The Best Time to Buy a Laptop
Nothing causes buyer's remorse quite like seeing the laptop you bought last month for $1,000 go on sale for $750. It's equally unpleasant to buy a pricey new MacBook on July 1st and then watch as Apple unveils a much faster and more technically advanced model on July 9th. The price on most laptops drops eventually, and newer models are always coming around the corner. So when is the best time to buy a laptop? The answer depends a great deal on your circumstances.
Do You Need It Now?
The best time to buy a new laptop is when you really need one. If your current notebook is broken, you need stronger performance for work or play, or this is a child's first computer, there's no good reason to delay your purchase. However, if you have a competent but aging laptop that you plan to replace in the near future, you might save money or benefit from newer technology if you wait strategically.
Apple refreshes its laptops around once per year, though the company doesn't always release all the new models at once or follow a consistent schedule. Apple last refreshed its 12-inch MacBook in May 2016, but the rest of its laptops, including 13.3-inch MacBook Pro, 15-inch MacBook Pro, 13.3-inch MacBook Air and 11.6-inch MacBook Air, are all over a year old and way out of date.
As of this writing, none of the MacBooks has a current-generation Intel "Skylake" CPU, the same processor that most new PC laptops have. Expected sometime this summer, the next MacBooks are likely to be thinner, lighter and more powerful. If you don't want the 12-inch MacBook, this seems like a good time to wait.
Bottom Line: Wait until next refresh, hopefully in July or August
PC Laptops Sale and Refresh Schedule
The major PC manufacturers release new laptops at three times of year: back-to-school season (June to August), holiday season (September to December) and spring (February to April). New models usually ship at the beginning or middle of these windows. However, the best deals tend to appear in July/August and November/December, which are the heart of the school and holiday shopping seasons.
"There is a best time to buy notebooks, and it is exactly when you think it is, between the last week in July and the first three weeks in August, when the back-to-school merchandising frenzy is in full force," said Analyst Stephen Baker, who studies laptop pricing and sales for the NPD Group, a market intelligence firm. He noted that this time frame applies to both Macs and PCs.
Not surprisingly, we've found that prices can be just as low if not lower at the end of the year, when consumers are busy buying gifts for family members or for themselves.
For example, the 13-inch Apple MacBook Air (Core i5, 128GB SSD) started at $999 on Amazon in March 2015 but sank to $849 from July through mid-August, before shooting back up to around $950, until late November, when it went back down to $850.
A configuration of the ThinkPad T450s launched in April for $1,061, but shrank to under $800 in mid-July and jumped back to over $900 in mid-August. It didn't get down to under $800 again until December, when it sank to $773.
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee the product you want will be any cheaper in August or December than it was in April. You may find a newer model at the same price, though.
Dell didn't offer significant discounts on the XPS 13, our favorite laptop overall, for either season. The best deal we've ever seen on this sleek ultraportable was the Microsoft Store's "Pie Day" sale on March 14 (a time period not known for deals), when the store dropped the price of a leading configuration from $999 to $685.
However, during the fall 2015 buying season, Dell refreshed the XPS 13 with a new Intel 6th Generation Core Series CPU and a USB Type-C port, which together offer better performance and connectivity. The new models carried the exact same prices as their predecessors, while the earlier models left the market entirely.
Bottom Line: You'll find more deals in the July/August and November/December time frames and will see new model releases in early spring, midsummer and fall.
Intel CPU Refreshes Lead the Industry
Though PC vendors tend to release new products at three times of year, they usually don't refresh each model more than once a year. Business notebooks in particular can stay on the market unchanged for as long as 18 months. Most updates are timed to coincide closely with Intel's CPU release schedule, as manufacturers want all their laptops to carry the latest generation of processor nearly as soon as it's available.
Intel started shipping its 6th Generation "Skylake" series of processors around September 2015, and most consumer laptops, except for MacBooks, were refreshed during the fall. The chipmaker didn't launch the business versions of its new CPUs until January 2016, so new Lenovo ThinkPads, Dell Latitudes and HP EliteBooks started rolling out in February and March.
The evolutionary improvements in performance and battery life between two generations of Intel processor — 5th Gen to 6th Gen, for example — may not be worth waiting for on their own. However, the manufacturers often use the CPU refresh as an excuse to make a laptop lighter or add new features like a higher-res screen, a faster SSD or new ports.
Intel's next major CPU refresh, code-named Kaby Lake, isn't due to arrive until late 2016 at the earliest, which means that we probably won't see many products with the new processor until the spring of 2017. The new CPU will use the same 14nm architecture as current-generation "Skylake" processors, which means that it probably won't offer a dramatic improvement in performance or battery life.
Gaming laptops are a slightly different animal, because they refresh in order to take advantage of new and faster Nvidia graphics chips.
Bottom Line: Don't delay your purchase to wait for your favorite PC
Older Models Don't Often Get Cheaper
You would expect to see great prices on the old models after a refresh, but more often than not, the original manufacturer discontinues these versions without offering a discount. You can always find a third-party retailer selling last year's model, but it might actually cost more than the current unit does.
For example, a configuration of the MSI GT72 Dominator Pro gaming laptop came out in October 2014 with a price of $2,300, but by August 2015 it was down to $1,899. After newer versions with faster CPUs had replaced it, the old model jumped up as high as $3,319 and then settled at around $2,649, while the new model costs just $2,199.
There are a few noteworthy exceptions, which usually occur when the vendor keeps producing the old model at a lower price. For example, Microsoft cut the Surface Pro 3's price by $100 after releasing the slightly better Surface Pro 4.
How to Know if You're Getting a Good Deal
Whenever you find a laptop sale — in December, August or April — it can be hard to tell whether you're actually getting a great price or just a slight discount off the MSRP, unless you know what the product normally sells for. There are a couple of ways to tell:
- Use a price-history tool: A couple of sites track price changes over time so you can see if today's price is really the lowest it has ever been at one particular retailer. Camelcamelcamel.com (and its Chrome extension) will show a price-history graph for most products on Amazon, while the Hover Hound Chrome extension does the same for Newegg.
However, we haven't found a service that tracks the price history from other key services, such as Dell.com, Lenovo.com or Microsoft Store, all of which offer great prices. We're also yet to find a tracker that shows the price of the same product across multiple retailers. So Amazon.com's lowest price ever may still be higher than someone else's.
- Visit deal aggregators: Deal news sites keep an eye on pricing and call attention to the best deals in their posts. We maintain an up-to-date list of deals at Laptopmag.com, and you can also check out sites such as techbargains.com and bensbargains.net.
To Wait or Not to Wait?
If you're planning to buy a MacBook, by all means, wait for the next refresh. If you're purchasing a PC, you may see some discounts in late summer and late fall, but don't expect dramatic improvements in the technology anytime soon.
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