Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, millions of American children are beginning the school year in their living rooms. And parents are desperate for the tech devices their children will need for their online coursework.
But if you’re in the market for a Chromebook computer or an inkjet printer, good luck. The retail departments that normally carry such things look like the toilet paper aisle did in April — all cleaned out.
My recent visits to stores in Boston, Braintree, Brockton, Cambridge, and Stoughton left no doubt the home electronics shortage for back-to-school is real — and just about as bad as you’ve heard.
Want a Windows laptop? Your luck depends on how much you want to spend. Pricey machines for hardcore gamers are still available, though in short supply. But at most stores, cheap Windows 10 machines are sold out.
Mac laptops? Same deal. The Apple store in Boston was cleaned out of the cheapest models, but could accommodate anyone with $1,300 to spend on a higher-end machine.
Chromebooks? Forget about it. School systems nationwide are scooping up these cheap machines by the thousands, leaving store shelves empty. Of the eight retailers I visited, not one had a Chromebook in stock.
Printers? Most of the stores I visited had one or two available at most, and several had none. Next to a Chromebook, a printer is the scarcest item in tech these days.
Why? The same pandemic lockdown that had us buying work-from-home devices in the spring also shuttered the Chinese factories that made these gadgets. The result, said Ryan Reith, vice president of consumer devices research at IDC Corp., is a hardware shortage that has afflicted consumers worldwide.
“All these lockdowns have led to an insane surge of spending,” he said. “The supply chains essentially can’t keep up.”
Reith said that Chinese factories are up and running again, and gradually refilling the pipeline, but “we have a few tricky months ahead of us.”
Retail stores are getting fresh shipments almost every day. New computers are often included, but there aren’t enough of them to refill the pipeline. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you can get lucky. Here are a few tips:
1. Be prepared to pay more — maybe a lot more. A decent Chromebook costs no more than $400, and many are a lot less. But they’re nearly impossible to find, and in most stores the cheapest surviving Windows machines are the high-end gaming laptops. They’re just the thing for playing “Call of Duty” and more than adequate for schoolwork. But you’ll pay at least $750 for such a machine.
2. Don’t just visit retail giants like Best Buy, Walmart, and Staples. The best-stocked store I’ve seen is Micro Center in Cambridge. (Yes, it’s still there.) When I stopped by last Friday, a clerk told me they had Windows and Mac laptops in every price range and were getting regular deliveries of new merchandise. No Chromebooks, though. And hardly any printers.
3. Consumers in a hurry can still find some deals online. A recent visit to Amazon.com turned up about 30 retailers offering low-priced laptops for immediate delivery. I even spotted an HP Chromebook, worth its weight in gold these days. Amazon also featured a small selection of ready-to-ship inkjet printers.
But if you’re a choosy shopper, you won’t be thrilled with the limited choices. And if you had your eye on a machine with a bit more memory, a faster processor, or faster printing speeds, you can either lower your expectations or settle in for a long wait. Amazon can probably get what you’re looking for, but many devices will be delayed for a week or two, or three.
4. If you can’t wait, consider buying something used and refurbished. Amazon, eBay, and many other online retailers will sell you used laptops in good condition. Anything under five years old will usually be powerful enough for elementary or secondary students. Make sure the refurbished device includes a warranty and comes from a vendor who’ll give you 30 days to return it in case of problems.
5. One more option: Fix up a computer you already own. The Geek Squad at Best Buy will tackle all sorts of upgrades, like extra memory or a bigger, better hard drive. Again, you might have to wait a while. One store told me upgraders could expect a nine-day wait.
You might do better at an independent computer repair shop like Family PC in Danvers, where five to 10 people visit every day to upgrade their obsolete computers.
For a quick and simple performance boost, owner Bill Simons pulls the mechanical hard drives from laptops running the old Windows 7 operating system and plugs in a solid state drive with no moving parts, loaded with Windows 10. “It’ll be 20 times faster,” Simons said. “It’s a huge difference.”
At about $200, it’s cheaper than buying a brand-new machine. and Simons offers a turnaround time of two or three days.
Trouble is, there aren’t a lot of independent computer shops around these days. If you’re good with a screwdriver, you can buy memory chips or a solid-state drive and handle it yourself. Otherwise, tech shoppers are in for high prices or long waits. It’s the hunt for toilet paper, all over again.