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From the Editor's Desk: Navigating the Chromebook crunch of 2020

Acer Chromebook Spin 713
Acer Chromebook Spin 713 (Image credit: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

I'm an unabashed Chromebook fan and love nothing more than to suggest them to friends, family, and anyone looking for a drop dead laptop that can handle a full workload and the abuse of your kids in stride. Our Best Chromebooks roundup isn't just a recommendation list, it's my pride and joy as a tech writer. I love helping people pick a laptop that they're not going to overpay for, because I am a frugal girl.

In 2020's absolutely overwhelmed Chromebook market, just finding Chromebooks in stock is essentially a full-time job. Scarcity, demand, and an entire country's worth of kids (and adults) working from home has turned what would normally be one of the best times of year to buy a Chromebook into the absolute worst time to be buying a laptop.

Here's how we got here, and what to do if you're one of the many, many, many people who needs a Chromebook in the next month.

Rising demand + manufacturing shutdowns in early 2020 = massive shortages

Dell Chromebook 3100 2-in-1

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Back at the beginning of the year when COVID started really rampaging through China, entire cities went under lockdown, including a lot of factories and manufacturers. The production of many components and chips was shut down for weeks before they could even begin to start ramping up again, which means that some laptops are sitting in assembling limbo for weeks or months before they finally get their laptops.

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We started seeing laptop delivery times slipping at manufacturers like HP, Lenovo and Dell back in mid-March when the pandemic first started, and it's only gotten worse as the summer wore on. Today, what Chromebooks these manufacturers aren't completely sold out of have delivery dates from September (opens in new tab) to late February (opens in new tab).

The crunch is even more pronounced for school districts, many of whom who were warned back in April to buy now or risk not having Chromebooks by the start of the fall semester. Even districts that did ordered months ago are not immune from back-ordering and delays: Alabama school districts are down over 38,000 Chromebooks after order delays and shipping confusion, and my hometown of Austin ISD may be 10,000 Chromebooks short of its goal to have one for every student by the start of the year.

Bulk orders stacking up for vendors while manufacturers aren't back to full capacity has put an extra crunch on normal consumers just trying to buy a laptop for themselves or their child as everyone works from home. It will take months for supply to catch up with today's demand, but most of us can't wait months for things to recover.

So what do I do if I need a Chromebook right now?

ASUS Chromebook Flip C214

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

There are still good Chromebooks to be found right now, some models that are getting restocked more frequently than others.

  • For kids that need a kid-proofed laptop, the non-stylus version of the ASUS Chromebook Flip C214 (opens in new tab) has been more consistently stocked than the stylus models, but it's going at $480 rather than the normal $350-$400 we were seeing it at in January.
  • If you can trust your kid to take care of a laptop, or if you need a compact laptop yourself, get the Lenovo Chromebook C340-11 (opens in new tab) for $259. The C340-11 was our Best Overall Chromebook until the Flex 5 came out last month, and it'll get Chrome OS updates until June 2026, so it should last a good while for your kid — or for you. I've spent most of the last year working on a C340-11 full-time.
  • If you want a great screen and more storage without paying a lot, Best Buy has done a good job keeping the Lenovo Duet (opens in new tab) in stock. It's our favorite Chrome OS tablet and it comes with a kickstand and keyboard so that you have everything you need in the box, plus 128GB of storage for lots of apps and downloaded content.
  • Check early and often. Chromebooks get restocked somewhat randomly, so if something's sold out the first time you look at it, come back later that day or the next morning and see if the inventory's been updated. I've taken to checking Chromebook listings the way one might check the daily sports scores or the stock market.
  • Check your local retailers. A lot of laptops sell out quickly online but there may be some extra units in-store only that can help you end the search and get a laptop without giving in to price gouging resellers.

I'd also love to take the time to point out to anyone who has a computer that may just be a bit too sluggish on Windows these days that Neverware CloudReady is a wonderful service that will turn your old laptop or desktop into a Chromebook for $50 or less. If you can't find a laptop in your price range, this could at least tide you over until Chromebook availability improves.

Who knows, a few months with CloudReady and you might not need to buy a new laptop, after all.

From the rest of the tech world this week

Pixel 4a

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)
  • If a Pixel 4a review unit wasn't arriving on my doorstep tomorrow, I would be joining my co-worker Jeramy Johnson in pre-ordering one, because I, too, just want a good simple phone that doesn't cost $1000 like some other bloated oddity that launched this week.
  • The Note 20 Ultra looks very interesting, but the regular Note 20 is not an upgrade and not worth that price tag. That Mystic Green is very pretty, but that's about the best thing I can say about the Note 20.
  • If the last two weeks of Twitter and YouTube 'hacks' have reminded us of anything, it's that SMS for 2-factor authentication is trash and it's time for you to leave it behind and use Authy or some other app/key/method instead.
  • The WeChat ban could've been a lot worse than it seems to be right now, and even then, it's going to cause a lot of problems in the next 6-8 weeks. India may have banned WeChat a month ago, but India didn't ban all of its companies from dealing with WeChat (and India had more reasons for doing it). There's no "easy answer" here, but I think we can all agree this is yet another ham-handed blunder that is going to cause a lot of preventable headaches and hand-wringing over something that could've been done better several different ways.

If you're feeling run-down, you are absolutely not alone. At least I have Disney movies and freshly-baked milk bread to keep my hopes and energy up; what pick-me-ups are you using these days? Let me know in the comments and I'll see you soon!

— Ara

Ara Wagoner was a staff writer at Android Central. She themes phones and pokes YouTube Music with a stick. When she's not writing about cases, Chromebooks, or customization, she's wandering around Walt Disney World. If you see her without headphones, RUN. You can follow her on Twitter at @arawagco.

4 Comments
  • I'm not going to knock Chrome OS. It does it's job well. But when buying a WFH laptop I briefly considered a Chromebook as I was already baked into Google services but the price became ridiculous. For £500 I got a fast Windows 10 laptop thats runs Chrome (and by association Chrome OS) as well as AutoCAD, Fusion 360, Flashforge and an older Photoshop. I also gain access to emulators and 30 years worth of x86 gaming from Command and Conquer to Halo CE. So I guess my question is why would anybody spend more than £300 on a Chromebook?
  • The answer to your question may come when you try to update your PC. Or, when it slows down in the not-too-distant future. Or, when it gets infected by viruses and spyware. But, I understand your point about being able to run certain applications. If you don't have acceptable alternatives to those, then you're not currently a good candidate for Chrome OS. That makes you the exception.
  • I was able to grab a C340 with 64GB from Lenovo in April when it was clear we needed another device the kids could use for school. It took a couple weeks but I was able to get it at a good price and it shipped quickly. Then late last month when it was clear my kids weren't going to school in person for a while longer I decided to buy another and couldn't find one. A Walmart near me had a restock of the 32GB version. I jumped on it and have it ready to go when school starts. It's a great device. My advice: narrow down the devices you're looking for and check several times a day at different sites. Make sure you check all delivery and pickup options.
  • Yup, check early and often! you never know when stock becomes available. And yeah, the C340 is a great little laptop, I loved just being able to grab it and carry it off to Epcot or Studios to do my writing somewhere bright and festive. Alas, it'll be years before we're back to that point, I imagine.