When Should You Buy a New Laptop?

Artwork: Chip Taylor
We've all been there, or known someone who has: you finally replace that aging, annoying old laptop with something shiny and new, only to see a remarkably better laptop go on sale just a month or two later. Nobody likes to make a big purchase only to find they're stuck with last year's model. That credit card bill is all the harder to swallow when you're still paying for a laptop that's not even on sale anymore. How can you know when it's the right time to buy a new laptop, or if you really even need a new laptop at all?

Do You Really Need a New Laptop?

First, consider whether or not that sleek bundle of metal and silicon you're eyeing is even something you need. Sure, the new models are shiny and pretty and hold great promises of improved power and additional features your current laptop doesn't have. But consider this: as time goes on, the same money gets you more laptop, or the same power and features gets cheaper. The longer you hold on to the laptop you have, the more bang you'll get for your buck when you finally upgrade.

Consider what you do with your current laptop, and what you'd like to do. If your current model still works properly, runs all the apps you want to run well enough, and accesses all the services you want without problems, you might as well stick with it. The right time to get a new system is when you notice your needs have changed and your current laptop no longer meets those needs. Maybe you bought a heavier laptop because you rarely travel, but find yourself in a new job or position that requires lots of travel. Now, your laptop's weight and limited battery life are a constant source of frustration. Perhaps the games you played two years ago ran fine on your laptop, but modern games don't, and gaming is a big part of your laptop use. Maybe web services have evolved beyond your laptop's capabilities, and hi-def YouTube clips (for instance) stutter and chop, forcing you to view the lower-resolution version.

Obviously, if your laptop no longer works properly, is beyond warranty, and it will cost more to repair than it's really worth, you're better off buying something new. If that's the case, or if you find your needs have outgrown your current laptop, it's time to start shopping.

Timing Your Purchase

There are scores of considerations in buying a new laptop. Depending on your needs, you'll want to look at size, weight, battery life, performance (CPU, graphics, RAM, drive speed), storage options, and more. That's beyond the scope of this article - let's assume you have some idea of what you want. (If you don't, start with our Laptops Buying Guide.)

You don't want to buy something only to have a better or cheaper model hit the market a few weeks later. At the same time, you can't wait forever. At some point you have to warm up your credit card and pull the trigger on a new laptop purchase. When is the right time?

If you're eyeing Apple's products, the timing is relatively simple. Apple doesn't shift prices all that often, so your biggest concern is to avoid buying a new MacBook just before the next major revision hits the market. Apple tends to update its laptop line twice a year: generally there's a significant change to the line-up in the spring (in the March to May timeframe) and some minor updates in the fall (October or November). The exact timing varies, but if you read the Apple-focused rumor sites and blogs, and visit our friends at MacWorld regularly, you'll get a sense of when the new models are coming.

Laptops on the Windows side come from a wide variety of vendors, and the timing is all over the map. When Intel released new processors (such as the "Sandy Bridge" 2nd Generation Core processors just released), you can count on updates to existing product lines from most major PC vendors. Other hot times for updates to laptop lines is in the late spring ("Dads and Grads") and mid-to-late summer ("Back to School"). You'll sometimes see a few new models leading into the holiday rush at the end of the year, but that time is more often consumed with special deals and discounts on existing models.

The biggest thing to remember is: Don't Panic (with apologies to Douglas Adams). No matter when you buy, you can be assured that something even better is going to come along before too long. Concentrate on the improvement of your new laptop over your old one and try not to get hung up on what you could have gotten if you had only waited another six months. If you waited to buy a new laptop until you really needed one, you didn't really miss out.

Don't Disregard the Previous Generation

Even when new laptop models hit the market, it might be worth considering the "old" models that were all the rage just a couple months prior. These are often sold at a deep discount to clear out inventory, possibly saving you hundreds of dollars. These may not have the glitz and glamour of the latest and greatest thing that just hit the market, but that hardly makes them obsolete. After all, these were perfectly great and current models just a couple months prior.

It's not like the fast-moving world of smartphones where new versions of the operating system may only be available on the latest phones, locking you old of exciting new features and software if you buy the older one. This is the world of Windows (or Mac OS, or Linux). The major software and capabilities are the same, and perhaps only run a little slower. If you can live with that, and if the just-retired model offers all the features you need, it's worth keeping them on your potential purchase list if the discounts are deep enough.

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