Laptops are an essential part of any back-to-school list. Fortunately, a struggling market means shoppers can expect better-than-average deals this summer. But as with any big purchase, a little research and planning can go a long way to ensure you buy a laptop for college that's right for you, at a price with which you're comfortable.
After perusing this list, be sure to check out our other back-to-school sales guides for more information on how to save money while sending your student to college.
Anatomy of a Back-to-School Sale
Laptop Deals Sizzle in August
Back-to-school sales typically begin in late June, ramp up in July, and begin to wane in September. A note for procrastinators: You'll still find good deals in September, but our deal archives indicate that August offers the best laptop deals. In fact, last year August had 62% more Editors' Choice laptop deals than July and September combined. Sales typically come in the form of sitewide discounts, laptop bundles, or deals on individual systems.
Discounts to Expect, and the Best Stores to Shop
For sitewide discounts, turn to favorites like Amazon, the Microsoft Store, Newegg, Best Buy, and Staples. Last summer, several of these vendors took up to 88% off select back-to-school systems. If you require a laptop with above-average specs, Toshiba Direct traditionally takes up to $500 off its high-end gaming systems, some of which include 1080p screens and dedicated video cards.
As far as bundle deals are concerned, no sale gets more attention than Apple's Back-to-School sale, which traditionally bundles a $100 Apple gift card with the purchase of a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.
At the same time, last year was the first year Dell Home issued a $200 Dell gift card with laptop purchases of $699 or more. Windows users can also turn to the Microsoft Store, which doesn't offer a complimentary gift card, but does bundle a 4-year subscription to its Office 365 suite on select laptop purchases. The suite, which includes all of the popular Office programs, would otherwise retail for $80.
And while less predictable than Apple and Microsoft, Amazon also typically offers its fair share of bundle deals. In previous years, the Seattle-based retailer has bundled everything from a $100 Amazon gift card to select gaming consoles with the purchase of a new laptop.
However, keep in mind that if a retailer bundles a gaming console with a laptop purchase (which is a popular perk), it will more than likely be an older console, such as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, since the newer consoles are still in high demand and much more expensive.
Recent Price Trends: Deals for as Low as $199
In terms of pricing, mainstream 15" systems with Intel's latest processor have averaged $441 so far this year. However, deal prices dropped to an all-time low of $380 in June. Since back-to-school season is the second best time of the year to purchase a laptop, consumers should look for prices within the $380 to $441 range, knowing that any purchase below $380 is an absolute steal for a mainstream machine.
Alternatively, if you'd prefer a laptop with a little less punch, but a significantly cheaper price, touchscreen notebooks are hard to beat. These laptops have flooded the market and on average are 25% cheaper than their traditional counterparts.
For 15" touchscreen machines, prices have averaged $336 to date, with lows in the $300 realm. For even bigger savings, 12" touchscreens have averaged $267, with deals as low as $199. While it may be awhile before we see 12" touchscreen laptops lower than $199, this category of laptops offers the most savings.
The Best Apple Deals Won't Come From Apple
Although Apple's back-to-school sale will last most of the summer, it won't always offer the best deals on Apple devices. Instead, we've repeatedly found that the best offers come for its resellers, and not directly from the Apple Store. (For a look at the best Apple resellers, check out our feature on the best stores for Apple deals.)
For instance, last year, while Apple bundled a $100 credit on MacBook Air and MacBook Pro purchases, Best Buy took $200 off Apple laptop purchases. Like Apple, Best Buy's sale required an active .edu email address, but it beat Apple's sale by $100 and managed to be the season's best MacBook sale.
In light of Apple's recent price cuts, it's possible we'll see deals on both the 11" 2013 MacBook Air and the just-refreshed 11" 2014 model. For the latter model, look for prices as low as $650, a rate we've seen twice this summer from Best Buy. For the newer 2014 model (which includes a slightly better CPU), look for deals from $800, which is $100 less than Apple's direct price for the new system.
Students and Loyal Customers Get Better Deals
While most back-to-school deals are open to all consumers, oftentimes you'll come across a few with specific requirements. Apple, for instance, requires consumers have an .edu-based email account in order to qualify for its back-to-school sale. Select deals from Best Buy, Dell Home, and Amazon also require a student email address. Usually you must register, and a link is sent to you to access the lower price.
In the past, we've also seen back-to-school deals that require signing up for a retailer's membership rewards program. In most cases, signing up is free and you can use a secondary account so that your primary email isn't flooded with weekly promotions.