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Chromebooks are selling like gangbusters, but the party could be coming to an end

Samsung Chromebook 2
(Image credit: Samsung)

In part because of the pandemic, laptop shipments shot up around 26% last year, and are likely to break records in 2021 at 236 million units according to market research firm TrendForce. This is in stark contrast to the usual 3% movement (up or down) that has taken place in past years. Chromebooks have especially benefited from the uptick, with shipments reaching a record 47 million units, but the coming quarters might not be as kind to Chrome OS devices.

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From a PC gaming perspective, Chromebooks on their own are not all that interesting—the hardware is just too weak to facilitate gaming, and the platform (Chrome OS) is limited in that regard as well. The best gaming laptops are Windows machines with discrete graphics, plain and simple.

Where the conversation shifts, however, is with game streaming services, and in particular GeForce Now. Nvidia last year began beta testing GeForce Now on Chromebooks that meet the minimum system requirements, opening the door to ray-traced gaming...on a Chromebook.

It's been a bit since we tested it out (on a 13.3-inch Pixelbook Go with an 8th Gen Intel Core i5 CPU), but with a strong and stable internet connection, we found GeForce Now runs pretty well on a Chrome OS machine.

That's not to say you should necessarily run out and buy a Chromebook. Many people have, however, and for various reasons. According to TrendForce, Chromebook shipments are expected to reach a "staggering" 50% year-over-year growth rate this year, most of which are being shipped to the US (70%) and Japan (10%).

So why the sour outlook on Chromebooks going forward? There are a few reasons. For one, Chromebooks have saturated the education market where they are primarily sold, TrendForce says. Coupled with the fact that the general public has begun returning to workplaces and schools, the demand for laptops and Chromebooks could take a hit.

There are other factors as well.

"It should be pointed out that certain recent rumors claim that the demand for notebooks will decline in 2H21. This decline can be primarily attributed to the fact that notebook brands are increasingly finding Chromebooks’ low margins to be unprofitable, while 11.6-inch panels, which are used in 70% of all Chromebooks, have also skyrocketed in price, and certain semiconductor components are in shortage," TrendForce says.

Due to this, TrendForce says laptop makers have scaled back Chromebook production, so as not to get stuck with an big inventory surplus. They have already "overbooked certain components, which resulted in additional inventory," so sitting on a pile of unsold Chromebooks is something they want to avoid.

According to TrendForce, the first signs of this will come in the fourth quarter of this year, in which it expects to a see a 3% drop in overall notebook shipments.

There's no mention of how this will affect pricing. However, if laptop makers end up with a surplus, it's conceivable there could be some enticing sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday (more so than usual). If you're in the market for a Chromebook and are in a position to wait, that could be the best time to strike.

Paul Lilly

Paul has been playing PC games and raking his knuckles on computer hardware since the Commodore 64. He does not have any tattoos, but thinks it would be cool to get one that reads LOAD"*",8,1. In his off time, he rides motorcycles and wrestles alligators (only one of those is true).