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 all of its MacBooks, including the 12-inch MacBook, MacBook Pro 13-inch, a MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar, MacBook Pro 15-inch (also with Touch Bar) and MacBook Air in June 2017. Except for the Air, all of the MacBooks are now running on Intel's current-generation "Kaby Lake" processors.
Though anything is possible, we don't expect to see any MacBooks with Intel 8th Generation "Kaby Lake Refresh" processors until Spring 2018. However, you may see some discounts and sales during the holiday season, particularly around Black Friday.
Bottom Line: Buy now, unless you can wait a long time for a sale that may never come.
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 announced its new 8th Generation "Kaby Lake Refresh" chips in August 2017, with manufacturers planning to roll out new laptops based on the chips starting in September. However, only the Core i5 and Core i7 U series chips, which appear in mainstream consumer laptops that usually cost over $500, will roll out this fall. Any laptop that currently uses a more powerful, Intel H Series CPU or a low-power Intel Y Series CPU will not be getting an 8th Generation Core refresh for many months, probably not until at least January 2018. Budget laptops that use Intel Celeron, Pentium or Core i3 processors also won't be refreshed for a long time.
The 8th Gen Core refresh is more significant than most prior CPU updates, because the mainstream U series will get upgraded from two to four CPU cores, which promises much better multitasking. Intel boasts that some users will see performance increases as high as 40 percent when compared to 7th Generation "Kaby Lake" chips. So, if you want to buy a mainstream consumer laptop, you might want to wait for one with an Intel 8th Gen Core Series chip inside.
When shopping for a new system, you can tell that a laptop's processor is 8th Gen Core if the first digit of its four-digit model number is an 8 (ex: Core i5-8250U). Most CPUs today are still Intel 7th Generation "Kaby Lake" chips that use a 7 at the beginning of the model number (ex: Core i5-7200U).
For many years, AMD's laptop processors were nothing to write home about as they appeared on a handful of low-performance, low-budget systems. However, in fall 2017, the company is launching its powerful new Ryzen platform for laptops. We expect to see Ryzen primarily on gaming systems, however.
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 significant on their own However, manufacturers often use a 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: If you're buying a consumer (not business or gaming) laptop and spending over $500, wait for 8th Generation Core chips. If not, don't wait.
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 costeds 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 during back-to-school buying season in June, July and August. However, there's no guarantee that the product you want will be cheaper during that time period.
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 2018 and those who want a business or gaming laptop probably won't see models with new Intel CPUs until then either. Gamers may see some performance gains from AMD Ryzen-powered notebooks at the end of 2017.
If you're buying a PC laptop that's not for gaming or use as a workstation, you should probably wait for models with Intel 8th Gen Core CPUs to hit the market in September and October 2017.
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