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Choosing the right back-to-school laptop for in-school vs. remote learning

Remote and in-person students have different computer needs, and we've tracked down some still-in-stock suggestions for both groups.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
4 min read
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There's an inescapable truth to the new school year: Just about every student, from grade school through college, needs their own computer thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Through a mix of remote learning and in-person classes, sometimes with multiple children in the same family beaming into different virtual classrooms at the same time, it's a one-device-per-person world, now, which means a big investment from not only schools but also parents. 

What does each type of student need? Remote students will have different needs than in-person or hybrid students. And there's an issue that's even more important right now -- where can they find something that's actually available to buy? Low-cost models are frequently out of stock, and even schools are having trouble getting enough laptops and chromebooks. The recommendations below are currently in stock, and I'll update their availability as needed. 

Full-time in-person students

Some schools, but a dwindling number, are attempting to resume full-time in-class sessions. A few have already started, some are starting next month. Some have started and almost immediately switched to partial or full-time remote learning. 

Many college students regularly lug a laptop to class with them, so as long as they're still going to class, they need something light, with a long battery life. That's why MacBooks have long been a campus favorite. 

And because you may be doing something with engineering or CAD or 3D design, there's potentially a need for a certain level of CPU or GPU power as well. I've occasionally run into cases where some classes require specific software, so a Chromebook may be out. You may need something like Revit for architecture students, which is not available as a MacOS app, so you'll need a Windows laptop (or to run a virtual version of Windows on a MacBook, which is a pain). For example, Microsoft's Surface Book 3 is available in both 13-inch and 15-inch sizes, with discrete graphics options, and the ability to pop off the top half as a more portable tablet. 

For high school or grade school students, you're less likely to need to take a device with you to school daily, although even those schools going back into session are going to not be able to offer access to shared computer labs and other tech resources. I would not usually suggest a small-screen Chromebook for all-day, everyday use, but as Chromebooks work with Google Classroom and other education tools, it could be exactly what you need as an after-school homework and research computer. 

Current in-stock recommendations

Apple MacBook Air, $899 (with student discount)

Microsoft Surface Book 3, $1,599 

Samsung Chromebook 3, $407 

Google Pixelbook Go, $649 

Remote learning students 

From talking to parents, students, teachers and administrators, the only thing I can guarantee is that remote learning is going to be like the wild west this semester. Even though most students have been learning remotely since March, there's still little in the way of unified plans, even within individual school districts. 

A New York City Department of Education employee recently told me that there are no city-wide expectations for exactly how remote learning is going to go (New York schools don't reopen until Sept. 10). Some classes are using prerecorded PowerPoint presentations with added audio, while others are doing live on-camera teaching and expect students to follow a set schedule, just as they would in school. 

Students doing all or most of their learning remotely may find a 13-inch or smaller laptop screen isn't comfortable for all-day use, especially if there's a lot of remote video or on-screen reading involved. And as long as you're thinking bigger, there's also some benefit from being able to set up a larger deskbound system, such as the newest Apple iMac

That's an expensive machine, but it scores high marks for not only its great display and features, but also its webcam and microphone array, which is miles better than almost any I've seen on even very premium laptops. If you're engaging in classroom conversations, a good camera and mic setup is important, and we've got more tips on making your webcam work better here

Watch this: New 27-inch iMac is Apple's summer surprise

But an all-in-one desktop won't be practical for many families, so instead look to midsize laptops, which are still portable enough to go from room to room around the house (or to school occasionally, for hybrid learners). One of my favorite all-around laptops is the Lenovo Yoga C940, which has a 14-inch screen and fantastic overall design which can fold into a slate-style tablet or sit open like a traditional clamshell -- it's also still available and costs about the same as a MacBook. 

Also in stock right now is the reasonably priced Acer Aspire 5, a 15-inch AMD-powered laptop (similar models from Dell and others are showing shipping dates into mid-October already). Best Buy and other retailers have some decent $500 to $700 midrange laptops as well, but almost all are showing at least one-week ship times as of right now.   

Current in-stock recommendations

Apple iMac (27-inch), $1,699 

Acer Aspire 5, $499 

Lenovo Yoga C940, $999