2020 has been the year that Chromebooks well and truly hit the mainstream. They've been one of the hottest commodities of the pandemic: while toilet paper is plentiful and hand sanitizer is mostly back in stock, Chromebooks and many other laptops are even harder to come by now than they were in March. When tens of millions of people suddenly need a laptop for each school-age child in the house as well as for each working adult, inexpensive and ever-so-reliable Chromebooks are the easy answer, or at least, they are if you can find them for reasonable prices.
But why are they so much harder to find right now? It's a perfect storm, which is great news for tech resellers and horrible news for anyone who actually needs a new computer right now.
Supply, demand, and sanctions
The earliest problem that's still rippling through the technology supply chain today came from the lockdowns in China that kept thousands of factories shut down for months. Factories that spit out various components for computer manufacturers are still working to catch back up on chip orders, and some manufacturers have run out of chips needed to finish assembling certain laptops.
Complicating these matters further are sanctions the Trump administration handed down on July 20, which included suppliers and manufacturers that worked for HP, Dell, and Lenovo. This led to Lenovo telling customers that many of its Chromebook orders would be delayed several weeks as they transition to other production sites; HP and Dell's Chromebooks order were already severely backlogged even before the sanctions, so it's unclear exactly how much the Bitland and OFilm sanctions have added to them.
Even without supply issues, demand has exceeded any projections for 2020.
Of course, even if the sanctions hadn't been exacted and suppliers had been running at full capacity for the entirety of the shutdown, we'd still be having Chromebook shortages. See, manufacturers like Lenovo and HP place orders for their laptops to be manufactured in set quantities based on projected demand, and while Chromebooks have been selling better and better every year, they still hadn't predicted that this year was going to be a run on Chromebooks the way we've seen in the last few months.
And even if Dell, Lenovo, and HP saw where things were going back in February and tried to start expanding production, it still takes time to find more production sites and suppliers to get the gears turning. Time that manufacturers, vendors, and the school districts they supply simply don't have right now. The first day of school has come and gone for most of North America, and many school districts are still waiting on orders that were supposed to arrive in July.
There's also all the parents who are looking for Chromebooks on their own because either the school didn't provide one, they're switching to homeschooling, or they need a new laptop for themselves because their old desktop can't stand multi-hour Google Meet calls while trying to get work done.
In short, this shortage was inevitable, and it will take months for inventory to catch up to demand. Then there are the thousands of bulk orders that are waiting to be filled for school districts that need to update aging computers or supplement their computer inventory now that they need a laptop or tablet for every single student, which will further delay newly-assembled Chromebooks from reaching consumer markets.
If you go look at Dell's most popular education Chromebook, the Dell 3100 2-in-1, if you place an order today, you will get your Chromebook in March. Lenovo is sold out of every single Chromebook on its website, and HP's Chromebook selection is limited to the newest Enterprise-grade models and the HP Chromebook 14a, which will probably have sold out again by the time this article is published.
I check availability and pricing on Best Chromebooks every day or so. Price gouging is so pervasive on Chromebook listings right now that a few times I've momentarily forgotten that the Lenovo C340-11 is supposed to retail for $300, not $400 — and certainly not for the $500-$600 some truly soulless resellers are listing them for.
When I reached out to Acer about how they're handling the current shortage, they confirmed that this is a solution with no quick fixes:
"We are anticipating significantly increased demand due to remote learning and work-from-home initiatives at least through the end of this year and potentially into 2021. Supply will remain tight; however, Acer and its suppliers are working to fulfill all demand as quickly as possible."
Acer has been using air freight to expedite shipments and breaking mass orders placed by businesses and school districts down into smaller shipments so that they're easier for districts to process and Chromebooks can start getting to students faster. With no end in sight for this shortage, though, if you need a Chromebook right now, here's the playbook you need to be using:
- Check Best Buy Chromebook's selection for open-box deals. They won't be quite as deeply discounted as normal, but they won't be more expensive than the Chromebook's new price, which is something you can't say for Amazon right now. Recommended models:
- Lenovo C340 (11-inch or 15.6-inch), S340, or Duet
- Acer Spin 713
- HP Chromebook 14 or 15
- If there's a new model that you want, like the Lenovo Flex 5 or the Acer Spin 713, bookmark the listing and check it every day. Keep the list price written on a post-it so you don't forget what you're supposed to pay and wait for properly-priced listings to arrive.
- If you have an old laptop that's getting too slow for Windows 10, head over to Neverware and see if your laptop can run CloudReady, a Chromium-based operating system that can turn old computers into what I lovingly call "Chromebook Lites." It should at least get that old clunker into better working order in order to tide you over until Chromebooks are more widely available.
Don't expect to see Chromebook deals at Prime Day that are actually deals. Don't expect to see Chromebook deals at Black Friday, either; a win would be just having Chromebooks back in stock at their regular, affordable pricing for more than a few hours at a time.
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