All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. If you buy something through one of the links on this page, we may earn an affiliate commission.
The year 2020 is turning out to be a strange one to say the least, but we can still celebrate momentous occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. Pandemic or not, now is typically the time that seniors in colleges and universities across the country complete their long journey in upper education. They might not be able to have a traditional cap-and-gown ceremony at this time, but you can still help them commemorate the occasion with something special. From laptops to backpacks, here are the best gifts for new grads that you can get this year.
Apple iPad Air
Perhaps your grad already has a laptop, or they want something even more travel-friendly. A tablet might make more sense then, especially one as capable as Apple’s iPad Air. A step up from the basic iPad, the iPad Air comes with a more powerful A12 Bionic processor and a bit more screen real estate (10.5 inches instead of 10.2), and its laminated display makes it much nicer to use with Apple’s Pencil. For a more laptop-like experience, we recommend a keyboard cover as well, either Apple’s own Smart Keyboard or Logitech’s Slim Folio.
Apple Watch Series 5/Fossil Hybrid Smartwatch HR Charter
A smartwatch could be a great gift for the most connected graduate in your life. Without a doubt, the Apple Watch Series 5 is the best smartwatch you can get (if you have an iPhone), thanks to its stunning, always-on Retina display and a compass that comes in handy when hiking or following walking directions. It’s also useful for fitness enthusiasts, with features such as automatic workout detection, a heart rate monitor and a built-in ECG measurement app that can detect an irregular heartbeat. It comes in either a 40mm or 44mm size, and you can opt for either a GPS model or one with LTE, which lets your grad make calls without a paired phone. A 40mm, GPS-only aluminum-cased model starts at $400, and you can opt for a variety of different straps and colors as well.
If the Apple Watch isn’t your grad’s style, then we recommend the Fossil Hybrid Smartwatch HR Charter. It’s great for those who want something that still looks like a “real” timepiece. As a hybrid watch, the HR Charter combines the best of both worlds: It’s a stylish analog watch with a customizable e-ink display that can show step count, alternative time zones and notifications. Plus it has a built-in heart rate monitor and an impressive battery life of around two weeks on a single charge. The Fossil Hybrid Smartwatch HR Charter comes in a variety of finishes and colors, though we’re particularly fond of the one with the rose gold chassis and the blush silicone strap.
Even if your grad might not be doing a lot of traveling right now, a piece of luggage is still a good investment. This hard-sided carry-on by Away is a perfect choice for those future long trips as well as shorter road trips (the latter of which might be more likely in our current environment). It has an interior compression system so you can fit in at least a week’s worth of clothes, a durable polycarbonate shell and 360-degree wheels plus a TSA-approved lock. If you can spare the space, we recommend the model with the ejectable battery pack that your grad can use to charge their phone.
Kroser laptop backpack/Everlane Modern Snap backpack
A great gift for a new grad heading out into the working world is a backpack to store all of their essentials. We recommend the Kroser laptop bag, which is made out of durable water-repellent fabric and has plenty of space not only for a computer but also a tablet, files and folders, a wallet, an extra coat, and more. It also has a handy, built-in USB port that you can use to charge your phone via a power bank (sold separately). An alternative that has more style but less space is Everlane’s Modern Snap backpack. It has a padded compartment that can fit an up-to-15-inch laptop and a couple of side pockets for a water bottle and other small items.
Now that your graduate is moving on from college, they’ll probably want to upgrade that laptop they’ve been using for the past four or five years. We particularly like the HP Spectre x360, a convertible Windows notebook with a gorgeous jewel-like design. It has a travel-friendly body that weights just 2.9 pounds, and being a 2-in-1, it can go from laptop to tablet swiftly.
What’s more, it comes with an optional HP stylus, which they can use to draw diagrams and scribble notes. Plus, the HP Spectre x360 has a stunning touchscreen display (you can choose from a 1080p or an AMOLED option), an excellent keyboard, a compact form factor and plenty of power. We recommend getting the one with an Intel 10th Gen Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and 32GB of Optane Memory, which comes in at around $1,350.
If your grad doesn’t have a Nintendo Switch already, then why not reward their years of hard work with one? It’s not only considered one of the best gaming consoles on the market but is also perfect for the new grad, thanks to its transforming capabilities. It can be used on the go while sitting on the bus or laid-back on the couch while it’s hooked up to a TV, making it a handy two-in-one gadget. There’s even Netflix on it, so you can watch movies in between gaming sessions. Plus, it’s a great party console, as you can easily detach the controllers -- or get additional ones -- to play local multiplayer games. Of course, it also has a vast library of excellent games: Some of our favorites include Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario BrosandAnimal Crossing.
An external drive is useful for grads and non-grads alike -- not only as backup but also for storing photos and videos. The Samsung T5 is a great value for the money. It’s a portable SSD that is so light and compact you could slip it in your pocket before you head out the door for the day. It has one USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C port that supports 10Gbps transfer speeds, and it’s bundled with AES 256-bit hardware encryption for extra data protection. It comes in four different colors and in different storage capacities, but we like the 1TB model for $180. There is a newer T7 Touch model that adds a fingerprint reader for extra security, but we still think the T5 is the better value for money.
Sure, you could give your new grad a pair of AirPods, but why not give them an even better pair of wireless earbuds? The Sony WF-1000XM3s is our favorite AirPods alternative, and we we think it offers better sound quality and more-powerful noise cancellation than Apple’s. Plus, its battery life is superior at around an hour and a half longer. The WF-1000XM3 comes in a handsome black-and-gold package as well, which is a touch more luxe than the Apple version.
Even phones and laptops with amazing battery life don’t last forever, and that’s where an external battery pack comes in handy. The ZMI PowerPack 20000 is a good option. It has a massive 20,000mAh capacity -- enough to charge your grad’s smartphone several times over. Plus it has Quick Charge 2.0/3.0 fast-charging support so you can do so lickety-split. What we especially love about it is that it features USB Power Delivery 2.0, which is capable of charging laptops like the MacBook Pro, the Pixelbook and other gadgets that are PD compatible. Another bonus is that it can be used as a USB hub for other devices like a mouse or keyboard.