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Every spring, a new class of graduates is unleashed on the world, many of them carrying an array of gadgets that have been put through the ringer over the years. Graduation is traditionally a big time for gift-giving — so if you know someone who is heading out into the “real world” who could use an upgrade after four (or more!) long years of higher education, here’s a host of options that’ll be a serious improvement over their aging and probably pretty beat up gear.
As useful as tablets and smartphones are, there’s still nothing that can compete with a traditional laptop when you really want to get things done. It’s also a very personal purchase, so you’ll want to know if the recipient prefers Windows, Mac or Chrome OS before you pull the trigger. But once you have that settled, these three laptops are some of the best jack-of-all-trades options out there — unless the person you’re shopping for has some very specific needs, these laptops will probably fit the bill.
Dell’s XPS lineup is always easy to recommend, and its XPS 13 continues to be the best all-around Windows laptop. Over the past few years, Dell has polished every slight imperfection to the point where there’s almost nothing to complain about. It has wonderful industrial design, with a thin and light body and nearly invisible screen bezels. The keyboard and screen are both great, and battery life regularly exceeds 10 hours. Dell even moved the webcam from the bottom bezel to the top a few years ago, fixing probably the biggest problems with earlier models.
The base $999 models has Intel’s 11th-generation Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, which is enough for most, but Dell also sells a model with a touchscreen, a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage for $1,349. The company also has frequent sales that knock at least $100 off these prices; currently the upgraded model is available for $1,125 direct from Dell.
For the Mac users, the MacBook Air has long been the gold standard for a relatively affordable but powerful laptop, and the latest models with Apple’s custom-built M1 silicon are perhaps the best we’ve ever seen. Physically, the MacBook Air is basically identical to the refresh Apple released in 2018; it has a high-resolution 13-inch “Retina” display, only two USB-C ports, and a pretty excellent keyboard (now that Apple has done away with the unfortunate “butterfly” design).
But what’s really notable here is that M1 chip — the MacBook Air positively screams through basically any task you throw at it, and does so without a fan. So it’s both extremely powerful and very quiet. Battery life is also much-improved over earlier Intel-based Macs, with the Air lasting more than 16 hours in our review.
The MacBook Air starts at $999 with a 7-core GPU, 8GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage. That base model is probably fine for most people, but power users might want to shell out for the $1,249 model, which has an 8-core CPU and double the storage capacity. You can also upgrade the RAM to 16GB for another $200 — but the M1 is such a great performer that most people won’t really need to.
Chromebooks have gotten extremely popular in the education world over the last few years, so it’s possible your grad might want to stick with a Chrome OS laptop. Fortunately, there are plenty of premium options now, and Samsung’s Galaxy Chromebook 2 is one of the better all-around choices. It’s a well-built, thin and light laptop with a very good keyboard and 1080p touchscreen. It’s not the highest resolution, but it’s enough for day-to-day tasks. $700 gets you an 11th-generation Intel Core i3 processor, 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, pretty solid specs for a modern Chromebook. It’s battery life is just okay, lasting between six and seven hours in my testing, but that’s about the only downside.
Buy XPS 13 at Dell – $979 Buy MacBook Air M1 at Amazon – $999 Buy Galaxy Chromebook 2 at Samsung – $699
Tablets may not have replaced “traditional” computers, but they’ve also gotten a lot better in the last decade. They can be a great option for getting work done, engaging your creative side with art and music-making apps or just enjoying entertainment like movies and games. For the vast majority of people, Apple’s iPad is the only tablet worth considering, even if they don’t otherwise use Apple products. That’s thanks to time-tested, reliable hardware and a massive software library with hundreds of thousands of apps optimized for the iPad’s larger screen.
While the basic iPad is a fine tablet, we’re talking about upgrades here — and the new iPad Air offers a lot of features over the entry-level model. It has a large 10.9-inch screen with thin bezels and an anti-reflective coating; the display is also laminated directly to the glass, so there’s no distracting gap beneath the surface. The Air also includes Apple’s most powerful mobile processor (the A14), 64GB or 256GB of storage, 10 hours of battery life, support for the much-improved second-generation Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard and better cameras for video calls. Oh yeah, it comes in five different colors, too. For $599, you’re getting almost everything that the iPad Pro offers without spending over $800.
However, if you’re shopping for someone who just isn’t interested in an iPad, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S7 is a solid Android option. The 11-inch model costs $649 and includes the magnetic S Pen stylus in the box, while the Apple Pencil for the iPad Air is a separate $129 purchase. The Galaxy Tab S7 has a wonderful screen with a fast 120Hz refresh rate, battery life exceeds 10 hours, and the tablet is light, sturdy and easy to hold. The only real catch is that Android apps are generally not designed for screens larger than a smartphone, so app compatibility and usefulness is hit or miss. But if you’re buying this device for an Android diehard, they’ll likely be well aware of this situation already.
Buy iPad Air at Amazon – $599Buy Galaxy Tab S7 at Samsung – $649
As useful as a good laptop is, the most important piece of technology most of us carry is a smartphone. If you know someone who still has the same phone they brought to school as a freshman, it’s certain they’ll appreciate the upgrade. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to pick a phone that’s sure to satisfy almost anyone, whether they prefer iPhones or Android devices.
The iPhone 12 is the best iPhone for most people. At $800, it has all the essential features and technology found in the more expensive iPhone 12 Pro, including a high-resolution OLED screen, the latest A14 processor, 5G connectivity, excellent front and back cameras, solid battery life and a smaller, more thoughtfully designed exterior compared to last year’s iPhone 11. The only significant thing that the standard 12 gives up to the Pro is the three-lens camera system. iPhone 12 owners will have to make do with standard and ultra-wide lenses, no telephoto included. But its extremely powerful processor and Apple’s track record of delivering regular software updates means that the phone should be reliable for years to come.
On the Android side, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 is similarly easy to recommend. Samsung has been the most popular Android phone manufacturer for years, and phones like the S21 show why. At $800, it’s again reasonably-priced for a flagship phone and includes basically everything you could want. It has a gorgeous OLED screen that can dynamically adjust its frame rate up to 120Hz, which makes everything look that much smoother. Samsung’s modifications to Android have gotten more useful over the years, and the S21 has a strong camera system and battery life that should satisfy most people. Given Samsung’s dominance in the Android space, it’s not a surprising recommendation — but it will make most Android fans happy.
Buy iPhone 12 at Apple – $799Buy Galaxy S21 at Samsung – $799
A good pair of headphones is invaluable, and noise-cancelling options have gotten a lot better in the last few years. Sony has been killing it with its over-ear headphones, and the WH-1000XM4 is the best we’ve seen from them yet. At $350, they’re not cheap, but they offer a combination of incredible sound, refined design and excellent noise-cancelling that is hard to beat. This latest model also has a number of smart software features like wear detection, which pauses playback when you take the headphones off. They can also connect to two devices simultaneously, a big missing feature from earlier models. They even fit better and more comfortably than ever. (Now if only Sony could do something about the name.)
Perhaps the only downside to the WH-1000XM4 is that they’re large — fine for home or a plane trip, but maybe not ideal to walk around the city or wear on a run. That’s where the Jabra Elite 85t true wireless earbuds come in. They have excellent noise cancellation, something that’s tough to find on true wireless earbuds, but the Elite 85t does well. There’s also a smart “pressure relief” system that reduces that feeling you’re wearing earplugs — this makes it easier to wear these for longer periods of time. Sound quality isn’t the best of all the wireless earbuds we’ve tried, but they’re still above average. Battery life is also not quite the best we’ve seen, but seven hours with ANC turned off or five and a half with it turned on should be enough for most people.
Buy Sony WH-1000XM4 at Amazon – $349Buy Jabra Elite 85t at Amazon – $229
With laptops being the default computer option for so many, the usefulness of a good monitor was lost in recent years. But the big work-from-home push over the last year thanks to the pandemic has made them a must-have once again. There’s an overwhelming amount of choice in the category and lots of options are not worth your money, but LG’s 27-inch QN600-B includes a lot of good features for a reasonable price.
It’s QHD resolution (2,560 x 1,600) isn’t as high-resolution as 4K monitors, but it’s a good compromise between 4K and 1080p, which is severely lacking in vertical real estate. 27 inches will feel like a huge step up over a laptop (though 24 inches is also nice if you want to save a little space), and LG’s QN600-B uses IPS technology for improved quality at a wide variety of viewing angles. And if you’re a gamer, this monitor includes AMD’s Freesync technology; it has HDR10 certification as well for high dynamic range video. While there are definitely more advanced monitors, this covers all the most important features for $230.
Buy 27-inch LG QN600-B at Amazon – $227
Someday soon, we’ll be traveling again. Maybe to work, hopefully on vacation, but either way your grad deserves a classy and functional bag to tote their gear around in. The Executive Leather Messenger from Waterfield Designs is an expensive choice, but it’s worth the cost. Waterfield makes everything by hand in its San Francisco shop, and the materials it uses are top-notch. I’ve owned a lot of their products over the years, and I can safely say this bag will last a decade or more, and the leather will only look more attractive as time goes on. On the inside are two padded slots, one for a tablet and one for a laptop. There are also two pockets, one zippered, as well as a pen slot and a metal key fob. Finally, there are two easily-accessible hand pockets under the flap, both with an extremely soft plush lining. The Executive Leather Messenger comes in three different leather colors and costs either $380 or $400, depending on which size you choose. It’s a big investment, but one that will last a very long time.
If you’d prefer a non-leather choice, Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger is a great and more affordable option. The $220 bag was originally designed specifically for photographers, but (as the name implies) it works as a tough, well-designed option for whatever you need to carry. It has a dedicated 13-inch laptop sleeve and “stretchy” pockets that make it easier to keep track of smaller items. The bag also comes with a few flexible interior dividers so you can customize it in any way you want. The recently-released V2 update boasts 100 percent recycled outer fabric, a redesigned shoulder strap that should be less prone to slippage, a redesigned “MagLatch” magnetic buckle and a more efficient design that makes it 24 percent lighter than the original.
Buy Executive Leather Messenger at Waterfield Designs – $379Buy Everyday Messenger at Peak Design – $219