When to Buy a Laptop

Holiday and year-end sales can be extremely seductive. As of mid December, HP was offering $100 to $200 off its consumer laptops. Dell had cut up to $314 off its Inspiron models. And Circuit City was offering the Acer Aspire 4315-2490 for just $400.

But is this truly the best time to buy a laptop? Maybe, maybe not. Read on.

This Is as Good a Time as Any

Yes, the big-box stores and e-retailers do offer choice discounts this time of year. And if you need a fast, big tax deduction before 2007 is over, this is a good time to buy.

But the fact is, you can find laptop deals anytime. I can't recall a visit in recent years to the e-commerce sites for HP, Dell, and other laptop makers in which absolutely no laptops had been discounted.

The back-to-school period is another time you'll find attractive laptop sales. According to Men's Health's Tech Guide 2008, laptop prices are lowest on average in July, August, and September.

Follow the Laptop Maker's Release Patterns

Another good time to find deals is when a laptop model is about to be, or has just been, replaced by a newer model. When this happens, stores and e-tailers want to get rid of existing inventory to make room for updated models. It's the same principle that savvy shoppers use when buying cars: Shop in late summer, when dealers are making room for the new models arriving in autumn.

But how can you know when a new or updated model is expected--particularly from notoriously tight-lipped vendors such as Apple, who rarely announce products before they're available?

Many laptop makers introduce new models with at least some regularity. If you study the press releases in the computer maker's media archive, you may notice patterns. (A company's press releases are available to anyone online. You can often find them by clicking the About Us link on a company's home page, followed by Newsroom or Media Center, and so forth.)

For example, I noticed some patterns for Apple and Dell when studying their press release archives.

Apple: Apple tends to update its MacBook Pro laptops every eight to nine months. The first model, with a 15-inch screen, was introduced on January 10, 2006. Nine months later, on October 24, Apple announced new revised MacBook Pro models with faster processors. The line was refreshed again on June 5, 2007--eight months later.

If past activity is any indication, it's likely that Apple will revamp the MacBook Pro lineup in February or March 2008. That means if you're planning to buy a MacBook Pro, you might want to hold off until then--either to look for deals on discontinued models or to see if you'd rather have one of the new releases. Keep in mind that Apple hosts its big Macworld confab--in which it introduces new or revamped products--every January. (The 2008 conference/expo is from January 14 to 18.) New MacBook Pros may be announced at the show.

One rumor making the rounds is that Apple plans to unveil a 13-inch touch-screen laptop.

In the MacBook's short life thus far, Apple has updated the consumer laptop about every six months. The MacBook line debuted on May 16, 2006. It was updated nearly six months later on November 8, and again on May 15, 2007. As of this writing, it's been seven months since Apple's last MacBook update. This could imply that the MacBook line is overdue for a refresh, meaning you may want to hold off a purchase for the time being.

Apple's press releases don't tell the whole story, however. For example, sometime after May 15, 2007, the company bumped the top Intel processor in its MacBook line from 2.16 GHz to the 2.2 GHz currently offered. There's no mention of this upgrade--a minor one, admittedly--in any press releases I saw on Apple's site.

Dell: With far more laptop models than Apple, Dell's product introduction patterns are harder to discern. Looking through its 2005 to 2007 press releases, however, I noticed that Dell tends to introduce the bulk of its new laptops in the first half of the year.

For example, in 2005, I counted nine new laptops introduced between January 1 and June 30 and only one afterwards. In 2006, Dell introduced six new laptops before June 30 and only one after that. In 2007, the company unveiled several more models. But the bulk (12) came before the half-year mark, with the rest (7) after.

Also, I noticed most new Latitude business laptops tend to be announced during the first quarter.

What Does It All Mean?

Admittedly, reviewing a laptop maker's product introduction history provides only anecdotal information at best. And the best time to buy a laptop is when (a) your current laptop is simply too slow, inefficient, or is broken; (b) you have the money (or at least a sizable chunk of it); and (c) you know what you want.

As anyone who's bought a computer knows all too well, there's always something newer, faster, and cheaper on the horizon. If you're going to buy a computer, there's no way to avoid that kind of buyer's remorse.

But you may be able to time the market with a little homework. Before buying a specific laptop, try to determine when it was first announced or shipped. If it was more than, say, six months ago, you might want to hold off. Chances are, its successor is already waiting in the wings, and you may get a good deal on the laptop it will replace.

Further Exploration

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

Holiday Gift Advice: Still struggling to find the perfect gift? Use PC World Shopping to browse for holiday deals. And take a look at the products you should steer clear of as holiday gifts: "What Not to Give for the Holidays, Part I" and "Part II."

Five Things We Don't Miss: Remember the Osborne-1, the first portable, self-contained PC? It weighed a mere 24 pounds--and in its day, it was considered a mobile breakthrough. If you're getting all misty-eyed about the days of tech past, take a spin through "Five Things We Don't Miss About Old-School Computing."

Wi-Fi in the Sky: JetBlue recently announced it was partnering with Research in Motion and Yahoo to offer free e-mail and instant messaging on its flights. Find out what the latest Wi-Fi offerings are from American, Alaska Airlines, and Virgin America, too.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon