The art of buying a refurbished Mac

Maybe you’re a college student. Maybe you’re one of America’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. Buya refurbished Mac.

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

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

Whatis a refurbished Mac?
The category includes both pre-owned Macs and those returned fordefects, although Applesays that only “some units” have been returned for technicalissues. Before re-sale, Apple cleans the machine, replaces anydefective or sub-standard parts, re-installs software that originallyshipped with the unit, tests the Mac for quality-control issues, thenrepackages it with fresh cables and a user’s manual. The company evenstamps the machine with a new serial number.

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

Whatis the selection like?
The inventory is ever-shifting; as of the afternoon of Black Friday, itincluded both MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, Mac Pros, iMac unitsof varying sizes, as well as several models of Mac mini. The selectionskewed slightly older-with a number of units dating from 2010, and justa few from 2009; none were older than that. There were also a number ofunits dating from February and May of 2011, including current models ofMacBook Pro and iMac.

Howmuch of a savings do you get?
Apple hasn’t made its pricing guidelines public, but a survey of itsinventory of refurbished Macs yields one general insight: If you wantto 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.

Whatkind of warranty comes with a refurb?
All the refurbished Macs come with a one-year limitedwarranty from Apple. And AppleCare isavailable-for up to three years, same as with brand-newmachines.

Arethere other options for buying cheap, reliable Macs?
Sure. For one, Applealso offers clearance sales of new-but-older machines thatwere never sold or taken out of their box, but the selection here ismuch more limited than the inventory of refurbished machines. As ofBlack Friday, there was precisely one product listed in Apple’sclearance 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, forexample, Apple-authorized “Apple Specialist” SpringboardMedia recently offered a 13-inch MacBook Pro originallyreleased in February for $899-a $300 savings from the original price.You’ll want to check with your local seller about their refurbishmentstandards, though, which may differ from Apple’s. Often, though, you’llbe able to get the balance of the AppleCare warranty that wasoriginally purchased with the machine-18 months left, say, on athree-year AppleCare contract-ensuring some level of buyer safety.

Whywould you buy a refurb over a new machine?
Not everybody will want to buy a refurbished Mac: Many Apple fans wantto have the absolute latest model of everything the company releases.In a few cases-particularly where professional video editors areconcerned-those latest models have Thunderbolt technology that isn’tquite available in Apple’s store for refurbished machines.

For everybody else, though, refurbished machines offer a greatadvantage. My first iPod, for example, was actually a refurbishediPod nano purchased directly from Apple a few years back. Itallowed me to try the technology at a lower cost than buying new, andproved to be the gateway that brought a host of other Apple productsinto my house. Refurbished machines offer the same reliability andease-of-use as a brand-new Mac-with the same available protections-butwith a lower price tag. What’s not to like?

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

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