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The MacBook shopper's dilemma: Buy last year's models, or wait?

Back-to-school shoppers and anyone looking at a new MacBook had better be aware of these potential pitfalls.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's the tech shopper's eternal dilemma: Buy now or wait? With the better, faster model inevitably and perpetually on deck, you always hesitate before pulling the trigger. For products with regular upgrade cycles, it's easier: We can reasonably expect a new Galaxy Note every August, a new iPhone every September and a new Pixel phone every October. And new HP, Dell and Lenovo laptops inevitably follow whenever there's a new Intel chip.

For Apple's Mac computers, though, the schedule for new models is anybody's guess. The 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro models arrived less than a year apart, making the world think Apple was leaning into a more predictable annual update cycle. But once WWDC came and went without any new hardware at all, the guessing game hit high gear.

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Now, as the calendar turns to summer, anyone looking for MacBook laptops is between a rock and a hard place: The July/August back-to-school season puts a ticking clock on many people's purchase timeline, even as a presumed early September iPhone event is the next big Apple showcase at which the announcements of new Macs might be shoehorned in.

Meanwhile, anyone thinking of biting the bullet and settling for an existing 2017 MacBook has the further complication of determining whether or not they want to settle for the keyboards, which Apple has effectively acknowledged as problematic (see below), or holding out for new and potentially improved models.

To that end, here's what you need to know about shopping for MacBooks right now.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The MacBook keyboard conundrum

Ever since the debut of the 12-inch MacBook in 2015, people have been debating the merits of the super-shallow butterfly keyboard, named after the x-shaped mechanism under the key, which vaguely resembles a butterfly. It helped laptop designs get thinner, but at the same time, lacked a certain level of tactile feedback. After the butterfly keyboard came to 2016 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models, the controversy grew, especially as more and more people reported problems with stuck or nonresponsive keys.

Even though I've defended the butterfly keyboard in the past, as something one could acclimate to in a short time, I've also had stuck key issues on several MacBooks. For me, this method has worked in quickly unsticking them, but not everyone has been so lucky.

Now, Apple has at last acknowledged the problem, saying it will replace "a small percentage of the keyboards in certain MacBook and MacBook Pro models." Customers who have already paid for a keyboard repair can contact Apple to get a refund.

On the one hand, that means if you buy now, you won't be stuck with a sticky-keyed lemon if you have keyboard problems. On the other hand, if the next MacBooks have an improved keyboard design, why bother getting the problem-prone current model?

That's probably the biggest question hovering over MacBook buyers right now.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The Hail Mary: Going retro

If you're worried about buying a recent MacBook that's potentially about to be replaced, there's always another option. Instead, grab one of Apple's retro-styled MacBooks, essentially older systems that are still for sale, offering some important features missing from current-gen MacBooks.

You have two basic choices:

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Sarah Tew/CNET

2015 MacBook Pro (15-inch): Apple still sells a single 15-inch MacBook Pro from the previous design generation. This $1,999 laptop has a non-butterfly keyboard, full-size USB, HDMI and Mini DisplayPort connections, and even an SD card slot. What it's lacking is newer USB-C ports, current-gen Intel CPUs, the Touch Bar and the slimmer body and better display of newer MacBook Pros.

2017 MacBook Air: There's also the classic 13-inch MacBook Air, largely unchanged for several years, aside from a tiny CPU upgrade in 2017. Yes, its design and hardware are dated, with the low screen resolution being a particular issue, but it's still the default laptop for many, especially students, and rightfully so it's a classic for a reason. Note, though, that this specific model is strongly rumored to be getting a makeover soon.

So, when do the new MacBooks arrive?

Short answer: We don't know.

Apple updated a big chunk of the MacBook line in June 2017 with new seventh-generation Intel Core-i processors and a handful of other minor tweaks from the late 2016 models.

At the very least, one could expect MacBooks and MacBook Pros with eighth-generation Intel processors -- not to mention plenty of other upgrades we'd like to see, including a total rethink of those butterfly keyboards.

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Apple's Phil Schiller introducing the Touchbar-enabled MacBook Pro models at a Mac-only event in October 2016.

James Martin/CNET

Generally, if Apple does a big redesign on a given Mac line, the company likes to dedicate time at a keynote event to showcase what's new, and why it's effectively a must-have upgrade. However, if that's just a "spec upgrade" -- such as swapping in newer Intel processors -- it will often offer a mere press release, timed to appear with hands-on impressions from tech sites like CNET, and notable YouTubers.

So, a fairly radical Mac refresh would presumably be held for splashy onstage presentations in September or later, with an eye toward the holiday buying season. But a modest upgrade might appear on a random Tuesday as soon as mid-July, which would line up with the back-to-school season. 

Or who knows? We might see an all-Mac event sometime in 2019, with the entire line being revamped alongside the all-new Mac Pro.

Buy now, or wait?

Normally, my advice is to get something you'll like, and not worry too much about the "next" iteration. But with the line feeling overdue for a refresh -- and the keyboard issue giving an explicit excuse to avoid the current generation of MacBook Pros and 12-inch MacBooks -- it seems like it's a harder choice than ever for MacBook shoppers.

To summarize the advice above:

If you can wait, do so. We're betting that we will see new MacBooks and MacBook Pros before the end of 2018. But that may well be after the start of the September school year.

If you must buy now, give the older MacBooks a second look. It's hard to look at the Air's screen if you're coming from a Retina experience -- but you can snag it on sale for as little as $750 with a student discount. And the 2015 MacBook Pro isn't the latest and greatest, but the keyboard is flawless, and you'll probably need fewer dongles -- or none at all.

If you opt for the 2017 MacBooks, test drive the keyboard first. Apple's mea culpa on the newer MacBooks at least means you're good for no-fee fixes if you encounter keyboard issues on the current-gen 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Pros. But before you take the plunge, try them out at a Best Buy, Apple Store or other authorized retailer.

Remember that there are other options out there. Sacrilege, I know. But MacBooks aren't your only options. From Chromebooks to iPads with keyboard cases to the increasingly diverse world of Windows laptops, it's a great time to look beyond the Mac -- especially if you last looked at the non-Apple market three or five years ago.

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