When is the best time to buy a laptop?: One website’s recommendation, and why I’m not convinced

Disclaimer: Before someone mentions all this probably doesn’t apply to Macs, 1) yes it does, 2) why are you shopping for a Mac?

My current computer just entered its final month of warranty coverage, which means I expect it to last right through the end of the month and then crap out. In an ideal world, this event would coincide perfectly with the start of school at the end of August. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t intend to release Windows 8 long before early October.

What to do?

Fortunately, The Puget Sound Business Journal read my mind and published an article titled, Thinking about buying a laptop? Decide.com says do it now. Said Decide.com is built on the same technology that once powered Farecast (and now powers Bing travel), a website I use on a regular basis:

Instead of arranging for deals itself, Decide combs the internet searching for the best deal on a variety of products. Companies like Amazon frequently change the prices of their products depending on supply and demand algorithms, something Decide is trying to make more transparent for its customers.

I’ve used Decide.com before. Until recently, I was in the market for a new camera, and used it to help me choose the most opportune time to buy. After about 6 months of tracking, Decide helped me save… $100.

But where Decide is good at what it does – analyzing overall trends – it is less effective at dealing with new product releases and upgrades. Take the Nikon D3100. On the morning of April 19, an email landed in my inbox announcing the release of the camera’s replacement, the D3200:

I was a little curious about Decide’s reaction time, so I used it to search for the D3100. This is what it turned up (take note of Decide’s prediction for the ‘Next model’, toward the bottom of the screenshot):

If you don’t feel like examining a screenshot, here’s the takeaway: even after the D3200 had already been released, Decide still didn’t think it was coming for ‘at least six months’.

This is exactly why I’ll always be wary of Decide product recommendations in a way that I’m not of Bing’s travel recommendations. In each case, the company claims only a certain degree of confidence – for Decide, the number is 77% overall, and varies according to the specifics of your search – but where airplane tickets will basically always be airplane tickets, consumer products are upgraded on a regular basis, and it’s hard to predict what effect new releases will have on existing products.

Here’s when Decide suggested shopping for a computer:

Decide’s analysis found that the best time to buy laptops in general is right now, just before the back-to-school rush, the last two weeks of September and, less surprisingly, mid-December in the cut-price pre-Christmas push.

You’ll notice that early October – the projected Windows 8 release date – is not listed. And I think that’s a conspicuous oversight. When Windows 7 came out, I was able to grab a Vista machine for about $500 less than it had been going for just two weeks earlier (and legally upgraded it to Windows 7 for $30). Windows 8 – with its native support for multi-touch sensory input – holds even greater potential to make past computers quickly feel obsolete.

Something to think about.

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