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 Dell XPS 13 in August and then watch as Dell unveils a much faster and more technically advanced model in September. 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 and released a new MacBook Pro 13-inch, a MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar and a MacBook Pro 15-inch (also with Touch Bar) in November 2016. The MacBook Air 13-inch hasn't been refreshed at all since March 2015, but the company appears to be phasing out the Air line and we don't expect a new model.
The new MacBook Pros probably won't see a refresh until at least fall 2017 and the MacBook 12-inch isn't likely to be updated until at least spring 2017. Whenever they launch, analysts expect the next MacBook Pros to have more RAM, Intel 7th Gen CPUs and a revamped design. Apple laptops rarely go on large sales so the price is unlikely to drop anytime soon.
Bottom Line: Buy now.
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 12-inch Apple MacBook (Core m5, 256GB SSD) started at $1,299 on Amazon in March 2016 but sank to $1,149 in August, before shooting back up to around $1,250, until November, when it went back down to $1,149 for a short time and then up again to $1,199.
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.
In 2015, Dell didn't offer significant discounts on the XPS 13, our favorite laptop overall, for either season. However, during the fall 2016 buying season, Dell refreshed the premium laptop with a new Intel 7th Generation Core Series CPU, a larger battery and a Killer Wi-Fi card, which together offer better performance, two hours longer battery life and stronger connectivity. The new models carry 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, Nvidia GPU 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 7th Generation "Kaby Lake" series of processors in September 2016, and most consumer laptops were refreshed during the fall. The chipmaker launched the enterprise-friendly and quad-core versions of Kaby Lake in January 2017, so gaming and business laptops with these processors are rolling out over the first few months of the year. Intel's next major architecture update, codenamed "Cannonlake," will not launch until at least the second half of 2017.
If the laptop you want is not yet available with Kaby Lake, we recommend waiting. For example, if you're thinking about a ThinkPad, hold out for the new versions that will ship in February, March or April and come with important new features such as Thunderbolt 3 ports and PCIe SSDs. You can tell that a laptop's CPU is Kaby Lake if the first digit of its four-digit model number is a 7 (ex: Core i5-7200U).
In the world of gaming laptops, graphics chip updates are even more important than CPU refreshes. In August 2016, Nvidia released its new "Pascal" GPUs, which carry model numbers beginning with 10 (ex: GTX 1060, GTX 1070). Gaming laptop vendors such as Alienware, Asus and MSI immediately began refreshes of all of their models to incorporate Pascal, which offers significantly faster performance and VR-readiness than the previous generation of Nvidia 900 series (GTX 960, 970 and 980) chips.
The evolutionary improvements in performance and battery life between two generations of Intel processor — 6th Gen to 7th Gen, for example — may not be worth waiting for on their own. However, the manufacturers often use the CPU or GPU refresh as an excuse to make a laptop lighter or add new features like a higher-res screen, a faster SSD or new ports. The Thunderbolt ports on Lenovo's 2017 ThinkPads, for example, allow you to connect to charge the laptop, power dual monitors and connect to high-speed peripherals over a single cable.
Many times, a chip refresh also leads to the release of completely new products, such as the super-slim Asus ZenBook 3, which launched with Kaby Lake. Other times, it leads to major design changes to existing models as we saw on the Pascal update to the Alienware 13. You might not tell from looking at it, but the ThinkPad T470, which has Kaby Lake, is 0.25 pounds lighter than the prior-gen T460.
Bottom Line: Wait for a Kaby Lake version if the PC laptop you want doesn't already have it.
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?
When deciding whether to buy now or wait, you have to consider both price and obsolescence. From a price perspective, you are likely to see more and better deals as we head toward the back-to-school buying season in June. However, there's no guarantee that the product you want will be cheaper during that time period than it is today and you'll be waiting a long time to find out.
If you're worried about your new laptop becoming obsolete soon after you buy it, the answer depends on the brand and type you choose. Apple fans who are considering a MacBook Pro, shouldn't expect any major changes until fall of 2017, but those who want the 12-inch MacBook may want to wait until later this spring when the company is expected to announce a refresh.
If you're purchasing a consumer Windows laptop, don't expect any groundbreaking changes until at least fall 2017 when Intel's 8th generation "Canon Lake" platform comes out. Those who want a business laptop should wait a few weeks for the models with Intel 7th Generation processors to launch. Gamers can buy their portable rigs now as long as they make sure they get ones with both 7th Gen CPUs and Nvidia Pascal GPUs.
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