Illustration of giant cursor clicking on a laptop screen

The coronavirus pandemic has created shortages in toilet paper, bleach, and other household essentials. And now it's laptops and Chromebooks that are in short supply.

At this time of year, major retailers are usually stocked with midpriced models, many advertised in back-to-school sales. But two standouts in CR's laptop ratings—the Lenovo IdeaPad S340 and Asus Chromebook Flip—are hard to find.

The same goes for laptops from Acer, HP, and Lenovo. You add a computer to your online shopping cart only to discover that there are four, two, then none left in stock.

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If you're a savvy shopper and follow the CR shopping tips below, you can still find a good laptop at a reasonable price, but it may just require a little extra work.

“What we’ll see, at least for the next two to three months, is a lot of product simply not available,” says Ryan Reith, who monitors tech sales for the market research firm IDC.

He and others point to a number of reasons for the Great Laptop Shortage of 2020.

For one, a record number of Americans are working from home, snapping up laptops at a record pace. To gear up for a year of remote learning, they’re outfitting their children with Chromebooks, too. And we’re clearly starting to see the effects of the profound logistical challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

With airlines cutting back on the number of flights, for example, manufacturers are sending their wares to America in ships, and that slows down restocking.

Printers, routers, microphones, and webcams are in short supply, too. Heck, it took about a month to get an Asus gaming monitor I ordered from Amazon in early July.

“Whether it’s a Switch, an Xbox, a TV, or a laptop, everybody is trying to catch up,” Reith says.

Yes, that makes getting the item you want a challenge—a Black Friday-level challenge. But you don't have to give up. Here's how to broaden your search for a new laptop.

Be Prepared to Pounce

Because of the heightened demand, you need to move quickly when you see a model that interests you.

So do all you can to eliminate delays, including creating accounts on retailer websites in advance and making sure you have your log-ins and passwords handy. The last thing you want is to miss out on a bargain because you didn’t sign in at Best Buy fast enough.

You should also consider signing up for in-stock alerts. When you do, retailers like Target and Walmart will notify you by email or push notification when an item you’ve been eyeballing is available for purchase. Services such as NowInStock and zooLert can help you track products at several outlets at once, including stores that don’t offer alerts on their own.

Just remember that most websites collect user data, which can be used for marketing and other purposes. To enhance your digital privacy, consider deleting your accounts on the services once you've bought what you need. You can do so via the My Account page on NowInStock or the Delete My Account link at the bottom of zooLert's home page.

Be Flexible

While you might have your heart set on a specific laptop, try thinking instead about the features you want and the price you're willing to pay for one. In some cases, you might be able to find a model with slightly higher specs (say, an Intel Core i7 processor instead of an i5 or 512GB of storage instead of 256) without having to pay too much more.

Better yet, have two or three laptop options on your list. Consult our ratings to find models with similar performance and reliability from other manufacturers.

"Unless you’re focused on a specific brand, there’s almost always a functional equivalent available,” says Stephen Baker, a technology industry analyst at the NPD research firm. “There are almost always two or three products that have the exact same specs.”

Case in point: While the Asus Chromebook Flip is hard to find, you can still buy the Google Pixelbook Go (Core m3) and Samsung Galaxy Chromebook, shown below. The Samsung is a little more expensive, but the Pixelbook Go, at least the Intel Core m3 model, is roughly the same price. And all three options are recommended by our testers.

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Shop Far and Wide

If you can’t find what you need at Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart, check out the websites of electronics retailers such as Fry’s, Micro Center, and Newegg. Adorama and B&H Photo, which specialize in digital cameras, have a wide selection of computers, too.

You may find that places that are often overlooked have more devices in stock than the major retailers, says Dustin Downs of the market research firm Gap Intelligence.

In our reader surveys, B&H has been known to get high scores for customer support as well. 

Consider Buying Refurbished

If you can’t find a new laptop that suits your needs, you may have more luck looking for a used model.

Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and Microsoft sell refurbished laptops. Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart have similar programs, too. For yet more options, check out eBay and Gazelle.

At Best Buy, for example, you can purchase a 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad with an Intel Core i5 processor and a 240GB solid-state drive for $440. It can be delivered to your home by Aug. 27.

Consumer Reports members have had success going this route with refurbished smartphones. According to a 2018 survey, 82 percent of those who reported buying one since 2016 were highly satisfied with it.

Before you break out your wallet, though, here’s a little advice.

Look for products that are “certified pre-owned.” Make sure the refurbishment includes genuine parts from the manufacturer and all of the standard accessories.

Insist on a warranty. Without one, you have no protection.

Ask about the return policy. Some problems take time to surface, so it’s best to buy from a retailer that gives you at least a month to return the product.