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Apple’s computers – like its phones and tablets – have continually topped customer satisfaction and reliability surveys, and often by no small margin. Though Macs don’t sell in the volume of other computers, their high prices make Apple the largest computer manufacturer by profit. Consumers with a fat wallet usually look towards a new iMac or MacBook.

Buyers on a tight budget, however, find even the most affordable Mac unobtainable. This often leads to the consideration of a refurbished model. No one wants to lay down a wad of cash for a dinged-up, battered second-hand computer – here’s what you need to know on your search for a pristine, but affordable, refurb.

Apple’s Refurbished Store Is The Only Official Source

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Like most computer manufacturers, Apple runs a shop that resells units that were defective (but are now repaired) or returned for other reasons. Every Mac product, including the iMac, Mac Mini and all MacBook models, can be found on Apple’s own refurbished outlet.

Buying direct from Apple has its upsides. You’re guaranteed to receive the system in factory condition, including packaging, cables, documentation and pre-installed software. All refurbs come with the standard one-year warranty, too, and AppleCare can be purchased for further protection AppleCare: What Are Your Options & Is It Really Worth It? AppleCare: What Are Your Options & Is It Really Worth It? High customer satisfaction ratings and a large network of stores capable of performing certain repairs on-site give AppleCare the edge over the average warranty - but are the benefits really worth the price? Read More . There’s essentially no difference between a refurbished Mac direct from Apple and a brand new one.

That translates to moderate discount, however – almost never more than 20%, and often 10% or less. This can save you over a hundred dollars if you’re aiming for a particularly expensive Mac, like a MacBook Pro 15″ with Retina display  Is The New Retina MacBook Pro For You? [Opinion] Is The New Retina MacBook Pro For You? [Opinion] When Apple announced the MacBook Pro with Retina display a few weeks ago, I was pretty sure it would end up being my next laptop. I’ve waited a long time to upgrade and after being... Read More or a 27-inch iMac. But it isn’t going to make a Mac affordable to someone who can’t afford a new one.

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Still, you can sometimes scoop a good deal, so even the most frugal buyers should check the official store. For example, the MacBook Pro 13″ with Retina can currently be had refurbished for as little as $1,249, a cool $250 of the regular purchase price.

If you’re looking for officially refurbished products, Apple is your only source. Cupertino does not want other retailers to participate in third-party refurb programs, not even those that are certified as official Apple specialists. Everyone else has to sell their second-hand Macs as “used”.

Amazon does list refurbished Macs, but on closer inspection this appears to be due to a quirk of the company’s third-party listings. The products labeled as refurbished are usually new-in-box Macs being resold by people who decided they did not need or want them. You can score a discount, but it’s often no better than what Apple offers.

Some Used Macs Are Practically Refurbished

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While the conservative use of the “refurbished” term has kept third-party stores from cashing in, there are some that provide an extensive testing process The Top 6 Places To Buy Refurbished Mac Laptops The Top 6 Places To Buy Refurbished Mac Laptops Apple computers tend to last a long time, so you might want to consider purchasing a refurbished model to save some money. Read More , and “used” Macs from these companies are still worth your consideration.

The two big names in used Macs are The Mac Store and PowerMax. The former is essentially a third-party reincarnation of the Apple store, complete with retail locations in the American northwest, while PowerMax is an online retailer specializing in selling used Macs. Both companies offer a wide selection of products, ranging from near-new models to those several years old, and the testing process for each retailer is similar. Both inspect their used models to ensure everything is working, test the battery to confirm it still holds a charge, and then re-sell the used Macs with a 90-day warranty. PowerMax also offers six and 12-month extended warranties, though they are rather expensive.

Since these are used systems – albeit tested and refurbished to a minimal set of standards – you won’t receive the original packaging and you usually won’t receive all original documentation. Of course, this leads to a much better price. MacBook Air models go for as little as $749, which is 25% off the new price; 27-inch iMacs go for as little as $1,069, a whopping $730 cheaper than the newest model.

Of course, not all sellers test their hardware. You can find used Macs on eBay, Craigslist and Amazon, but these often have not undergone a testing process, and may not come with their original OS. In exchange, these used systems usually sell at the lowest prices available. Un-warrantied used Macs are often a great find, but sometimes they are the dinged-up, half-broken horrors every refurb shopper has nightmares about. Buyer beware!

New vs. Refurbished – What’s The Better Value?

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While the discounts found on Apple’s refurb store are unlikely to make a Mac affordable to budget buyers, they do call into question the value of buying new. An official Apple refurbished Mac comes with all the original accessories, has the same warranty, and can be covered by AppleCare. Buyers can usually buy a refurb of the newest version of a particular Mac, too, unless it hit store shelves just a few weeks prior.

Considering all you receive, is there a reason to buy a new Mac? Honestly, I can’t think of one. The refurbished option is a bit less expensive and otherwise identical to the new laptop in every way. Buyers who want the latest model will have to go new, because refurbished models are not immediately available when a new Mac comes out. But even that justification seems weak, as the first refurbs are stocked just a few weeks after the latest model is released.

“Used” Mac models from third-party outlets provide even greater savings, but whether the savings is worthwhile depends on your taste for risk. Apple computers are reliable, so the used Mac will probably be fine, but you can’t buy AppleCare for these systems so repairs that happen after 90 days will come out of your wallet.

Buyers should also consider the value of new-ness if the Mac in question is more than a few years old. Though The Mac Store and PowerMax perform a basic refurbishing process, they don’t replace the battery or the accessories. Desktop systems tend to age better than laptops because they are quicker to begin with and have no battery to age – keep that in mind while browsing.

Conclusion

Buying a refurbished Apple product is not a bad idea, but the official refurbs are not going to significantly improve the affordability of a new Mac. Fortunately, there’s a vibrant market for “used” Macs which can essentially be considered refurbished, but they are technically not because Apple does not have a third-party refurbishing program.

Have you purchased a refurbished Mac before? Let us know about your experience in the comments.

Image Credit: Jeff Geerling/Flickr

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