Avoid Getting Burned by Apple’s Mysterious Ways: When to buy Apple products.

Apple likes to surprise the public with its product announcements. This secretive behavior has spawned many a rumor site, some of which have been sued for predicting actual products. While Apple has its reasons for doing this, this usually means one thing for the consumer – buying an Apple product can be a bit of a mystery. I’ve both benefited from this and suffered. Fortunately, from my experience and observations, I’ve come up with four guidelines to accurately predict if its a good time to buy an Apple product or if you should wait a month or two.

My Experience with Apple’s Secret Releases:

Back in the spring of 2001, I was saving up for a Mac. I wanted a desktop (laptops back then were nothing like they are now) and the current model was something like a 400mhz G4. I planned on getting this model and wouldn’t have the money for it until the beginning of August 2001. I still feel fortunate to this day that I waited until I had the money because two weeks before I bought my Mac, they released a complete redesign of the desktop line and I ended up getting an 867mhz G4 with all sorts of upgrades like a faster bus speed, gigabit ethernet and a much better graphics card.

Waiting those two months allowed me to have a model that today, seven years later, can run OS X 10.5 Leopard. Granted, its the bare minimum but its also a seven year old model.

I’d be really upset if I just spent $2,000 on a desktop that underwent a major upgrade 6 weeks later.

The other side of this luck is my iBook G4. I bought it in the beginning of August 2004. Six weeks later, in September, they refreshed the line. While the refresh wasn’t such a big deal in terms of power – I think it was something like 133mhz faster. What annoyed me was they:

1. Included the Airport Extreme card, built-in for free.

2. Dropped the price by $100.

So, if I was able to wait six weeks, I would’ve bought basically the same laptop for $100 less and wouldn’t have had to spend $70 on an Airport card. My own experiences show the first guideline to follow:

Guideline #1 – Apple’s product cycle:

Whether its a MacBook, iMac or iPod, they all follow a product cycle with Apple. What this means is that after a certain amount of time, they are due for a refresh, redesign or update. So, if your MacBook model came out last month, its probably going to be the latest model for a while. If your iMac’s model came out last year, you may want to wait.

The best hint you can get about upcoming/impending releases is from MacRumors.com’s buyers guide. It’s a count of days since the last update/refresh/redesign was announced along with an average of days between updates. For ease of use, they even announce whether its a good idea to buy or not. So, if its been 250 days since the last update and they usually update them after 210 days, you know the line is due for a new release. While this isn’t perfect, its a good prediction of upcoming refreshes.

Now that we know how long it’s been since the last update and whether its likely or not an upgrade is coming soon, let’s look into Apple’s release schedule to find out when the update is expected.

Guideline #2 – Apple’s release schedule:

While Apple’s release schedule has certainly changed in recent years where it can be anywhere and anytime, there are still some scheduling we can count on. Let’s look at the year from January to December:

January – Macworld Expo – Releases/Updates likely to be announced during Steve Jobs’ keynote.

February through May – Unannounced random updates and smaller upgrades very likely, consult the product cycle and see if your model is due. This is the time when Apple can be unpredictable.

June – Right before the student / educational buying season – This is when big updates are very likely. Especially now that WWDC is in June and there is no more Mac World Expo in July, this is the time for a new release.

Note: Years ago, when MacWorld was held in July, this and January were the only big release times. Not anymore.

July – August – The heart of educational buying season. Since this is one of Apple’s biggest purchasing groups, the model line will either be refreshed or redesigned before the summer (June) or after (September).

September – Refreshes and product announcements very likely ahead of the holiday season.

October – Smaller speed bumps, OS releases and refreshes are also likely in October. Basically they want to do all updates and upgrades before the Holiday buying season.

Note: The fall is prime-time for iPod updates before the holiday shopping season.

November – December – Holiday buying season. Most likely the models will either be released before (Sept-Oct) or after (Jan-March)

So, now if we combine the product release schedules and the cycle, we can likely predict when the update is coming or if it is likely to be coming. This isn’t foolproof, as Apple can be unpredictable at times. A few years ago, they went years without updating the Powerbook line. Granted that had to do more with IBM dropping the ball on a laptop G5 than Apple’s sneakiness. (In my opinion, this is what led to the Intel transition…) However, this is why the third guideline is so important.

Guideline #3 – Internet News, Gossip and Rumors:

The internet is full of Apple news and rumor sites. Some of them are better than others and some of their predictions are correct enough to get them sued. While they aren’t 100% perfect, by listening to the rumor mill for the when and not the what, you can gauge if your model is likely to see an update or not. Most of these rumors start either by a retailer tip or speculation from a news article. Now that Intel creates the processors for the Mac, its nice to know they are much more transparent about upcoming releases.

While it won’t say exactly when but if you know they announce a new laptop processor in August, Apple’s release cycle states that September is a likely time and the product cycle says its been a while since an update – This points to a high likelihood of new MacBooks in September / October, before the Holidays.

Now, if you start to hear gossip and rumors about the model you want being updated and see that its due, definitely hold off on that major purchase.

The final question is “How to we know if its true or not”? That’s where the fourth and most telling guideline comes in.

Guideline #4 – Retail Supply Clues:

Apple likes to sell the latest model. When a new model comes out, they would rather sell that model for the list price than a discounted one. When impending updates are within weeks, Apple stops shipments and retail supply goes to next to nothing because they don’t want old models flooding the market. This is the biggest tell for Apple’s impending updates. When you can’t find that iMac anywhere and the Apple Store tells you it will be a few weeks before the shipment comes in, that shipment will more than likely be a new model.

While these four guidelines aren’t 100% foolproof, they greatly increase your chances of buying a Mac without getting burned. To use the current MacBook situation as an example, we know its time for a refresh (Product Cycle) and we knew that June and WWDC was the most likely release time. However, internet sources and Intel themselves stated that they had trouble with their latest laptop processor. Intel’s news release said that they were delayed about 2 months or so. This brings us to August, however that’s the middle of education buying season. With a “buy a Mac and get a free iPod Touch” deal until Sept 15, there won’t be any updates until then. Now, that Sept 15th is about 3 weeks from now, we see the supply of MacBooks at retail outlets dropping considerably.

Using these guidelines, If you want the latest model, I recommend you wait on the MacBook until they announce a new model in 3 weeks. If you want a free iPod Touch, buy now.

By the way, the iPod Touch is also due for an update in September as well. Their summer education deal is not just a great deal, its a great plan to dry out the inventory.

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