Every time Apple Computer announces a new product, our readers ask the same question: “should I buy now, or wait?” After Apple’s most recent It’s Showtime event, the most common topic is, “should I buy the 80GB fifth-generation iPod, or wait for a widescreen iPod?” – similar questions always come up over new Mac notebook and desktop machines, too.
After years of watching Apple Computer and buying dozens of Macs and iPods, iLounge’s editors have a reliable answer to this question that comes in two versions: with and without an explanation. Since the explanation is important – itself a “ten-step guide to happy purchases of new Apple products,” we’re publishing the whole thing, with the shorter, simpler answer as a conclusion at the bottom.
- Expect Constant Improvements. Apple is one of the world’s most innovative computer and consumer electronics companies, and tries to keep its products at or ahead of each industry’s trends. In the computer industry, this most often means frequently updating internal components, while in the consumer electronics (read: iPod) industry, this more frequently requires both external and internal changes.
- With Macs, Expect Frequent Major Component Updates. If Apple has recently released a computer with a “brand new” external case, like the mid-2006 MacBook, it would be unusual for the company to entirely replace the case before two years have passed, but internal major component changes (CPU, memory, graphics chips, hard disk, wireless features) can come every four to six months to keep up with industry trends. These changes are most commonly seen as price reductions or feature bumps, where one cycle’s top model becomes next cycle’s middle model, with value improvements varying from $100 (low-end models) to $500 (Pro models) per change. Most recently, Apple has started to frequently replace entire CPU lines – G5 with Core Duo chips, then Core Duo with Core 2 Duo chips – as part of its cycles, but this won’t continue forever.
- With iPods, Expect Frequent Storage and Enclosure Changes. Apple has recently changed the casings of each of its iPod models on a nearly annual basis, but sometimes, it can take longer. If Apple has recently released an iPod with a “brand new” external enclosure, like the September, 2006 iPod nano, it would be unusual for the company to entirely replace the case before 11-12 months have passed, but internal changes (generally storage capacity) can come every four to six months – most likely six, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, depending on industry trends. These changes are most commonly seen as price reductions or storage bumps, varying from $30 to $100 in value.
- With All Apple Products, Expect Some Quiet Changes. During any price reduction or major feature/storage bump, Apple frequently changes other components inside its Mac or iPod hardware, sometimes quietly, sometimes not. Generally, these component changes are designed to make the products look a little better, which Apple may or may not publicize (brighter LCD screens in Cinema Displays, iMacs or iPods), or exhibit fewer failures/problems, which Apple will almost never publicize (MacBook/MacBook Pro logic boards), or will play down (replacement of entire iPod nano case with more resilient aluminum). Occasionally, a change will be designed to decrease manufacturing costs, and actually result in slightly degraded quality (replacement of iPod 3G/4G screens or nano 1GB screens with less bright versions), which Apple will never disclose. The ratio of “good” changes to “bad” changes is typically skewed heavily in favor of the good ones.
- Don’t Expect More Than Five Major Options. Apple tends not to expand its major product lines past five discrete options at a time, and generally discontinues one product to make room for a new one. Today, the Mac lineup has the Mac mini, iMac, Mac Pro, MacBook, and MacBook Pro. The iPod lineup has the iPod shuffle, iPod nano, iPod, and the U2 iPod. Each product within the lineup typically comes in 2 or 3 primary versions – identified in Macs by screen size or processor speed, iPods by storage capacity – but sometimes comes in only one.
- Expect Staggered Launches. Very rarely will Apple update its entire lineup (Mac or iPod) at once – the September 2006 “It’s Showtime” event was one such rare, but partial exception to this rule. Most often the company will stagger new product launches at different times throughout the year, making it possible that a new model could arrive at any time, on short notice. This isn’t done to confuse consumers – it’s done to keep competitors on their toes- but it does both.
- Discount Rumors and Speculation, Particularly on Timing. Apple almost always maintains a policy of strict secrecy regarding unreleased products, as a consequence generating intense public speculation as to “what’s next.” To feed this demand, a number of web sites offer claimed “insider” information (rumors) about new Mac and iPod products, and financial analysts have recently become a secondary source of speculation on the company’s plans. Apple generally dislikes “rumors and speculation” because they (a) are sometimes partially or totally inaccurate, (b) always occupy potential customers’ minds with products they cannot buy, and (c) sometimes partially or totally accurate, and then limit the company’s ability to debut surprising products.
Simply put, though rumors and speculation are a fun part of life for Apple watchers, they are generally terribly inaccurate in one critical regard: timing. Assuming that the general specifications of a rumored product are correct, the actual product – Mac, iPod, or accessory – may not actually come to market for a year or more after it is first rumored, if at all. Waiting for a rumored product to appear can deprive you of many months of enjoyment of an actual product; unfortunately, this happens to people all the time.
- Beware of First-Generation/Revision A Models. Despite the rush of immediate purchases Apple experiences with every new product launch, the company’s products routinely suffer from “revision A,” “first-generation,” or “early adopter” bugs. Part of this is due to the cutting-edge technologies and designs it uses; another part is due to the secrecy-obsessed, quiet pre-release testing it employs. As frog design founder Hartmut Esslinger told Businessweek magazine recently, “Apple innovates in big ways and small ways, and if they don’t get it right, they innovate again.”
Though Apple’s customer support remains top-ranked in the computer industry, the working assumption with any new Apple product – particularly Macs – is that the first version will have some major issues, which will be quietly resolved in the four to six months after its release. The good news is that Apple takes care of customers with legitimate major issues, and ultimately almost always fixes the problems in the end. Unfortunately, rather than receiving an e-mail or telephone call that a purchased item has a known issue, customers generally are forced to isolate the problems, bring them to Apple’s attention, and wait a period of time to get them properly resolved. As such, if you’re concerned about possible issues, you’re best off waiting for “revision B” or a “second-generation” Apple product – they tend to have fewer issues.
- Remember, Used Apple Products Still Have Value. Though it varies from model to model, Apple’s computers and iPods tend to hold onto a considerable amount of residual value even after being “replaced.” Our Buyers’ Guides and Free iPod Books have pointed out the residual value of used iPods on eBay, Amazon.com, and other services; years later, they’re still worth something. As such, you can often sell a used Apple product and have a fair amount of money to use towards the purchase of a new one. If you’re on the fence about a purchase because you really, really believe the rumors that something new is coming, you could always buy something now, and then re-sell it when the new product’s release is announced or more apparently imminent.
- Big Changes (Typically) Come in Six-Plus Month Cycles. When it comes to computers and consumer electronics, the reality is that there will always be something newer and better coming out, available 6 or 12 months after you make your purchase, no matter what major brand you buy. Apple in particular has never apologized for continuing to update its products, even when its pacing was lampooned by Saturday Night Live: new iPods announced at the start of the parody were discontinued only minutes later. As seen in the September 2005 introduction of the iPod nano at a separate event from the October 2005 fifth-generation iPod, it is entirely possible that a totally new model will emerge only shortly after another one, though it’s highly unlikely that this will happen with a direct replacement – the 5G iPod replaced the 4G iPod, while the iPod nano replaced the iPod mini. For better or worse, Apple typically introduces a product and keeps it around for a while at a similar price.
Apple has broken this rule and angered consumers. Apple’s January 2006 introduction of the “2-3X faster” Intel iMac came less than three months after the release of the final G5 iMac, surprising the many late December gift recipients who thought they were getting the latest and greatest new Macs. In fact, they were – but only for a couple of weeks. This was probably Apple’s quickest and most disturbing product replacement, ever – the only one that still makes us wince. (The rapid price drops of the $599, 60GB October 2004 iPod photo down to $399 came close.)
The Short Answer: Should I Buy Now, or Wait?
After years of watching Apple, our view is that the purchase of any Apple product can be made on a single question: does the product available today have the features that will satisfy me? If the answer is yes, buy it and enjoy it. If the answer is no, wait. But don’t second-guess your decision or wait around for a replacement that may take years to arrive. If you buy soon after release, you’ll have the longest opportunity to enjoy the features and performance before something else comes along and makes you envious.
There are only two caveats. First, cautious people should wait around three weeks after initial release to buy any new Apple product – this provides ample opportunity for the earliest adopters to discover and understand any basic problems or defects it may have. Read up on the known issues – if they don’t bother you, jump right in.
Second, super-cautious people should wait until the product’s “revision B” – typically once the product has received its first major feature bump – so that they get the benefits of the new features, and don’t have to even slightly deal with whatever serious bugs or defects were discovered in the first version. If you fall into the “super-cautious” camp, you may well be more satisfied with the “revision B” version of an older Apple product than you would be with a “revision A” version of a cutting-edge, newly released one.
Remember, if you buy something that Apple replaces soon thereafter, you can probably return the item to the store where it was purchased for a complete or partial refund. Apple stores give you a couple of weeks, other merchants as much as a month. If you’re past that point, you can always consider eBay or other options to sell your purchase and upgrade.
We hope that this article helps you make smarter, happier purchases of new Apple products. Feel free to add your comments or insights using the submission box below.