Like many tech companies, Apple is known for sticking to some fairly rigid release schedules. We get new versions of iOS once a year, with OS X following shortly after — and most hardware sees yearly refreshes too.
With this in mind, many people who sip from the brushed aluminium cup believe there are good and bad times to spend their money. In some ways, they’re right.
There’s Always a Right Time
Release schedules and “bang for your buck” logic aside, the right time to buy any tech product is when you genuinely need one. If the Mac you rely on suddenly dies, are you really going to worry about release schedules and soldier on, computer-less, for six months before the next hardware refresh arrives?
If your productivity or ability to get stuff done is suffering on account of your unwillingness to upgrade because a company that’s notoriously secretive about upcoming products has yet to announce the next generation, you might be doing it wrong. The next big thing doesn’t render the current big thing utterly useless.
Of course, things get a little more flexible when it comes to iPhones, iPads, and Apple’s other gadgets like iPods. Most of us have an old phone in a drawer which can serve us perfectly well in a pinch — I have an iPhone 5 which requires a bit of a jiggle in order to charge properly, but it still works like a champ and even runs the latest version of iOS.
If you drop your iPad in the bath (really, what were you thinking?) then you may have to come to the realization that most of us don’t need a tablet in our lives. In all but a few cases, the iPad represents “want” over “need” as a non-essential entertainment device for browsing Facebook on the sofa. Unless you use your iPad as a work or study tool instead of a laptop, you can probably survive without one for a few months if you already have a decent smartphone.
But Why Wait?
When Apple releases a new iPhone, it usually enters the market at the same price as the last iPhone. You may have to wait a short while, but your money will ultimately buy you a faster device, with new features that weren’t available a few months earlier.
This means that $650 spent on an iPhone in August would yield an inferior product to $650 spent on an iPhone in late September or early October. You could apply the same logic to many Apple (and rival) products, which maintain rigid premium price-points, while their predecessors see a price reduction once the new models arrive.
This might not matter a whole lot to you if you don’t care about the fastest hardware and latest features. It’s important to recognise that a new product doesn’t somehow make an existing one worse or less functional.
The Buyer’s Guide Method
One of the best resources when deciding to buy your next piece of Apple hardware is the MacRumors Buyer’s Guide. This provides you with a traffic light system that uses the average time between refreshes, and the time since the last refresh to deliver a verdict on whether or not now is a good time to buy.
The buyer’s guide is at its most reliable when it comes to iOS devices, for which consumers expect a yearly refresh. But for other Apple products, it can be a little more hit and miss. As an example, at the time of writing MacRumors recommends users avoid buying a Mac Pro, as the time between refreshes is on average 449 days.
The guide warns users against buying when the average refresh period is up, and by that logic users have been warned against buying a Mac Pro for well over a year now (it’s been over 800 days since a refresh).
While it’s true the Mac Pro may indeed be due for a refresh, you could be waiting a very long time to take the plunge if you treat this guide like the gospel. This is just a side-effect of making your buying decisions by the numbers, rather than analysing whether you really need to make the purchase and coming to a decision based on personal circumstance.
You’ll also find rumors listed for each product, which should probably factor into your decision. Ultimately though, nobody can know exactly what Apple is planning.
Hardware goes through cycles, products shift in terms of popularity, Apple has a tendency to let some things stagnate — particularly if it’s not the latest in consumer gadgetry. The guide is arguably at its most useful when it tells you to go ahead and buy something, which would indicate a fairly recent update has taken place.
Buying a New Mac
Apple’s computers generally see mid-year updates to the most popular lines. If you’re thinking of buying a MacBook or iMac, April to October is your window. Whether or not you should wait largely depends on what you’re buying it for. The most often-updated lines are the most popular ones — and those are mostly bought by casual users.
The MacBook and MacBook Air range generally see iterative, gradual updates. As an example, the new MacBook line was updated in April 2016, but the changes are nothing to write home about: improved CPU and GPU, with around 20% increases in speed on last year’s model; a faster SSD; the same amount but speedier RAM; and marginally improved battery life.
In this instance, one good reason to wait for a refresh would be to save some money. While the price of the new MacBook has held strong at $1,299, you can get last year’s model (which was selling for the same price) for $929 on Apple’s refurbished store. While Apple’s refurbished program already offers a way to save some money on a new Mac, hardware refreshes further push the prices down. If you’d like to minimize the “Apple Tax”, then you’d be wise to pay attention to the new releases for this reason.
Form factors aside, the Mac doesn’t regularly see major changes or new technologies. Over the last few years, the introduction of the Retina display and Force Touch trackpads (3D Touch for the Mac) have been the only major changes to grace the MacBook range. The MacBook Air has been going since 2008 and, guts aside, remains largely unchanged.
When you’re buying a new Mac, hardware should be at the forefront of your decision, and this is mostly driven by what the hardware manufacturers are doing. If you really want to know whether or not waiting is worth it for you, check out what Intel and AMD are working on, as well as roll-out schedules to see if you can wait that long.
Buying a New iPhone
Predicting a new iPhone is far easier than any other Apple product. Not only is it Apple’s best-seller, consumers have become accustomed to yearly release cycles for flagship devices from all smartphone manufacturers. New iPhones are usually announced at the end of September, before being in the hands of impatient consumers by early October.
For those in the US who must have the latest and greatest device, Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program guarantees the latest flagship device every year for around $33 per month (based on a 16GB iPhone 6s). You’ll get AppleCare+ with that deal, which means you’re covered for two instances of accidental damage.
At current prices, that works out to around $390 per year for the base model; whereas, buying the phone yourself would cost $649 (minus AppleCare+). Of course, if you buy an iPhone outright you can sell it and upgrade to the next model — and the “Apple Tax” doesn’t just apply to Macs in terms of secondhand value.
Buying a New iPad
When it comes to Apple’s tablet, things are a little harder to predict. The iPad Air 2 was released in October 2014, and though many expected a new entry-level tablet in late 2015 or early 2016, Apple instead released two models of iPad Pro.
This has lead to much speculation over whether or not the iPad Air 2 is the last tablet to carry the “Air” moniker, particularly over at MacRumors where the 9.7″ iPad Pro is already being hailed as its successor. Personally I’m not so sure — I think there’s still room in Apple’s lineup for an entry-level tablet.
Really, Apple’s tablet game is all over the place, but that’s not a huge issue. The RAM boost seen with the last iPad Air update and the already-speedy A8X means it’s already as capable as the latest iPad Pro models in terms of a fluid OS experience and multi-tasking performance.
If you can’t live without your iPhone or iPad, then both of these devices can be enrolled in Apple’s AppleCare+ after-market extended warranty program. Most of the time we’d tell you to avoid extended warranties like the plague, but AppleCare is a bit different. It affords you two instances of accidental damage, with a premium of around $50 for each repair. Whether you drop your phone in the toilet or smash the screen by falling over, Apple will repair or replace it like-for-like.
The same accidental damage cover doesn’t apply to Mac computers covered by AppleCare, so you’ll need to be a little more careful and consider adding accidental damage cover for your regular contents insurance if you’re particularly accident-prone.
So the best answer to whether or not there’s a “right time” to buy new Apple gear is: can you afford to wait?
Do you play the Apple release schedule game? Maybe you prefer to wait for refurbished models and pick up last year’s big thing? Add your comments below.