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You Can’t Find a Laptop. Now What?

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It’s not just you. It’s tough to find a computer right now for yourself or (especially) your child.

Americans went on a home electronics-buying craze spurred by the pandemic, and it has lasted for far longer than anyone predicted. Manufacturers haven’t been able to keep up. Now, as children start returning to classrooms — in person or virtually — the computers popular for school have been in particularly short supply.

There are ways to cope with this. You might have to hunt around, be flexible about what you buy and consider alternatives like buying a used computer or reviving one on its last legs.

Basically, buying computers is like most things during this pandemic: We have to muddle through as best we can. And that’s if you can afford a computer and access the internet for school at all. This digital divide is a crisis.

First, you can’t find a computer because a ton of Americans are splurging on just about every category of electronics, and what seemed like a temporary spring spike has persisted. Stephen Baker, a longtime consumer electronics analyst at the NPD Group, could barely find the words to explain our gadget splurges.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and this level of demand over and over again every single week … is just amazing,” he said. Right now, sales of computers are at levels that Baker said are extremely unusual, except around Christmas.

The result is that it’s been hard to find many computer models, particularly the stripped-down laptops called Chromebooks. And sales are mostly nonexistent.

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If you’re struggling to find the school computer you want at a price you can stomach, here are tips from Baker and Kimber Streams, who writes about computers for Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product recommendation site:

Be flexible: Have a plan B, C and D if you’re eyeing a particular computer model, Baker said. Consider desktop PCs, which tend to be in better supply than laptops. (One warning: Desktops often don’t come with webcams needed for virtual school. And webcams are hard to find because again — pandemic buying.)

Kimber said that if your budget allows, higher-priced Chromebooks or other computers are often easier to find than lower-cost models.

Use shopping helpers: Kimber recommended, which sends alerts when computers or other items you’re watching are available at online retailers, and the Keepa browser add-on, which does the same for products on Amazon. (Be cautious about browser add-ons, though.)

Buy used or revive an old machine: Wirecutter and other sites walk though turning an old computer into a Chromebook Do test it out before your kid’s first school day, though, because the Chromebook conversion sometimes doesn’t work.

Other alternatives: If you have an iPad, adding a wireless keyboard can turn it into a workable school computer.

Or, check out how to buy a used computer without going astray.

I just … can’t … what is happening?

Oracle, which makes the dullest software imaginable, is negotiating to buy part of TikTok, an app used by people who mostly have never heard of Oracle. To be clear: This deal — first reported by the Financial Times — is not logical.

Except! TikTok’s owner is being forced by the U.S. government to sell its American operations, and Oracle both is well-connected with the Trump administration and knows a good deal when it sees one. So sure, why not. Maybe TikTok’s U.S. app gets sold to Microsoft or Oracle or Twitter or who knows.

I love the drama, but I know this is serious. TikTok’s parent company, the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, is on the clock to either complete the sale or shut down in the United States. For people who like using TikTok, and especially for those who make a living from their TikTok videos, the limbo about the app’s future can be excruciating.

Another reason people are paying such close attention to an app tug-of-war is what it says about the role of technology in the world. As tech has become more important in economies and in our lives, it’s more subject to the same geopolitical fights as everything else.

This shouldn’t be surprising, maybe, but it’s a reminder for technologists that politics can have a major impact on their companies’ future.

  • Uber is like doughnuts, kinda: Uber and Lyft are fighting a new law in California that requires the companies to classify their drivers as employees, not contractors. My colleague Kate Conger writes that the companies are now discussing a Dunkin’ Donuts-like approach to licensing their brands to independent franchises so that the companies would not directly employ drivers.

  • Coronavirus misinformation is hurting doctors and their patients: A woman accused one doctor of profiting from listing coronavirus on her husband’s death certificate. Another doctor treated a patient who had ingested a bleach mixture pitched as a virus cure on YouTube. My colleague Adam Satariano talked to physicians and researchers who are furious at politicians, social media companies and people misled by bogus online information for the harm caused by misinformation about the virus.

  • America’s favorite online shopping site is bad at shopping: My favorite and pointless tirade is that Amazon is a terrible place to shop if you don’t know exactly what you want to buy. OneZero gives voice to my feelings: “It’s weird to say this of one of the most used online shops in the world, but it just doesn’t work.” (And read a classic of this same Amazon genre.)

I know I keep showing you Cincinnati Zoo videos. But I cannot resist Reggie the cockatoo “helping” retrieve documents from the office copier.

Thanks so much to our readers who pointed out that the hilarious twins who have made popular videos on vintage pop songs are not teenagers. They’re in their 20s. Good eyes, readers! Sorry, again, to the Williams twins.

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