Guide: to buying a refurbished Mac

Guide: to buying a refurbished Mac

Ways and means to get a a good, cheaper, PC

Maybe you’re a college student. Maybe you’re one of the world’s vast numbers of un- and under-employed workers. Maybe you’re simply frugal. Whatever the case, the situation facing you is this: You’re on a budget, you need a new computer, but even with limited cash you’d rather not buy an inexpensive Windows-based PC—you’re an Apple fan and don’t want to switch. What to do?

Easy. Buy a refurbished Mac.

The Apple Online Store has a section where you can buy refurbished Macs, as well as refurbished iPads, iPods, and other Apple products. (The refurbs are listed under the Special Deals section of the left column of the online store.) Apple’s line of refurbished Macs runs the gamut from laptop computers to Mac minis to iMacs with giant 27-inch monitors. Some of the machines are pre-owned, while others were returned to the company because of technical defects. But all of them share two characteristics in common: They’ve been buffed, restored, and repackaged to meet Apple’s exacting standards. And they’re cheaper—sometimes a lot cheaper—than buying new.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about buying a refurbished Mac.

What is a refurbished Mac?

The category includes both pre-owned Macs and those returned for defects, although Apple says that only “some units” have been returned for technical issues. Before re-sale, Apple cleans the machine, replaces any defective or sub-standard parts, re-installs software that originally shipped with the unit, tests the Mac for quality-control issues, then repackages it with fresh cables and a user’s manual. The company even stamps the machine with a new serial number.

Apple says all refurbished Macs meet the company’s Finished Goods testing procedures—which means that the machine you buy should be up to the same technical snuff as the exact same unit purchased brand-new.

What is the selection like?

The inventory is ever-shifting; as of the afternoon of Black Friday, it included both MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, Mac Pros, iMac units of varying sizes, as well as several models of Mac mini. The selection skewed slightly older—with a number of units dating from 2010, and just a few from 2009; none were older than that. There were also a number of units dating from February and May of 2011, including current models of MacBook Pro and iMac.

How does the pricing work? How much of a savings do you get?

Apple hasn’t made its pricing guidelines public, but a survey of its inventory of refurbished Macs yields one general insight: If you want to save more money, you’ll have to buy an older model.

Generally speaking, savings on Apple’s Macs appear to range from 11 to 16 percent off the unit’s original price. But there are some bigger deals to be had: A refurbished 21.5-inch iMac from July 2010 was recently listed for $1099—more than 25 percent off the original list price of $1499. A 13-inch MacBook Air from 2010 was recently listed at $899, also a savings of 25 percent. But discounts exceeding 20 percent are very much the exception, instead of the rule. Expect, instead, to save 10 percent or more off what you would’ve originally paid. Often that’s a savings of $100 or more—nothing to sneeze at.

What kind of warranty comes with a refurb? Is AppleCare available?

All the refurbished Macs come with a one-year limited warranty from Apple. And AppleCare is available—for up to three years, same as with brand-new machines.

Are there other options for buying cheap, reliable Macs?

Sure. For one, Apple also offers clearance sales of new-but-older machines that were never sold or taken out of their box, but the selection here is much more limited than the inventory of refurbished machines. As of Black Friday, there was precisely one product listed in Apple’s clearance store: A 13.3-inch MacBook Air from October 2010, listed at $1199—$100 cheaper than the original sales price.

Or you might search for an independent seller. In Philadelphia, for example, Apple-authorized “Apple Specialist” Springboard Media recently offered a 13-inch MacBook Pro originally released in February for $899—a $300 savings from the original price. You’ll want to check with your local seller about their refurbishment standards, though, which may differ from Apple’s. Often, though, you’ll be able to get the balance of the AppleCare warranty that was originally purchased with the machine—18 months left, say, on a three-year AppleCare contract—ensuring some level of buyer safety.

Why would you buy a refurb over a new machine?

Not everybody will want to buy a refurbished Mac: Many Apple fans want to have the absolute latest model of everything the company releases. In a few cases—particularly where professional video editors are concerned—those latest models have Thunderbolt technology that isn’t quite available in Apple’s store for refurbished machines.

For everybody else, though, refurbished machines offer a great advantage. My first iPod, for example, was actually a refurbished iPod nano purchased directly from Apple a few years back. It allowed me to try the technology at a lower cost than buying new, and proved to be the gateway that brought a host of other Apple products into my house. Refurbished machines offer the same reliability and ease-of-use as a brand-new Mac—with the same available protections—but with a lower price tag. What’s not to like?

“It’s a great way for somebody to purchase technology and not spend as much money,” said Everett Katzen of Springboard Media. “People shouldn’t be nervous about buying a pre-owned machine.”

Joel Mathis is a freelance contributor to Macworld.

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