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The best gifts to upgrade your grad’s tech setup

After many years of use, it's time for a change.

Engadget

Every spring, a new class of graduates is unleashed on the world, many of them carrying gadgets that have been put through the ringer over the years. Graduation is traditionally a big time for gift-giving — so if you know a new grad 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 gift ideas that’ll be a serious improvement over their trusted but beat-up tech.

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Laptops

MacBook Air (M2, 2022)
MacBook Air (M2, 2022) (Devindra Hardawar/Engadget)

As useful as tablets and smartphones are, nothing beats a traditional laptop when you really want to get things done. It’s also a 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 laptops are some of the best and most well-rounded options on the market. Unless the person you’re shopping for has some very specific needs, one of these machines will probably fit the bill.

For years, we’ve considered Dell’s XPS 13 to be the best overall Windows laptop, and that hasn’t changed. At this point, Dell has almost perfected its industrial design: it’s thin and light, but not at the expense of power or battery life. The keyboard and display are excellent, and you can get impressive specs without breaking the bank. One downside is that Dell seems to have moved fully to a design that only has two USB-C ports and no headphone jack, which can be a bit limiting. But those quibbles aside, the XPS 13 remains an excellent choice.

A laptop gift that will last them for years to come is the XPS 13 Plus with Intel’s 12h-generation Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. That also includes a 3,456 x 2,100 resolution touchscreen, and the whole package costs a pretty reasonable $1,299 direct from Dell right now.

For someone who’s a gamer, though, we recommend going in a different direction. The ASUS ROG Zephyrus G14 remains our favorite gaming laptop, one that combines relative portability (3.5 pounds and a 14-inch screen) with serious power. In our review we said that the laptop was incredibly compelling, even if it’s more expensive than it used to be. It has a powerful AMD processor and graphics card coupled with a great display, comfortable keyboard, spacious trackpad and solid design. It’s not a champ on battery life, but we got seven hours of non-gaming use out of it – pretty decent considering the specs.

As is usually the case with ASUS products, you can get the Zephyrus G14 in a wide variety of configurations, but one we’d recommend includes an AMD Ryzen 9 6000 series processor, Radeon RX 6700S graphics, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and a 2,560 x 1,600 display with a 120 hz refresh rate. It’s currently selling for $1,650 at Best Buy, and it’ll provide plenty of power to handle modern gaming as well as all the “real life” tasks that come with being out of school.

For people who prefer a Mac, Apple’s lineup can be surprisingly complicated. This year, however, the choice is clear. The M2-powered MacBook Air is the laptop we feel is best for most people, and it’s an extremely capable computer that doesn’t break the bank like the MacBook Pro.

Apple completely redesigned the MacBook Air last summer, giving it hardware reminiscent of the 14-inch MacBook Pro and an M2 processor. It feels more modern than the M1 Air it replaces, and has a number of noteworthy improvements like a better webcam, MagSafe charging, that M2 processor, plus a larger and nicer display. It still retains the hallmarks of an Air, though, it’s extremely light and portable with a battery that lasts longer than almost any laptop out there.

Most people will probably want to opt for the $1,699 configuration that includes 512GB of storage, 16GB of RAM and the M2 chip with a 10-core GPU. And while we think that the Air is enough computer for most people, if you have a keen interest in processor-intensive tasks like video editing, the $1,999 MacBook Pro is worth considering. It gives you an even more powerful M2 Pro chip with 16-core GPU along with other niceties like a gorgeous mini-LED display.

Given how dominant a force Chromebooks are in education, it’s entirely possible that someone just finishing school might want to continue using Chrome OS. Fortunately, there are lots of premium Chromebooks that are well-designed and capable enough to last for years. One of our favorites is Acer’s Chromebook Spin 714, which the company just updated with Intel’s 13th-gen Core processors. It also has a 14-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 display that offers a little more vertical space than your average 1080p screen. Add in a solid keyboard and trackpad and you have a Chromebook that doesn’t require many compromises. We haven’t tested the latest configuration’s battery life yet, but Acer’s past Chromebook options have been solid if not spectacular in that department.

  • Apple 2023 MacBook Pro Laptop M2 Pro chip with 10‑core CPU and 16‑core GPU: 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR Display, 16GB Unified Memory, 512GB SSD Storage. Works with iPhone/iPad; Space Gray

Tablets

Samsung's Galaxy Tab S8 with a pink and red screen on a white background.
Samsung's Galaxy Tab S8 with a pink and red screen on a white background. (Samsung)

When thinking about tablets, put aside the question of whether or not they can replace laptops, and focus on what they do best. They can be a great option for getting work done, engaging your creative side with art and music-making apps or just enjoying 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.

As for which iPad is the best, the iPad Air remains the right choice for most – especially if you’re looking for a good graduation gift. While the basic iPad is a great value, you get a lot when you step up to the Air. Perhaps most importantly, the Air has Apple’s M1 chip, a very powerful chip for a tablet that was in many Macs for years. This means the Air is extremely fast and fairly future-proof, though most of Apple’s hardware is now moving on to the M2.

The rest of the iPad Air’s hardware is also impressive for the price. 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 includes 64GB or 256GB of storage, 10 hours of battery life, support for the second-generation Apple Pencil and Magic Keyboard and an improved 12-megapixel front-facing camera. For $599, you’re getting almost everything that the iPad Pro offers without spending over $800.

However, if you’re shopping for an Android diehard, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S8 is an solid choice. It features a high-resolution 11-inch screen with a 120Hz refresh rate, and has an S-Pen stylus included in the box. And while Android historically hasn’t been the best option for large-screen devices, Samsung’s Dex feature switches things up into a more desktop-like multi-window mode, which can be great for productivity. Samsung’s built-in apps that take advantage of the S-Pen are solid as well. You might have a hard time finding apps that are designed for the Tab S8’s larger screen, but if you’re buying this for someone familiar with Android, they’ll likely be aware of the trade-offs.

  • Apple iPad Air (5th Generation): with M1 chip, 10.9-inch Liquid Retina Display, 64GB, Wi-Fi 6, 12MP front/12MP Back Camera, Touch ID, All-Day Battery Life – Space Gray

Smartphones

Six Google Pixel 6 Pro smartphones in various pastel colors on a gray table.
Six Google Pixel 6 Pro smartphones in various pastel colors on a gray table. (Google)

As useful as a laptop or tablet can be, chances are good that the most important computer people own is their smartphone. And if you know someone who is still rocking the same device they brought to campus with them four years ago, they’ll definitely appreciate an upgrade. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to pick out a phone that’ll satisfy just about anyone, regardless of whether they prefer Android or iPhone.

This year, we’re recommending the iPhone 14 Pro. The standard iPhone 14 is an excellent model, but the differences between the standard and Pro models are more pronounced this year than usual. The 14 Pro has an always-on display with a 120Hz refresh rate that can show you notifications and data from lock-screen widgets, and it also has a much better main camera than the iPhone 14. The Pro uses a 48-megapixel sensor, compared to the 12-megapixel one on the standard 14. Finally, the iPhone 14 Pro uses Apple’s latest A16 Bionic processor, while the iPhone 14 is stuck with last year’s A15. It’s not a cheap phone at $999, but its extremely fast processor and Apple’s track record of delivering software support for years means this investment should last a long time.

Samsung’s Galaxy S23 Ultra is our pick for Android users. At $1,200, it’s quite the pricey device, but it delivers everything you could ask for: a wonderful screen, improved cameras (including a wild 200-megapixel main sensor), excellent battery life and strong performance thanks to its Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chip. Samsung worked with Qualcomm to create a custom version of that processor specifically for its Galaxy phones, and the end result is a phone that was up to 40 percent faster than its predecessor. Given how thoroughly Samsung dominates the Android space, this isn’t a surprising recommendation, but it will make most Android fans happy.

If you want to save a little cash but still get a top-notch Android experience, Google’s $899 Pixel 7 Pro is definitely worth a look. It picks up where last year’s Pixel 6 Pro left off, with the company’s second-generation custom Tensor processor powering the whole affair. Performance and battery life remain excellent, although the smaller Pixel 7 gets slightly better battery life. The cameras are similar to those on the Pixel 6 Pro, which isn’t a big problem, because Google consistently makes some of the best smartphone cameras out there. But the telephoto shooter got a big upgrade – it now offers 5x optical zoom. And the fact that this phone is built by Google means it’ll get software updates before any other Android phone on the market.

Both of these phones are big (the Pixel 7 Pro’s screen is 6.7 inches while the S23 Ultra has a 6.8-inch display), but the good news is that both Google and Samsung offer smaller-screened devices that keep most of the same features and specs as their larger siblings. You’ll save some cash with a smaller device, too.

Headphones

WH-1000XM5 review
WH-1000XM5 review (Billy Steele/Engadget)

Almost anyone would benefit from a good pair of noise-canceling headphones, and once again Sony has made our top pick. Sony’s WH-1000XM5, released about a year ago, is the best over-ear option on the market. At $400, they’re more expensive than the XM4, but they offer a combination of incredible sound, a time-tested, refined design and excellent noise-canceling that is hard to beat. They also fit better and more comfortably than ever, and have 30 hours of battery life. The 1000XM5 looks better, sounds better and wears better than the previous model – it’s hard to ask for much more.

This year, Sony has also made our favorite wireless earbuds, the WF-1000XM4. As with its over-ear headphones, the $278 1000XM4 earbuds feature incredible sound quality, long battery life, excellent noise cancellation and a comfortable design. The battery life is particularly impressive – the earbuds can get about eight hours of playback with ANC active – that jumps up to 12 hours if you turn it off. Sony also included a host of smart software features like Speak-to-Chat automatic pausing, Adaptive Sound Control adjustments based on movement or location, 360 Reality Audio and a customizable EQ.

If you’re buying earbuds for an Apple user, though, consider the second-generation AirPods Pro. They don’t quite beat Sony’s WF-1000XM4 in sound quality or battery life, but there are a host of features that make them the best earbuds to use with an iPhone, iPad or Mac. The fast pairing tech Apple introduced with the first AirPods still makes it extremely easy to start using these earbuds, or to switch them seamlessly between different Apple devices. Both the case and buds are sweat and water resistant, making them a better option for workouts. These second-gen AirPods Pro also have big improvements in noise cancellation and sound quality, and the “transparency” mode that lets in outside sound lets you have a conversation or hear the world around you in a totally natural way.

  • Sony WH-1000XM5 The Best Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones with Auto Noise Canceling Optimizer, Crystal Clear Hands-Free Calling, and Alexa Voice Control, Black

  • Sony WF-1000XM4 Industry Leading Noise Canceling Truly Wireless Earbud Headphones with Alexa Built-in, Black

  • Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen) Wireless Earbuds, Up to 2X More Active Noise Cancelling, Adaptive Transparency, Personalized Spatial Audio MagSafe Charging Case (Lightning) Bluetooth Headphones for iPhone

Monitors

LG 32UN650-W
LG 32UN650-W (LG)

There are a dizzying number of monitors on the market, at basically any price point you can think of, which makes recommending a single monitor a very difficult task. Viewsonic currently makes one of our favorites, the VP3268a-4K. The 32-inch panel offers 4K resolution with excellent color accuracy (it’s Pantone-validated and rated at Delta <2 accuracy, for those who care about such things). Naturally, it has a host of connections including USB-C, HDMI and standard USB for hooking up peripherals. This model routinely sells for just under $800 on Amazon.

If you want a more affordable 32-inch option, consider the $430 LG 32UN650-W. This was our favorite sub-$500 monitor, and it covers creative work, entertainment and gaming well. It supports AMD’s Freesync technology, which helps eliminate screen tearing and stuttering in high-performance games. It also has a stand with tilt and height adjustments and built-in speakers, making it a pretty flexible option.

  • ViewSonic VP3268a-4K 32 Inch Premium IPS 4K Monitor with Advanced Ergonomics, ColorPro 100% sRGB Rec 709, 14-bit 3D LUT, Eye Care, HDR10 Support, HDMI, USB C, DisplayPort for Professional Home Office

  • LG 32UN650-W Monitor 32" UHD (3840 x 2160) IPS Ultrafine Display, HDR10 Compatibility, DCI-P3 95% Color Gamut, AMD FreeSync, 3-Side Virtually Borderless Design, Height Adjustable Stand - Silve/White

Bags

A man in a blue suit holds a brown Waterfield Designs Executive Leather Messenger bag.
A man in a blue suit holds a brown Waterfield Designs Executive Leather Messenger bag. (Waterfield)

As important as the right gear is, your grad also deserves something classy and stylish to carry all that stuff around. 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 $399 or $419, depending on which size you choose. It’s an investment, for sure, but it will last a long time.

Waterfield’s bags are typically quite pricey, but in the last year they released a new line of “essential” options that offer the company’s excellent construction and smart features at a lower price point. The $179 Essential Messenger is a lightweight option that does away with the leather and uses tough textiles instead. But its magnetic closures are fast and easy to undo, the strap is easily removable for wearing over whichever shoulder you choose, and it has foam inserts to help it keep its structure. There’s a built-in sleeve for a laptop up to 14 inches, and I can confirm you can shove a surprising amount of gear in it considering its smaller size.

If you’d prefer a non-leather choice, Peak Design’s Everyday Messenger is a great and more affordable option. The $230 bag was originally designed 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 “MagLatch” magnetic buckle and a more efficient design that makes it 24 percent lighter than the original.