Should You Buy Now or Wait? Notebooks, Smart Phones, and Tablets

"Should I wait or buy now?" I get asked this question constantly, because everyone wants to know whether there's some better, faster, or cheaper gadget coming around the bend that will make the device they covet today seem dated.

Nobody ever asks for this type of advice about other life decisions. My wife doesn't call me from Wal-Mart to ask "should I buy these green towels for the bathroom or wait to see if Martha Stewart comes out with more absorbent ones next year?" My tweener niece doesn't wonder whether she should purchase Justin Bieber's My World 2.0 or wait to get his next album either. But when it comes to technology everyone has a theory about how the future could be better than the present, from my friend who's holding out for the long-rumored Verizon iPhone to the other who wants to see what Motorola has up its sleeve in 2011.

When people ask me whether they should buy a new notebook, smart phone, or tablet, I always ask them a simple question in response: "When do you need it?" If you need a new computer today, because your current one is broken--or so slow it might as well be--you really don't have time to wait. But what if your need isn't that urgent? Is now the time to buy, particularly in light of the huge holiday sales available? Let's break this down by product type.

Notebooks: Buy Now or Wait?

There are some really fantastic deals right now on notebooks of all sizes and capabilities. You can get a tiny 10-inch netbook for around $300, a low-end family system for under $500, and multimedia monsters with Blu-ray drives are selling in the $800 to $900 range. Even high-end business systems like the ThinkPad T410 and 12-inch X201 are on incredible sales. So why on earth would you want to delay your purchase to a time when the sales are over?

What to Expect from Notebooks in 2011:

  • Faster CPUs: Intel's next-gen processor, Sandy Bridge, is due in early 2011 and we know that AMD also has some new chips with lower power and higher performance coming. Both processors integrate graphics on a single chip for better visual performance. However, the current generation of 2010 Core CPUs from Intel is plenty fast enough for all but the most bleeding-edge users.
  • Chrome / MeeGo netbooks: If you're shopping for a netbook, there's really not much to look forward to in terms of hardware. In terms of software, we'll see a couple of systems ship in 2011 with alternative OSes like Google Chrome or Meego. If you're as big a geek as I am, you may want to buy one of these alternative netbooks for the fun of it, but for all practical purposes, today's Windows 7 netbooks get the job done.
  • USB 3.0: USB 3.0 is here today, but only a few notebooks have the ports built-in with a lot more expected in 2010. Much as I love USB 3.0, I wouldn't hold off a notebook purchase on that basis. That said, if you have the option to configure your notebook with USB 3.0 today, don't hesitate!
  • Light Peak: Intel's high-speed, high-end connection is rumored to appear in the next generation of Apple MacBooks, among other laptops. It should be helpful to a very limited audience of A/V professionals and high-end media geeks at first.
  • Solid State Drives: As prices on NAND Flash continue to drop and more notebook vendors seek to emulate the MacBook Air's fast-booting prowess, I expect to see a wider selection of notebooks coming with SSDs. If SSDs really go mainstream in 2011, it will be a big deal, because there's no performance benefit quite as great as moving from a mechanical hard drive to a solid state solution. That said, you can simply purchase an aftermarket SSD and upgrade your notebook. In fact, I recommend you do that right now.

As you can see, none of these technologies are compelling enough to delay your notebook purchase. If you are thinking about buying a new notebook, this is a very good time to buy; you won't be sorry a couple of months from now when new models come out.

Smart Phones: Buy Now or Wait?

The smart phone space  is changing much more rapidly than the notebook market. Where 12 months ago, there was only one worthwhile Android phone, now there are a half a dozen super phones with Android, a better iPhone, 4G service, and Windows Phone 7 too.  Should you wait a few months to buy a new phone? There are some compelling things on the horizon for sure.

What to Expect from Smart Phones in 2011:

  • Verizon iPhone: This has been rumored for so long that I'm really sick of talking about it. My prediction is that the Verizon iPhone won't appear until June (though it could be announced sooner), which would be in sync with Apple's typical update schedule. Obviously, if you've always wanted an iPhone and hate AT&T's network, this is what you've been waiting for. However, if you want Verizon or Sprint as your network, there are plenty of compelling Android phones available now
  • Higher-res, Faster Android Phones: Right now, the highrest-res Andriod handset in North America has only an 854 x 480 screen, which isn't as sharp as the iPhone's retina display. However, I expect that to change very quickly. Sharp already has a phone with a 960 x 640 screen in Japan and Acer showed off a handset with a 1024 x 480 screen at its press event last week.
  • Dual core CPUs: Processors with two cores should also roll out in a big way, making smart phones even faster. Nvidia's Tegra 2 chip, for example, is expected to power Android devices from LG and Motorola. With this kind of muscle, smart phones will be able to multitask much better.
  • NFC chips: Near-field communications technology can help smart phones do a lot more, including making mobile payments, and looking up information on a place by just tapping your phone on an NFC-enabled sign.
  • LTE Phones: Just this week, Verizon began the roll-out of its 4G network, based on LTE technology. In our preliminary testing we were blown away by the 10 Mbps download speeds we're seeing; that's almost as good as our home cable connection. Handsets with LTE won't be available for a few more months, but with speeds like that, they might be worth waiting for.
  • New webOS Phones: Besides getting acquired by HP, Palm didn't do much in 2010. Expect that to change in 2011 as more and better webOS phones become available. webOS 2.0 takes multistasking to the next level with features like Stacks, but it will take some beefy hardware to win over the iPhone and Android crowd.
  • Windows Phone 7 Matures: Windows Phone 7 just came out a few weeks ago and, right now, you can't multitask, and it's not even available on Verizon or Sprint. This platform has a lot of backers behind it and so I expect it to become much more prominent and powerful in the year ahead.

So should you wait to buy a smart phone? If you already have a smart phone you like, by all means wait a few more months to see what dual-core phones can do. And if you're on Verizon and don't mind holding onto your handset  a litltle longer, I'd suggest waiting for smart phones that can tap into the carrier's 4G LTE network. However, if you're a Sprint customer or don't mind becoming one, you can get some really great devices today in the Samsung Epic 4G and HTC Evo 4G. Both have 4G speeds and front-facing cameras. T-Mobile's two HSPA+ phones, the G2 and myTouch 4G, are also pretty sweet.

Tablets: Buy Now or Wait?

Last week, CNET's Donald Bell wrote an excellent article about this topic, in which he argued that there's no need to wait for a tablet. I totally disagree. Actually, unless you're just dying inside and can't hold out any longer, you should wait a few months before you buy a tablet. For one thing, chances are that you don't actually "need" a tablet to do your work or function day-to-day. Though the iPad, Galaxy Tab, and other slates allow you to perform productivity tasks, they're really made for content consumption, not creation. With so much expected to change in the next few months, you might want to wait this holiday season out.

What to Expect from Tablets in 2011:

  • Tablets Get Much Cheaper: Although Augen and CherryPal made sub-$200 tablets that were poor in 2010, it shouldn't be long before someone makes a good sub-$300 tablet. Even now, you can get the 7-inch Nook Color, which runs Android 2.1, for just $249 (although that's more of a reading tablet).
  • New iPad: A new iPad should arrive as soon as this spring. Nobody knows for sure what features it will have, but you can be sure it will have a front-facing camera and support FaceTime chat. I also predict it will have a higher resolution screen than 1024 x 768 and it will be available (eventually) with 4G service of some kind, perhaps even LTE.
  • Android 3.0 "Honeycomb" OS: A lot of tablet makers are biding their time, waiting for Google to release Android 3.0 (aka "Honeycomb"). As soon as Honeycomb ships in March or April, you can expect the likes of Acer, Lenovo, and others to enter the tablet game in a huge way. The new version of Android will be tablet-friendly and take advantage of larger screens. The Android Market will also likely support "HD" apps designed for slates.
  • webOS Tablet: We all know that HP plans to come out with a webOS-based tablet, which will likely be called the PalmPad. HP has a lot riding on this device, so it will need to prove that webOS can scale well to larger displays and that it can deliver not only apps but premium content (like movies, music, and TV shows) in a seamless way.
  • BlackBerry Playbook: BlackBerry's new tablet, with its new OS, should offer a compelling option for business users. This 7-inch device will feature a dual-core processor, dual cameras, and integrate well with BlackBerry Enterprise Server.
  • Windows Tablets Step Up: We expect Microsoft to do something about the general touch-unfriendliness of the Windows 7 UI in 2011. If Microsoft doesn't offer a solution itself, vendors like ExoPC will continue to innovate by putting interesting UI layers on top. Perhaps the biggest step forward for Windows tablets will occur when Intel ships its low-powered Oak Trail CPUs, which will allow devices to last quite a bit longer on a charge.

So should you wait to buy a tablet? I think so.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.