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By Mallika Mitra
September 14, 2020
Shutterstock

Shortages of household essentials like toilet paper seem to be mostly a thing of the past. But there’s still at least one item that’s very difficult to find in stock: a basic laptop.

During the summer of 2020, sales of notebook computers have been near historic levels, with sales in the seven weeks ending August 8 growing 51%, according to market research company NPD Group. The supply of laptops simply can’t keep up with the boom in demand. Lenovo, HP, and Dell told school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, the Associated Press reported.

Buying a laptop lately is complicated. Yes, you can find some models in stock. But you’ll probably pay more than you would have for a comparable laptop a year ago. There are also many used and refurbished laptops for sale online, but these options come with their own sets of complications and concerns.

Here’s everything you need to know about the laptop shortage, where you can still buy one, and how to shop smartly.

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Why is there a laptop shortage?

Right now there’s simply “more demand than we can possibly supply right now” for laptops, says, Stephen Baker, a consumer technology analyst with The NPD Group.

As you might expect, one reason for this is that so many people are working from home. People are buying new laptops to make a more comfortable work-from-home set-up, and some businesses are expecting that employees will have somewhere to work virtually even once their offices reopen, Baker adds. There are also more and more students — whether they be in kindergarten or college-aged — taking classes from home. Many schools are providing laptops to students free of charge for virtual classes, so individuals and school districts alike are basically competing against each other in the hunt for personal computers.

Another reason for the increase in demand is entertainment. PC (personal computer) screens are getting “nicer and bigger,” Baker says, and there’s been a significant increase in the amount of people who want the option to watch Netflix and other streaming services on their computers. Whereas before there were a lot more shared computers in households, more people now want their own screens.

On top of the heightened demand, the pandemic disrupted the computing industry’s supply chains, says Nir Kshetri, a professor of management at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. In early 2020, the virus severely impacted manufacturing activities of global computing giants, like Apple. The industry was also hit hard by U.S. sanctions on some Chinese companies, Kshetri adds. Hefei Bitland Information Technology, for example, was included in the list of companies sanctioned in July due to human rights violations. The company works with Lenovo and HP.

Where can you buy a laptop now?

It’s going to be pretty hard to find a new, low-cost laptop for a while. A laptop in the neighborhood of $500 and above is much easier to get your hands on these days, says Michael Bonebright, a consumer analyst with DealNews.com.

While many Chromebooks and low-price laptops continue to be listed as “out of stock” by major retailers, we did find some mid-price laptops in stock at the time of publishing, including options like these:

• HP 15″ FHD Laptop, 10th Gen Intel Core i5-1035G1: $599.99 at Amazon

• ASUS VivoBook Flip 14″ i3 2-in-1 Touch Laptop: $399 at Walmart

• Lenovo Flex 5 14″ 2-in-1 Laptop Touch Display, 81X20005US: $690 at Amazon

• HP Envy 13.3″ FHD, Intel Core i5-1035G1: $699.99 at Walmart

Be aware, however, that laptops that are in stock one day may be sold out the next. One brand that has had laptops fairly consistently in stock is Apple — and its products don’t come cheap. Buying a new MacBook from Apple or Amazon means it will get shipped to you pretty quickly but you’ll pay around $1,000 or more. The 13-inch MacBook Air is starting at $999 if you buy new from Apple, though there are some back-to-school promotions available right now: Students and teachers can save up to $200 on certain MacBooks and iPads and get free AirPods via Apple’s education pricing deals.

For the time being, many low-price laptops are on backorder and could take several months to arrive, Bonebright says. Products that are right in the sweet spot of what customers want to pay and have good reviews are probably out of stock at Amazon. In early 2020, retailers were promoting Black Friday-like deals on laptops, with prices starting under $100 for basic Chromebooks. These laptops, which use Google’s Chrome operating system, have minimal storage, and are the go-to option for schools, have been very difficult to find in stock over the past few months. Many Chromebook models have been selling out really quickly, even at prices of $300 and above.

What this means is that you really need to be on top of products as they become available, and be ready to snag deals at a moment’s notice. Consider setting up email notifications for deals sites like DealNews and NowInStock.net so you will be notified when an item is available.

Also, don’t just stick with traditional sites and stores, but look around a bit. Sometimes you can find better deals from retailers like Adorama and Newegg, which sell tech from the companies you’re likely looking for.

Baker says it’s important to be flexible. The specific item from the specific brand you want may not be in supply — or may be too expensive — but there are almost always other options out there that will do the trick if you do your research.

Should you buy a used or refurbished laptop?

To save money on tech, you can buy items that are used or refurbished. There’s an important distinction between the terms. Refurbished items may have been previously used (or returned to the retailer before they were used), and are then inspected and fixed up like new — ideally. Items listed as simply “used,” on the other hand, usually haven’t been taken apart and examined, let alone repaired, the way a refurbished product is supposed to be.

When buying used tech, you have to do extra homework to make sure it’s actually what you are being promised. Bonebright recommends avoiding random sellers posting used laptops for sale at casual marketplaces, like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. “It’s really difficult to know that a product will arrive in good condition,” he says.

Julie Ramhold, another consumer analyst with DealNews.com, says shopping on eBay can be trustworthy, as long as you check the seller ratings before you bid or buy. The site recently launched a page specifically for its refurbished items called “Certified Refurbished,” which sells products that have been inspected, cleaned and refurbished by the manufacturer or a vendor approved by the manufacturer. A seller rating on the site can give some insight into how many shoppers had positive experiences with the seller. Buying from a third-party seller via Amazon’s marketplace is another option as long as you — again — check out the seller.

“Don’t forget to look for open-box items as well,” Ramhold adds. “There’s a chance you could find a like-new laptop with a decent discount.”

“Open-box” describes goods in working order that a customer returned, and a seller inspected and put up for resale. Best Buy often sells “open-box” tech, as do other major retailers and individual sellers. Again, it’s important to evaluate who the seller is — so you can seek compensation or a return if there’s a problem.

“Used” electronics are also sometimes sold by certified online retailers like Adorama. This seller gives a grade to each used item, from N (“brand new and never used”) to E+ (“may have slight wear”) to F (“item works with certain malfunctions”). Read the detailed description for each item carefully, so you know what you’re buying. The good thing is that everything sold used on Adorama comes with a 30-day no-questions-asked return policy.

In general, buying refurbished items from a certified retailer can be a safer bet, especially when the seller is offering a warranty and return policy that’s just as good as buying new.

How to buy a refurbished MacBook or laptop

Something refurbished by the manufacturer is typically going to be in “like new” condition and come with a good warranty. You can shop for refurbished items directly on many company sites, like Apple’s certified refurbished page or Dell’s refurbished outlet, and you can save $200 or so on some refurbs (MacBooks, for example).

If instead you buy an item refurbished by a third party, it might not come in the same “new” condition, and the warranty might be limited (or nonexistent).

Amazon uses the term “Renewed” for its refurbished items, and the company says this category of goods has been tested and inspected. They also come with a 90-day replacement or refund policy if the item doesn’t work as expected.

Tons of reputable retailers have eBay stores with listings for refurbished tech. Bonebright recommends only buying from storefronts for brands you’ve heard of, like Best Buy. Although eBay can feature good deals on refurbished laptops, be sure to check the warranty and product condition before you purchase.

Woot.com, an Amazon subsidiary, has had some refurbished Chromebooks recently. Woot is a daily deals site, Bonebright says, so the inventory changes rapidly and sales can disappear in a flash. (The Intel Dual-Core Chromebook, for example, was on sale at Woot starting at $349.99 while we were researching this story, but it’s likely to be sold out by the time you’re reading this.)

“They have some of the best prices if you can catch it,” he adds.

And remember: laptops will not be out of stock forever. November should be a much better time to shop for laptops, Bonebright says. There will be less demand because students will be settled into virtual schooling, and Black Friday sales will pop up.

Overall, Bonebright says, “If you can afford to wait for a laptop, please wait for a laptop.”

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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