When it doesn’t make sense to buy a new laptop | Digital Trends

When shopping for a laptop, it’s hard not to get sucked into buying the latest model. They are often widely available and marketed as the next big thing.

But as a reviewer who tests dozens of new laptops every year, I know the secret that laptop brands won’t tell you. It’s that more often than not the latest version of a laptop can offer a very minor upgrade to the previous generation, often simply by swapping one CPU for another. This means that if you can find the previous generation for less, it’s often a better use of your money. The key, however, is learning to tell a minor spec upgrade on a laptop from something actually worth paying more for.

When updates aren’t enough

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 8 is the laptop that got me thinking about this topic. It’s a popular laptop that gets updated every year, but sometimes with very, very small changes.

The laptop underwent a major redesign in the sixth generation and a CPU upgrade in the seventh generation, which was repeated with the latest version featuring 13th generation Intel processors. The thing is, Lenovo didn’t just upgrade to the latest generation of Intel, they went from 28-watt CPUs to low-power 15-watt CPUs. Interestingly, the newer chips performed similarly, so there was no penalty for the power reduction.

You can switch to performance mode to get additional performance from the new chip, but then the laptop just got hotter and louder.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 7
(Core i7-1260P)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 8
(Core i7-1355U)
Geekbench 5
(single/multiple)
Bal: 1.650/8.080
Performance: 1,621/8,544
Bal: 1.835/6.220
Performance: 1,788/8,629
Handbrake
(seconds)
Bal: 118
Performance: 134
Bal: 184
Performance: 110
Cinebench R23
(single/multiple)
Bal: 1.587/7.682
Performance: 1,611/8,078
Bal: 1.644/5.684
Performance: 1,858/8,890
PCMark 10 completed
(The higher the better)
5,537 5.401

At the same time, in two of our battery tests, the switch didn’t get any significant efficiency gains. There is one outlier, the PCMark Application Battery test, where the 8th generation model did better.

But in actual use, battery life is likely to be similar between the two laptops.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 7
(Core i7-1260P)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 8
(Core i7-1355U)
surf the Internet 10 hours, 10 minutes 10 hours and 24 minutes
video 16 hours and 12 minutes 15 hours and 12 minutes
PCMark 10 applications 10 hours and 33 minutes 15 hours and 29 minutes

The results of this test show why a newer chip doesn’t always equate to an overall better laptop.

The Dell XPS 15 and Dell XPS 13 Plus are a couple of other examples of laptops that haven’t made huge improvements over their predecessors this year. Both changed nothing except the CPU and, in the case of the XPS 15, the GPU. The XPS 13 Plus in particular didn’t improve performance much and suffered significantly in battery life. The all-new XPS 15 is slightly faster in creative tasks and games thanks to a faster GPU, but for productivity users it’s a wash.

Things to look for

Mark Coppoc/Digital Trends

My point, of course, is not that this is the case Never the latest model is worth buying. As a counterexample, consider the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 11. It, too, only updated the CPU and went from 28-watt to 15-watt processors. But in its case, performance has improved slightly while battery life has gotten a real boost. If so, there’s good reason to consider the latest model.

In general, we recommend that you take a closer look at the latest generation and compare it with the previous model. Sometimes, the changes are obvious, like in a new frame design or a major update to display options. For example, some laptops are adopting mini-LED technology that dramatically improves brightness and HDR (High Dynamic Range) video. Of course, as we’ve seen, CPU upgrades are common, but also check if there’s been a significant upgrade to the GPU like with the Dell XPS 15 mentioned above.

Sometimes, the changes are more subtle. Perhaps there is an update in the number or types of ports available. Most Intel laptops have already adopted Thunderbolt 4, for example, but maybe it’s just the latest generation of laptops with the most up-to-date standard. Wi-Fi 6E is also new, providing potentially faster speeds than Wi-Fi 6, and is something to look out for. Finally, the webcam is another component that has recently received updates, particularly to 1080p from 720p, a major increase.

Not all of these potential upgrades alone might be worth the extra several hundred dollars, but a few of them together can tip the scales. Ultimately, you’ll want to check reviews of both generations to identify both what’s been updated and how the new machine performed compared to the old machine.

Can you find the older model for less money?

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

All of this needs to be balanced against the amount of savings you’ll actually get. If you can get the latest generation for the same price as the previous generation, all else being equal, you should buy it. But often the previous generation becomes available at lower prices. This sometimes takes a few months to filter through the supply chain, but some real bargains can eventually be available.

Our examples don’t qualify because the new models have just been released. Lenovo, in particular, is all over its price map, and Dell no longer lists older versions in its store. But in the next couple of months you should start seeing lower prices on older models, and by then, you can save some money without compromising, if anything.

The biggest lesson here is that when buying a laptop, be sure to do your research. Look back at previous generations and see how much, if anything, has changed. If you find that there are no compelling benefits to the newer machine and you can save a lot of money, then the later years model may be more than enough.

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