Should you buy a 13-inch laptop now, or wait?

We answer a common reader question about whether to buy a 13-inch laptop now or wait for the next round of component updates.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
Toshiba's excellent 13-inch Portege R705.

One of the most common reader questions we get is something along these lines: "I'm thinking of buying a Brand X laptop. Should I buy it now, or is some big update right around the corner?" A typical variation is: "I want to buy a MacBook, but I hear a rumor that new models are coming soon. Should I wait?"

Recently, many of these questions have been about 13-inch laptops, the only screen size important enough to essentially stand alone as its own category. The reason is pure practicality. A 13-inch laptop (a category some call thin-and-light, but we simply call 13-inch) sits smack in the middle between mainstream laptops that are designed to sit on your desk all day and ultraportable laptops that are meant for on-the-go use.

Some of our favorite 13-inch laptops (photos)

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Put another way, a 13-inch laptop is the largest size we'd consider carrying around several days per week, and also the smallest size we'd be able to use for a full day of desktop computing. That's likely one of the reasons the 13-inch Apple MacBook became so popular: it was a laptop that could serve double duty at home and on the go.

To answer the second reader question first, there have been some rumors lately of new MacBooks, and some kind of springtime design update or refresh of internal components isn't out of the question (the basic look of the aluminum MacBook has remained essentially unchanged for a few years). That said, the "new MacBooks are coming" narrative is a bit evergreen. One could get away with writing some variation on that story just by throwing a dart at a wall calendar. We're never that far away from a refresh or update of some kind.

On the larger issue of whether to buy a 13-inch laptop now or wait, the answer is a complicated one. We've been generally impressed with Intel's new line of Core i-series processors, formerly code-named Sandy Bridge. Intel promises (and our early testing agrees) that these new chips will provide better battery life, somewhat improved general performance, and highly improved graphics performance, at least when compared with previous-generation integrated graphics.

The problem is that only the high-end quad-core versions of these new Intel CPUs are available right now. The more mainstream dual-core versions--which you'd likely find in 13-inch laptops--won't start showing up in systems until the end of February at the earliest, and from there, it will be up to individual PC makers to decide to include them in refreshed versions of their products (and from what we've seen, the rollout, especially in 13-inch laptops, will be a gradual one).

But there's a universal truth about all consumer electronics buried in there. No matter what you buy, a better, faster, cooler version is probably right around the corner. If we all waited for the perfect time to buy any gadget, from a TV to a computer to a phone, no one would ever buy anything.

There's no perfect answer for everyone, but if you need a new laptop right now, you certainly shouldn't feel bad about buying one. If you don't have an immediate need, and are interested in the advantages Sandy Bridge will offer, then consider holding off for a couple of months, although we're not sure if or when our current favorite 13-inch laptops will be updated. That said, if you're a mainstream user looking for a 13-inch system for Web surfing, e-mail, and general media consumption, getting a new laptop now or waiting a few months for a hypothetical update with Intel's new CPU won't make a major difference in your life.

Getting back to our 13-inch laptop question specifically, we've rounded up a few of our favorite systems in this category, including the new Asus U36JCand the Toshiba Portege R705. If you're looking to run out and buy a 13-inch laptop today, one of these will probably cover all your bases.