You know things are bad when the Office Depot “Back to School” Sunday circular features lots of low-price laptops, and the next day, none is available at any of the stores within 100 miles.

Or when you check Amazon’s listings for laptops, and many don’t even have a price associated with their thumbnail. Because they’re not available for sale either.

Welcome to a laptop shortage, in which the essential tool for schools and offices got hit by a double whammy, the coronavirus and President Donald Trump’s trade tariffs on China.

“It’s the low-range computers that really got hit the hardest,” says Tim Bajarin, president of market research firm Creative Strategies. “Stores got cleaned out of them.”

Midrange and higher-end computers are available, although not as widely as before, he notes.

School districts feel the biggest brunt of the laptop shortage as their bulk orders get delayed.

The top three computer manufacturers, Lenovo, HP and Dell, told school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, according to The Associated Press.

“You can’t have a kid do distance learning without a computer,” Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo Unified School District in California’s Mojave Desert, told the AP.

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Though the pickings are slim on the usual e-commerce sites, Amazon, Best Buy and others do have some available laptops. They’re just not as plentiful as they were.

What are the options for parents?

Forget about going cheap

Bajarin says to expect to pay $600-$800 for a Windows laptop. The cheap models that are gone would be problematic, he says. “They won’t have much power, and they’ll break easier.”

Traditionally, the Google Chromebook has been the great computer bargain, offering a no-frills machine with little on-board storage, built to be used online only, with Google software such as Docs and Sheets. If you wanted to install an outside program, such as the full version of Adobe’s Photoshop, you were out of luck – it had to be available in the Google Chrome store.

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Shopping for a Chromebook on Google’s website shows how tough it is. The entry-level Lenovo machine, advertised at $249, is linked by Google to Walmart, which has a unit in stock for $699; Amazon, which has a used copy for $399; and Best Buy, which is out of stock.

The higher-end Yoga from Lenovo, advertised at $699 by Google, is $629 on Best Buy’s site, $799 on Amazon and out of stock at Walmart. 

Plenty of laptops are available on Amazon for $500 and up, including a Samsung ($599), Acer ($579), Asus ($579) and HP ($799).

If you’re willing to pay premium and shop with Apple, the iPhone maker will sell you a new computer at regular prices, without delay. The lowest-priced Mac is the Macbook Air, starting at $999. The next model up, the Macbook Pro, starts at $2,399.

The pricey Microsoft Surface, positioned as a hybrid tablet/laptop, is available, if you’re willing to wait two weeks or so. Amazon has the Surface Book 3 for $1,799 (available Sept. 14) and Pro 7 for $789 (Sept. 8).


Bajarin says he would consider getting used equipment only in an emergency. New computers have such better power and components that “buying a used computer is asking for trouble.”

What about sprucing up an old machine and handing it down? Perhaps bringing it by a service facility to have it cleaned up?

“There’s not that much sprucing they can do,” says tech blogger Lance Ulanoff. Except for the keyboard. Make sure all the letters are in place and not about to fall off. If they are, you’ll want to replace the keyboard, he says.

How old is too old?

Ulanoff says the cutoff is within the past five years. “Before that, you had machines with spinning hard drives, spinning CD/DVD drives and more room for error. The new ones have processors and a handful of ports. They’ll hold up better.”

Bajarin says that traditionally, computer manufacturers sell 50% of their inventory in the last three months of the year, the “Christmas” quarter, and plan their inventory accordingly.

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This year, which saw such a huge spike in demand as the world was sent to work at home beginning in March because of the coronavirus, will play out differently, he says, with 40% of sales in the fourth quarter.

The complication is how companies respond to the issues of the trade war with China, where most computers have been manufactured for years.

Many have shifted to other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia, “to get around the tariffs,” Bajarin says. “It’s moving quickly, but it takes a while to shift all the manufacturing outside China.”

Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter

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