The holiday season is once again approaching: Time to start making those gift lists for all your friends and loved ones (oh, and maybe to think about presents you might want for yourself!). If anyone has been especially good this year (yes, including you), a laptop, printer, or tablet might be just the gift you need.
In our Great Electronics Gift Guide, we've gathered together more than 100 recommendations—from bargain to sweet spot to splurge—to help you choose. We've also included buying advice for consumers with specific needs—and their stories could match yours. Whatever you're looking for, we've got ideas. Happy shopping!
It seems there's no perfect size for a tablet. In the past year, we've seen models get smaller (Amazon just launched a 6-inch tablet) and larger (as with Samsung's 12.2-inch whopper). There's a dizzying variety of sizes between those two extremes, so there's a tablet available for almost every need. Those with large screens make great productivity devices; smaller ones slip easily into a purse or book bag.
Many larger tablets can be turned into laptops with the addition of a keyboard, and some new models are packaged with one. They have Intel Core processors that make them work more like computers (and add quite a bit to the price). Gaming fans who play more demanding apps with complex graphics should get a tablet with excellent performance.
Even more tablets will be on the way soon. Apple has just released the new iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, and Google recently announced a new Nexus tablet.
EVGA Tegra Note 7, $200 (Wi-Fi, 16GB)
This one is a rarity among budget tablets—a great-looking display plus speedy performance. That's a perfect combination for people who like to play games. Battery life is long at about 10 hours. The Tegra includes a stylus you can use for note-taking (but there's no handwriting recognition) and drawing.
Dell Venue 7, $160 (Wi-Fi, 16GB) (2nd gen.)
The Dell Venue 7, lightweight and with more than 12 hours of battery life, is quite portable. The display looks great, and performance was very good. The 5-megapixel camera has higher resolution than on most tablets. You can set up multiple user profiles, a great feature for families sharing a tablet.
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9, $340 (Wi-Fi, 16GB)
If you want a fairly large but still very portable tablet, this is a great choice. The display is excellent; its resolution of 339 pixels per inch is among the finest. Subscribers to Amazon Prime, $100, have access to lots of content, including free movies. (This model will soon be replaced by the Fire HDX 8.9, priced from $380. The smaller HD 6, starting at $100, and HD 7 are also coming. Consumer Reports is testing all of them.)
Apple iPad Air, $500 (Wi-Fi, 16GB)
A beautiful display, a great app store, and fast performance are wrapped into a thin package that's a pleasure to carry around. Battery life was also very long, at 13.5 hours. Those features combine to make it worth the price.
Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2, $650 (Wi-Fi, 32GB)
What's missing from Samsung's Galaxy Note? Not much. It's an outstanding performer with a stellar display and extra features that make it a workhorse and an entertainment juggernaut. Samsung built apps to work with the stylus included, and an office suite comes with the tablet. Battery life is close to 14 hours, and performance stands up to demanding games.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3, $1,000 (Wi-Fi, 128GB)
Want a tablet and a laptop? Take a look at the 12-inch Surface Pro. With the optional keyboard, you have a very portable laptop. Performance was excellent as both laptop and tablet (though it's heavy for a tablet). It includes a generous 128GB of storage. Battery life was around 10 hours.
Which tablets score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.
These devices aren't as popular as they were before the tablet era, but they still have their merits. They weigh less than tablets and have better visibility in bright light. And their batteries keep going, sometimes for weeks on a charge.
Two of the best choices are the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight, both with built-in lighting. The Nook GlowLight with Wi-Fi sells for $120. The Paperwhite starts at $120 with special offers. For 3G connectivity (which most users don't need, in our view), the price jumps to $190.
Amazon recently introduced two new e-book readers. The Kindle Voyage, $200, has a brighter screen, Amazon says, and weighs less than the original Paperwhite (which will remain available). The 3G model costs $270. The Kindle, $80, is a less costly alternative with no built-in light.
Barnes & Noble has partnered with Samsung on a tablet whose interface (but not hardware) is optimized for e-reading: the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Nook, $180.
Janet says: "I own a first-generation iPad, Wi-Fi only, and I'm ready for something smaller and lighter with 4G capability. (I don't have a smart phone, and if I get the right tablet, I won't need one.) It has to be white. Don't ask why; it just does. I'm thinking about buying a refurbished tablet to save money. Is that wise?"
Dean Gallea, tablet tester, says: "Because Janet will be using her new tablet in lieu of a smart phone, I considered only 7- to 8-inch models. To save money, I went with Android instead of Apple. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and the LG G-Pad 8.3 come in white. Each weighs about 13 ounces. The LG performed slightly better in our tests. Both have powerful processors. We'd skip a refurbished tablet. The batteries can't be replaced, and after a couple of years, tablets near the end of their useful life."
Tablets designed for children generally aren't as powerful or cutting-edge as their counterparts for grown-ups. They cost less but still aren't cheap; some sell for $250 or so. Most offer kid content such as games, art programs, e-books, music, and videos, as well as bumper cases and parental controls.
The Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Kids, $200, has the longest battery life at just over 9 hours. The LeapFrog LeapPad 3, $100, and the Vtech InnoTab 3, $50, have terrific proprietary apps and games with an educational focus.
In the past few years, laptops have learned a lot from tablets. You can now get a computer running Windows 8.1 that has a touch screen, and some even fold back on themselves or break free from their keyboards. Apple MacBooks run an operating system that looks and feels like the company's mobile interface, and it provides deep integration with iPhones and iPads.
Google has pursued a different path with its Chromebook platform. The search company's operating system is essentially a glorified browser that runs cloud-based software. It has spawned a generation of lightweight laptop alternatives that can cost $300 or even less. They have been so successful, especially in schools, that Microsoft is now working with computer manufacturers on lower-cost Windows machines. Those new laptops feature the Bing search engine.
Will a discount laptop satisfy you, or should you pay $1,000-plus for a high-end machine? That depends on what tasks you want it to do. For video editing and gaming, it's worth paying for performance, but a competent laptop that can stand up to everyday tasks can be had for much less.
Asus Chromebook C300MA-DB01, $250
Chromebooks were built to travel and to save you money. This model does both, with a nice price and 13.5 hours of battery life, second-longest in our tests. It's not the fastest performer, but it was capable enough for word processing, Web browsing, and online gaming.
Lenovo Z40, $600
A long battery life of 8.5 hours, excellent performance, and 500GB of storage make this Lenovo a great deal. It has 6GB of memory and 2GB of video memory, which is helpful when gaming.
Toshiba Satellite L55-B5254, $650
This machine's 7.25 hours of battery life—just about enough for a full day's work—and light weight (less than 5 pounds) will help you travel easy. Bonus: You can use it to charge other devices while it's in sleep mode.
Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Touch, $1,150
This 13-inch touch-screen laptop makes a great travel companion. It's light, at just over 3 pounds, and has an impressive 12.75 hours of battery life. It resembles the MacBook Air, so if you want a stylish laptop to carry around, this could be it. The performance is excellent, and the keyboard is comfortable to use, full-sized and backlit.
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch with Retina display MGXA2LL/A, $2,000
Videophiles will love this Mac's gorgeous 15-inch display, with a 2880x1800 resolution. The machine is thin, light, and powerful, with a Core i7 processor and 16GB of memory. Its tested 10.5-hour battery life is long for a laptop this big.
Which laptops score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.
All-in-one printers have been shedding their wires. Most of them can connect to a home network via Wi-Fi, for instance, and some can print directly from mobile devices through Apple AirPrint and Android apps. With many models, you can also use a phone to print from services and sites such as Dropbox, Facebook, Flickr, and Google Cloud.
These multipurpose machines can scan and copy, and for those of you who still send faxes, a number of printers do that, too. Prices range from $60 to $400 or so, with many options in the $100-to-$150 range.
Like many electronics products that have become commodities, all-in-one printers might seem all the same, but performance, features, and efficiency vary greatly. Some models do a better job with photos than with text; others excel with text and don't perform as well with photos. Choose a model based on what matters most to you.
The same applies to features. Auto-duplexing (two-sided printing) is a feature worth looking for if you'll be printing lots of text. An automatic document feeder is handy if you need to copy long documents. If you're planning to print mostly photos, you might want features such as a memory-card reader and the option to print borderless photos.
When it comes to value, don't consider just the sticker price; check our Ratings for ink costs, which can make a cheap printer expensive over the long haul. Some models use a lot of ink to clean print heads when you turn them on and off. And printers that use just one tricolor cartridge can cause you to discard some unused ink when one color runs out.
This budget-minded printer offers very good overall performance. It produces great-looking photos and does it quickly. But the low price means that you sacrifice some features. It lacks Ethernet connectivity for networking, and you won't find a slot for inserting a memory card from your camera. Our tests found that printing costs were about average at 6.6 cents for a typical page of text, and it doesn't use much ink to maintain the print heads, a problem with many printers.
HP Envy 4500, $100
This printer produces very good text and photos, but it's light on features and ink costs are relatively high.
Epson Expression Premium XP-810, $130
The Epson produces very good photos and text. Features include a PictBridge port for direct printing from a camera and an auto-feeder and duplexer.
Among the fastest in its class at printing pages of black text with very good quality, this HP is a great choice for churning out piles of documents. (Photo quality isn't one of its strengths, though.) Ink costs are among the lowest we've seen—just 1.6 cents per text page in testing. But it can use quite a bit of extra ink for maintenance, so your best bet is to leave it on between print jobs.
Brother MFC-J6720DW, $200
This printer provides fine overall performance and has very good photo quality. It's versatile, too, scanning and copying 11x17-inch pages and incorporating two paper trays.
Which printers score highest for reliability? Check our buying guide and Ratings for more information.
This article also appeared in the December 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.