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Best phones to gift to your grad in 2021

CNET's top phone picks for your recent grad.

Amid an unprecedented suspension of graduation ceremonies across the country due to the coronavirus, students are still finishing and graduating from school despite the unfortunate circumstances. Thankfully, you can still buy and ship gifts to help them celebrate. If you're thinking about gifting a phone to a recent grad, or are a recent graduate yourself, there are several choices available that are affordable and offer solid features like great cameras, fast processors and brilliant screens, ranging in price from $200 to $400 -- no contract or trade-in necessary.  

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Apple took several gap years when it took four years to release the sequel to 2016's iPhone SE. The new 2020 iPhone SE packs a bunch of upgrades, including wireless charging, better camera specs and water resistance. Unfortunately, for wired headphone users, it doesn't have a headphone jack. And it's missing Face ID -- but that's not terribly useful if you're wearing a mask. Bottom line: If you're looking to gift a new iPhone but want to save as much money as possible, the $399 iPhone SE is your best bet. Pro tip: Spend an extra $50 for the 128GB version.

Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.


$300 at eBay
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Samsung Galaxy A51

Solid Samsung at a lower price

In addition to its main Galaxy S flagship phones, Samsung has a more cost-conscious A series line of phones. This year it launched the Galaxy A51, another phone that costs $399 (there is a 5G variant that costs $499). The device has four cameras, an in-screen fingerprint reader and expandable storage.

Read our Galaxy A51 first take.


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If you're looking for a cheaper Note 10 alternative, the $300 Moto G Stylus features a stylus that you can store inside the phone along with a built-in Notes app so you can jot down lecture notes or doodle in class. The phone also features triple rear cameras, 128GB of storage and a robust 4,000-mAh battery.

Read our Moto G Stylus review.


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Although the Galaxy A50 came out last year (and is the predecessor to the A51 mentioned above), it's still a great phone. Plus, at $250 it's even cheaper than when it first launched. The phone has a 6.4-inch Super AMOLED screen, an in-screen fingerprint reader and a headphone jack. On the back, the three cameras include a wide angle lens as well as a "depth lens," which is used to take portrait shots with blurry, dramatic backgrounds.

Read our Samsung Galaxy A50 review.


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The new Moto G Power is a tad cheaper than the G Stylus at $250, but it has a robust 5,000-mAh battery. During our testing, it lasted an impressive four days without a charge. That means it'll stick with you while you're running from class to class or having a late night out with friends. The phone has three rear cameras (one of which is a macro lens), a 6.4-inch display and expandable storage.

Read our Moto G Power review.


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Read more: iPhone 12 trade-in and switcher deals: Free phone at AT&T, save up to $800 at Verizon and more

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The Pixel 3A is a great phone. Though it shaves off a few features from 2018's Pixel 3 (it's not water-resistant, it doesn't have wireless charging and it maxes out at 64GB of storage), the phone still has a solid camera and a headphone jack. In addition, with the arrival of newer 2020 budget phones, don't be surprised if Google discounts the prices of the Pixel 3A and the bigger Pixel 3A XL in the coming months.

Read our Google Pixel 3A review.


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Read more: Phones under $200: Top picks and new budget phones

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Motorola Moto G7

2019 Moto bargain

At $200, the Moto G7 is the most affordable phone on the list. And despite coming out in 2019, it's still a great value for any kind of student. Though its single speaker doesn't offer the greatest sound and it takes mediocre low-light photos and video, the Mogo G7 has dual rear cameras, an enduring battery life and a sleek design. It also charges really quickly, which is useful when you need to juice up before you run off to your next class.

Read our Motorola Moto G7 review.


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