-115 ES and TI-89, I save at least 5 seconds by using the FX-115 instead of the TI-89 for each calculation . Assuming 20/55 (conservative, like us pesky engineers always are) of the problems involve 3 simple calculations (what if you had to do a 5 sided closed traverse?) like the video shows, you could save about 5 minutes on the exam. 5 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but this is enough time for you to quickly checkmark your unanswered questions or check on previously solved problems.

My coworker recommended and let me try out his FX-115 ES since I asked him for tips on improving speed, and honestly as soon as I touched that amazing button I had it in my Amazon shopping cart within minutes!

You’ll be okay with either TI calculator (even HP) if you are used to them, but I really do recommend the FX-115 ES PLUS (and the original ES), not just for the surveying exam, but also for the seismic and national exams. It’s just as responsive as the TI calculators, and it’s also very easy to enter and solve complicated, iterative equations, or even just the quadratic formula. Plus the FX-115 ES is only $20 (as is the TI-36x Pro), while the TI-89 is about $120 brand new. One thing I did notice is that it slides a bit when you’re punching numbers, but it’s not a dealbreaker, especially when you have that adorable but lifesaving DMS button!

P.S: Here’s a link to Turbofuture’s (tech review site) concise review of the Best Calculators for the PE Exam which partly inspired me to write this post.

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