It's that time of year again. You'll find some great bargains on laptops and tablets between now and early January. Here's our guide for how to nab the best deals.
If you're in the market for a new notebook, the Christmas to January holiday period is a great time to keep your eye out for big retailer discounts. With the rise in online shopping (and low consumer spending generally in 2011) it's been a tough year for retail, but as we head into Christmas and towards 2012 the big chains such as Officeworks, Harvey Norman, The Good Guys, Dick Smith and JB Hi-Fi will be offering a raft of tech specials and discounts stategically aimed at luring you inside their stores. If you do your research beforehand you stand a good chance of grabbing great price on a bargain notebook, tablet or Ultrabook, but it pays to do a little bit of homework first.
1. What's happening with bargains this Christmas?
This time a year ago was a great opportunity to find a good deal on a first-gen Intel Core notebook as retailers cleared stock in the lead up to the introduction of Intel's second-gen Core (Sandy Bridge) machines. A year later, notebooks featuring Ivy Bridge (the successor to Sandy Bridge), are still a few months away, so we won't be seeing that kind of runout discounting again this year, but that doesn't mean you won't find some good notebook bargains on current-model notebooks and first-gen Ultrabooks.
In fact, some of the most worthwhile deals are happening on Ultrabooks (the ASUS UX21E pictured above), even if we're not talking rock bottom prices. When these radical razor-thin laptops launched this year, they came with classic early adopter pricing. This was not surprising given they were very attractive machines - introducing the concept of thin and light but with serious performance that previously was available only in prohibitively expensive executive thin and lights. Prices ranged from $1,399 to over $2,000.
But since their launch in late 2011 their prices have been falling sharply. One example, the ACER S3 powered by an Intel Core i3 processor and with a mechanical 320GB hard drive now regularly appears for under $1,000. It was joined for a while under the $1,000 by the desirable ASUS UX21E, an 11.6in Ultrabook with a brushed alloy finish that may just be one of the most beautiful laptops ever created. And mid-range Ultrabooks like the Toshiba Z830 - a laptop that astonishes by packing most of the features you find in a full-size notebook into a frame no taller than 15mm - are now regularly coming in under their original retail price of $1,399.
So, in short, the bargains so far are happening at a higher level than last year, which was characterised by specials in the $500-$1,000 price ranges. For instance, many of last year's big specials involved Intel Core i3 -powered notebooks pushing down into the $500-$600 mark, Core i5s into the $700-800 mark and Core i7s appearing under $1,000. While there still are plenty of regular bargains on full-sized notebooks this year, they appear to be more ad-hoc and not coming in waves in which a retailers big discount on say, a Core i5 -equipped notebook is followed by similar specials from all the retailers. What we are seeing, however, is a general downward trend in Ultrabook prices.
Once these become low enough - ie, you start finding Ultrabooks for $800 or less, the pressure on pricing of bigger notebooks will be immense and that's when you'll start to get some incredible bargains, with 2nd Gen Intel Core i5 -equipped laptops pushing into $499-$600 territory and Core i7s appearing regularly in the $600-$700 price range.
2. When is the best time to find discounts?
At this time of year, you'll find sales divided into two general camps: heavily advertised pre-Christmas promotions running through December in the lead up to Christmas, which are then followed by a rush of post-Christmas runout sales that start on Boxing Day (or sometimes the day after, depending on your city/state) and which run through to early or mid January. Whereas the conventional logic used to be that pre-Christmas sales were more in the interests of the retailer and not as generous to the shopper as post-Christmas specials (characterised by those sometimes frantic scenes in the Boxing Day sales), weak consumer spending through 2011 has led to a state of near-continuous discounting from many of the big retailers throughout most of this year (as attested to by the specials we see daily on Hunter, which suggests we'll see a bit more parity in terms of the deals on offer on either side of Christmas Day this year. While we're certain to see some huge notebook specials from Boxing Day onwards at the big retailers, that doesn't mean you won't find competitive prices this week in the leadup to Christmas as well, as retailers are desperate to shift stock after a soft year.
2. What kind of notebook do you want?
Before you rush out to grab yourself a great deal, it's worthwhile to stop for a moment and consider exactly what kind of machine you're really in the market for. With the continued rise of the tablet in 2011, the portable PC category is even more fragmented than it was this time a year ago (when the only real tablets on the market were the original iPad and Samsung's first-gen 7in Galaxy Tab). While you're sure to find lots of tablet and notebook discounts advertised between now and mid January, a great discount isn't necessarily a great deal if it's not the right PC for you, so before you head out into the shops, consider your likely usage scenario and focus only on the kind of machine you really want or need (in other words, it's probably best to walk past that giant pyramid of $150 netbooks stacked at the front of the store... unless a cheapie netbook is actually what you're after, of course).
At Hunter, we assess portable tech across numerous categories including allrounder notebooks, entertainment notebooks, gaming notebooks, and tablets. Just recently, we've added the Ultrabook category. Designed to be thin and light, with solid state drives and great power efficiency, Ultrabooks are affordable take-anywhere ultraportables with killer looks and zippy performance. They really are the blueprint for the next generation of laptops and it's no exaggeration to say that Hunter staff have all pretty much migrated to Ultrabooks for their daily work (in the office, in the train and at home) because they are just so much more convenient than big, heavy, battery-power guzzling notebooks. We've seen some great deals on Ultrabooks from Acer and ASUS in the past few weeks and we expect to see more Ultrabook bargains over the Christmas/New Year sales period, so look sharp.
3. Research your model, spec & pricepoint
Once you've determined generally what type of notebook or tablet you're after, we'd recommend doing a little digging around here on Hunter to see what kinds of machines are typically on offer in your chosen category (look out for variety in specifications across the category, plus what sort of prices models tend to sell for). Once you're familiar with what a solid entry-level allrounder (for example) or perhaps a high-end gaming notebook tends to fetch in the marketplace, you'll have a better perspective to assess the deals being promoted in the sales. If you're seeing a price on a specific model that's as good or better than a recent deal we've listed on Hunter, it's most likely a good deal. Hunter's Editor, Conrad Bem, sifts through all the best retail deals daily, so if you're seeing a better price for the same model, we'd say you have a catch on your hands (and better yet, tell us about it!).
4. Shopping around, price matching & haggling
But don't buy yet! The final step in nabbing a great Christmas or New Year sales bargain is engaging in a little bit of comparison pricing. Once you've secured a good pricetag or quote, shop around to see if you can improve upon it. You'll find that a lot of the big retailers will price match for you or even undercut (provided you can demonstrate evidence of the advertised special you'd like them to match or beat). Officeworks famously offers its lowest price guarantee, which provides, if you find an identical stocked item at a lower price, they'll beat it by 5%. To help with price comparisons and shopping around, see recent deals on Hunter.
If you don't spy an advertised discount on a model you're interested in, don't be afraid to politely haggle in store or ask for a "best price". For best results, try to negotiate at a quiet time, like in the morning (avoid cram times like lunch and Christmas Eve), and you might be surprised with the results (but don't let your expectations get carried away either). If you don't arrive at a figure that suits what you had in mind, you're free to walk away. If you do agree on a price, retailers will often try to push additional accessories, peripherals and extended warranties when making a ticket-item sale (particularly if you've already negotiated yourself a discount), so be prepared for this and decide beforehand if you actually want anything thrown in -- to avoid making an impluse purchase on something you don't really need and which you might end up regretting. If you're not careful, it could even negate the gains made by the discount!