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The best laptops for college students and remote learning in 2020

In the new semester, students will need a laptop suitable for campus and distance learning. Here are some of the best laptops on offer.

With the new semester fast approaching, students are not only meeting the usual set of challenges: finding their way around campus, meeting new people, and getting stuck in with their courses -- they must also do all of this in the middle of a pandemic. 

Hardcover books, photocopies, handwritten assignments, and full on-campus courses are now being replaced with e-books, distance learning platforms, classes on Zoom, and collaboration over mobile apps -- increasing 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 in 2019. COVID-19 has posed a challenge for students and businesses alike, and when purchasing a new device, everyday use, support for potentially resource-hungry programs -- such as design or photography software -- specifications suitable for videoconferencing sessions, and portability all need to be considered.   

However, these devices do not have to cost the Earth, and below, ZDNet has compiled a selection of devices to suit every budget. 

MacBook Pro

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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 latest version of the MacBook Pro, starting at $1299, is available with either a 13- and 16-inch Retina display, and the standard models are also equipped with a Touch Bar and fingerprint sensor, up to a 2.3GHz 9th-generation Intel i9 processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD storage, and four Thunderbolt 3 ports. 

Apple is also offering MacBook Pros for discount, starting at $1199, in the Education store, with free AirPods thrown in.

$1,300 at Best Buy $1,249 at Adorama $1,299 at Apple

MacBook Air

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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 -- and so can be taken up to campus as and when necessary. 

Coming in at only 2.8 pounds, the standard 13-inch MacBook Air comes with up to a 1.1GHz quad-core 10th-generation Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD storage, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and Intel Iris Plus graphics. If you're willing to wait, these specifications can be boosted with custom builds containing up to an Intel i7 processor, 16GB RAM, and 2TB SSD storage.

MacBook Airs are also on offer with a starting price of $899 and free AirPods in the Education Store. 

$929 at Amazon $1,000 at Best Buy $989 at Adorama

HP 11.6-inch Chromebook

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Chromebooks have become increasingly popular in recent years due to their portability and suitability for completing basic tasks on the road and so could be a strong option for students this year. 

The HP Chromebook is a budget-friendly, 11.6-inch model complete with all the basics a student might need for their studies. Specification-wise, you can expect an Intel Celeron N3060 processor, 4GB RAM, 16GB storage, two USB ports, built-in speakers, and the Chrome operating system. There is also a MicroSD card slot for content transfers and additional storage, and the device runs on Chrome OS. 

$199 at Target

Acer Chromebook Spin 11

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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. The Spin sports an Intel Celeron N3350 processor, 11.6-inch HD Touch display, 4GB RAM, 32GB storage, and a stylus can be used instead of the touchpad or keyboard.

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.

$411 at Amazon

HP Pavillion X360

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HP laptops are generally considered reliable options, and for students who need a machine that will last the course of their college career, the HP Pavillion X360 is a solid contender. 

The laptop sports a 360-degree hinge and a 14-inch 1366 x 768 display, as well as a 10th-generation Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM, and 512GB SSD storage. The HP Pavillion X360 runs on the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system. 

$789 at Target

Dell Inspiron 15 5000

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A more traditional laptop suitable for students who don't need a portable device -- given its weight and size -- is the Dell Inspiron 15. Over at Dell, you can pick up a model complete with a 15.6-inch Full HD display, touchscreen capabilities, up to an Intel i7 processor, 8GB RAM, up to 512GB SSD storage, and the Windows 10 Home operating system. The starting price is $599.99.

$599 at Dell

Lenovo Flex 5

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Over at Costco, the Lenovo Flex 5 is currently on sale with a $50 discount, a model that will suit students who need a relatively powerful machine able to cope with videoconferencing and high-end applications. The $649.99 laptop is a 2-in-1 with a 1920 x 1080 Full HD touchscreen display, a 10th-generation Intel i5 processor, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD storage, and runs on Windows 10 Home.

$649 at Costco

Microsoft Surface Go 2

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A 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 up to 8GB RAM, an 8th-generation Intel m3 processor, Intel UHD 615 graphics, and up to 128GB SSD storage, Windows Hello security, and both a 5MP front-facing camera and an 8MP rear-facing camera, which is adequate for virtual meetings on-the-go. 

$399 at Microsoft

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

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For students who prefer the Windows operating system and need power to back high-end applications for work and play, Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3 is an excellent choice. 

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 compatible with a stylus. 

Users can pick up a model with up to a 10th-generation Intel i7 processor and Intel Iris Plus graphics on the smaller model or up to an AMD Ryzen 7 3780U processor and Vega graphics on the 15-inch variation. In addition, the laptop sports up to 16GB RAM, up to 1TB SSD storage, and a 720p HD f2.0 front-facing camera. Microsoft has included Windows 10 Home, Windows Hello security, and users can expect roughly 11.5 hours of battery life. 

$1,890 at Amazon $2,100 at Best Buy $2,099 at Adorama

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

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Finally, a heavy discount is on offer over at Walmart for the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a high-end machine that weighs only 2.4 pounds. Originally listed at $2149 and now on offer for $899, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon would suit students who need to work with high-end software, design, or video apps, and comes equipped with an 8th-generation Intel i5 processor, up to 16GB RAM, UHD 620 graphics, and 256GB SSD storage. 

The laptop's value also lies in its 14-inch 1920 x 1080 Full HD display, 4K Dolby Vision panel, and an optional FHD panel for privacy. 

$899 at Walmart