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Best laptop for college 2021: Notebooks for students

Students now and in the foreseeable future need a laptop suitable for both campus and distance learning. Here are some of the best laptops on offer in 2021.

It's hard enough starting a college course, but now, students have an unusual set of challenges to face: Finding their way around campus, meeting new people, and getting stuck in with their courses all of this in the midst of a pandemic. 

Hardcover books, photocopies, handwritten assignments, and full on-campus courses are now being replaced or supplemented with e-books, distance learning platforms, classes through Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and collaboration over mobile apps -- all of which increases a student's reliance on laptops, smartphones, and tablets to work successfully both on campus and at home.  

A back-to-school laptop now needs to go beyond what we may have expected pre-pandemic. COVID-19 has posed a challenge for students and businesses alike, and when purchasing a new device, there is more to consider: The device must be suitable for everyday use, real-time video calls, and potentially resource-hungry programs -- such as design or photography software. As campuses begin to reopen, they should also be light and portable enough to be taken to and from classes to home, and back.    

Below, ZDNet has compiled a selection of devices with these requirements in mind. 

MacBook Pro

Common sight on college campuses

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Specifications: Display: 13.3-inch | Processor: Intel 8th gen i5 | Memory: 8-16GB | Storage: 256/512GB SSD | Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 | Webcam: 720p | Ports: 2 Thunderbolt | Colors: Silver, Space Gray | Custom options available


MacBook Pros are a common sight on college campuses across the West. They are expensive -- especially, arguably, given the specifications on offer -- but they are solid workhorses and will last throughout a college career. 

The 13-inch model is most suitable for college students as it is a powerful machine but still small enough to travel with easily, as well as fit on pull-out tables in lecture hall seats. 

$1,150 at Adorama

MacBook Air

A more lightweight macOS option

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Specifications: Display: 13.3-inch | Processor: Intel 10th gen 13-i5 | Memory: 8GB | Storage: 256/512GB SSD | Intel Iris Plus Graphics | Webcam: 720p | Ports: 2 Thunderbolt | Colors: Silver, Space Gray, Gold | Custom options available


As ZDNet has previously recommended in our remote student gadgets roundup, Apple's MacBook Air a more lightweight macOS option which could be an excellent option for students that need a machine powerful enough to manage videoconferencing and remote study applications, but is also portable.

The difference? A MacBook Air has been designed to be lighter and thinner than the MacBook Pro and you may sacrifice some RAM, too, as a trade-off -- but the Air is a more affordable option for students and will last throughout their studies. 

$929 at Amazon $872 at eBay $879 at Adorama

Acer Chromebook Spin 11

Budget-friendly flexible option

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Specifications: Display: 11.6-inch, touch | Processor: Intel Celeron N3350 | Memory: 4GB | Storage: 32GB eMMC | Intel HD Graphics 500 | Webcam: HD | Ports: 2 USB Type-C | Colors: Silver 


The Acer Chromebook Spin 11 is a budget-friendly option for students who want to focus on portability and who want a flexible device.

The laptop is convertible and has been designed with a flexible hinge that allows the device to be used as a traditional laptop, tented, or as a tablet. 

As the laptop runs on Chrome OS, users have access to a variety of Google Apps. While this device is not suitable for power-heavy applications, students will be well-equipped for performing basic tasks, study, and writing up assignments in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides, as well as for entertainment purposes such as streaming.

$329 at Amazon

Microsoft Surface Go 2

Detachable 10.5-inch display

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Specifications: Display: 10.5-inch, touch | Processor: Intel Pentium Gold - 8th gen M3 | Memory: 4-8GB | Storage: eMMC drive: 64GB /128GB SSD | Intel UHD 615 graphics | Webcam: 5MP/8MP HD | Ports: 1 USB Type-C | Colors: Black | Custom options available, including LTE


A hybrid laptop option focused on mobility is Microsoft's Surface Go 2. Starting at $399.99, the device is made up of a detachable 10.5-inch 1920 x 1280 PixelSense display, keyboard, and stylus. With an estimated battery life of up to 10 hours, the Windows-based device can be used as a traditional laptop or a standalone tablet and weighs only 1.2 pounds.

The Surface Go 2 runs on Windows 10 Home S and comes with Windows Hello security, as well as both a 5MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing camera, which is adequate for virtual meetings on the go. This device should be considered useful not just for a college career but also for when a student enters the workforce.  

$381 at Amazon $400 at Best Buy $400 at Walmart

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Rugged laptop with hefty processing power

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Specifications: Display: 14-inch | Processor: Up to Intel 10th gen Core i7 | Memory: Up to 16GB | Storage: Up to 1TB SSD | Intel UHD Graphics | Webcam: 720p HD | Ports: 4 USB Type-C, HDMI, Ethernet | Colors: Black  | Custom options available


The $1397 Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is one of the more heavy-duty options we recommend for college students -- especially for those that require hefty processing power or those who want a rugged laptop, as Lenovo tests out the ThinkPad line against a variety of different environmental conditions.

With a huge host of ports, a battery life of up to 19.5 hours, an anti-glare screen, and rapid charge technology, this versatile laptop will not only be a valuable addition to any dorm room, but is also excellent for leisure, whether this is streaming or gaming. Useful key sub-functions are available for making calls over videoconferencing platforms, too. 

$1,445 at Amazon

Samsung Chromebook

Budget-friendly Chrome OS option

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Specifications: Display: 15.6-inch | Processor: Intel Celeron | Memory: 4GB | Storage: 32GB eMMC | Intel UHD Graphics 600 | Webcam: 720p | Ports: 1 USB Type-A | Colors: Silver


Chromebooks are budget-friendly laptops that run Google's Chrome OS operating system. In recent years they have improved vastly in terms of quality, and for students and remote learners, they are now a fair alternative to other slimline laptops on the market. 

The Samsung Chromebook, coming in at $299, is a stylish Chromebook option with adequate specifications for daily tasks, including internet browsing, checking email, and more. However, if you are reliant on Microsoft Office software for your studies, you will need to download the Office 365 app from Google's Play Store. 

$180 at Samsung $230 at Adorama

HP Chromebook x360

Chrome OS machine with extra juice

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Specifications: Display: 14-inch, touch | Processor: Intel Core i3 - i5 | Memory: 8GB | Storage: 64/128GB eMMC | Intel UHD Graphics | Webcam: 720p HD | Ports: 2 USB Type-C, 1 USB Type-A | Colors: Silver  | Custom options available


Another Chromebook option suitable for students is the HP Chromebook x360. Due to its increased internal storage capacity and customizable options when it comes to the processor, this laptop is more expensive but is worth consideration for users who want a product based on Chrome OS -- with extra juice. In addition, this Chromebook has a 360-degree hinge, and so the PC can also perform as a tent or tablet.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Best for high-end applications

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Specifications: Display: 13.5/15-inch, touch | Processor: Intel 10th gen i5/i7 - AMD Ryzen 5/7 | Memory: 8-16GB | Storage: eMMC drive: 64GB /128GB SSD | Intel Iris Plus Graphics/AMD Radeon Vega 9/11 Graphics | Webcam: 720p HD | Ports: USB Type-C/A | Colors: Black, Platinum, Sandstone, Metal, Cobalt  | Custom options available


For students who prefer the Windows operating system and need power for high-end applications, whether for work or play, Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice -- especially as the vendor is currently offering a discount of up to $400. 

Available in 13.5 and 15-inch 2496 x 1664 PixelSense touchscreen options, the laptop is light enough to carry around on campus -- at between 2.8 and 3.4 pounds -- and is also compatible with a stylus. Users can expect roughly 11.5 hours of battery life. 

Microsoft's laptop runs on Windows 10 Home. While the Surface 3 is more than adequate as a college and future-proof device for years to come, if you're willing to spend a little more, Microsoft has recently debuted the latest in the line, the Surface Laptop 4 which offers improved battery life. 

$799 at Microsoft

What's the difference between a Chromebook and a Windows or Mac laptop?

While premium -- and more expensive -- Chromebooks are available, these lightweight models are generally considered more budget-friendly alternatives to traditional Windows or macOS devices. 

Chromebooks operate on Google's Chrome operating system (OS) and are more app-focused than designed to run traditional software. These laptops are used for basic browsing, studies, and entertainment, but if you have particular software use in mind, you must check for available support before you invest in a Chromebook. However, it is possible to also use virtualization software (VMs) to circumvent such limitations. 

Why should you care about processing power, memory, or graphics cards?

As software continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, more resources are demanded. A processor manages the input/output of your laptop's circuits and generally speaking, the more high-end the processor, the quicker your device will run -- and will perform when it comes to applications that require high levels of processing power. 

Memory, or random-access memory (RAM), is short-term storage that 'remembers' what activities are happening on a laptop. The more memory, the more responsive a device will be and the more a laptop can handle before risking lags, slowness, or response delays.  

Does storage matter? What does SSD mean?

The level of storage you need depends on the tasks you intend your laptop for. Aside from software, which can take up gigabytes in space, storage is needed for files including media -- such as television shows or films -- music, photos, and documents. 

Traditional hard drives (HDD) are slowly being phased out in preference for solid state drives (SSDs), which are flash-based, use less energy, and are significantly faster. However, they are also usually more expensive. Alternatively, eMMC storage cards, usually found in Chromebooks, are an embedded form of storage suitable for these light devices due to the hardware's tiny size.

Which is the right laptop for you?

When you are deciding on a new laptop for college or remote study, you first need to ascertain its main purpose: purely for essay writing? A one-stop-shop for study and entertainment? A workhorse for power-hungry design programs?

While Macs -- at least, iMacs -- are generally associated with powerful design programs, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops are sturdy machines for work and play, whereas Chromebooks and netbooks are typically suitable for general tasks.

If a laptop is only for writing, surfing the internet, and checking email, the more budget-friendly options on our list will be suitable and should last through a college career.

Studies don't last forever, though, and so if you're willing to invest a little extra into a machine that is future-proof and will last you years to come, you should consider one of the laptops in our guide that sport higher specifications, such as high RAM and modern graphics cards.

Our selection process explained

Going to college is an expensive endeavor and can even be more so when the course taken is a STEM or design qualification -- but for many students, simply a reliable, robust device for research and writing trumps spending a fortune on unnecessarily powerful specifications. We've leaned upon our years of reviews and tests to make sure we have a range of requirements covered.