Should you buy that new laptop, or wait?

Perhaps you're in the market for a new laptop. Maybe your current one doesn't run demanding modern applications too well. It could be that screen is sort of poor, or it's too heavy, or the battery doesn't hold a charge like it used to. You've been eyeing those new laptops at the local big box store and you're ready to upgrade. Not so fast!

It seems like it's never a good time to make a major technology purchase. You spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest, and something even better or cheaper (or worse, both) hits the market just a month later. It just so happens that there are a handful of major inflection points this year that make it easier to determine the best time to buy a laptop and avoid the "instantly obsolete" syndrome. If you think you want a new laptop this year, this quick guide can help you decide when you break out your credit card.

If you want a Mac

Until Apple makes an official announcement, you never know exactly when new Macs will hit the market. That said, if you can hold off on your new Mac purchase until June, you should. Here's why:

Intel's new Ivy Bridge processors just hit the market—for desktops and high-power laptops that use the more power-hungry quad-core variants of the chips. The dual-core versions that suck up a bit less juice should hit the market in June. Apple is due for a refresh of the MacBook line, and is probably just waiting on these lower-power variants to become broadly available.

Beyond Ivy Bridge, nobody really knows what the new MacBooks will bring. It's likely the MacBook Air line will remain largely unchanged beyond the processor upgrade, though Apple-watchers suggest that there might be a new 15-inch MacBook Air in the offing. (It's also an open question whether the 13-inch MacBook Pro will remain in the product line or be subsumed by the Air. Some people speculate the 15-inch MacBook Pro might also be headed out the door, though that seems a bit less likely to us.)

Apple's embracing of high-resolution displays on the iPhone and iPad also make you wonder if the company might release laptops with "Retina" displays. That seems likely in the long run, but this year might be a bit too soon. Apple's OS X Mountain Lion operating-system update is also on the horizon, and it's an open question if Apple will delay new laptops until Mountain Lion is ready to go, or if it might ship them out beforehand.

But with Apple laptops, the key issue is the arrival of Intel's Ivy Bridge processors. We anticipate Apple will update its entire MacBook line to support them; you're probably best off waiting until this happens unless you need a new laptop right this second.

If you want a high-end Windows laptop

You don't really need hours and hours of battery life, nor do you need to worry about a few extra pounds of heft. You're looking for a high-power laptop with a discrete graphics card that can play the latest games and zip through video editing jobs. You need a nice large 17" display with 1920 x 1080 resolution. It's the kind of thing you plan to lug from place to place and plug in, not necessary carry around with you all day.

The good news is, the new models of these laptops are starting to roll out now. The Ivy Bridge chips for this class of laptop are on the market, and so are the new GeForce 600 series and Radeon HD 7000 series mobile graphics chips. All the things you need for a powerhouse computer are hitting the market right now.

It will probably take a few more weeks for all the major manufacturers to release their new high-end laptops, but you won't have to wait long. When you see the one you think is just right, go ahead and jump on it.

If you want a thin-and-light Windows laptop

Okay, so you're not a gamer or video editor or high-end digital artist. You don't need a ton of processor power, massive storage space, a huge display, and blazing fast graphics. What you need is a sleek, lightweight laptop that looks and feels great, is fast and responsive enough to handle everyday stuff like web browsing, playing music, watching YouTube, writing, editing spreadsheets, updating your blog, and so on.

As I mentioned in the Mac section above, the Ivy Bridge chips that consume less power and generate less heat—perfect for thin and light laptops—are due to hit the market in June. You'll see a flood of thin laptops and Ultrabooks throughout June and July. Many of these are totally new designs, not just existing laptops with the processor swapped out for the Ivy Bridge model.

In other words, if you're looking for something thin and light with long battery life, don't buy anything until around the end of June or even mid July, when nearly every major manufacturer will have their whole new lineup available.

What about Windows 8?

By late July, all the really big updates for the year will be done, right? The whole lineup of Ivy Bridge CPUs will be available, the latest mobile graphics will be on the market, and even AMD's new processors should be available in quite a few new laptops. There's no point in waiting any longer, is there?

Well, maybe that isn't quite the case. If you want a Windows laptop and can hang on a few months longer, there is still one major change planned for the PC market this year: Windows 8.

Love it or hate it, Windows 8 will bring about a major change in the PC ecosystem. The emphasis on touch and a whole new app ecosystem will mean more than just Windows 8 tablets; you'll see lots of laptops and all-in-one desktops with touchscreens, too. Even if a touchscreen doesn't interest you, a new Windows release is a big event that comes along only once every few years. PC manufacturers expect a big jump in sales, and they queue up some really agressive new designs to coincide with the launch of the operating system.

In other words, if you don't need a laptop real soon, you might just want to wait until Windows 8 hits the market, likely in October or November. Every major PC manufacturer is expect to make major updates to its lineup to coincide with the launch, and the competition for new customers may mean aggressive pricing.

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