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Why buy a new Mac, when you can buy refurbished?

Do you find yourself looking wistfully at the screen and counting the zeros on the latest Apple price tag? It’s no surprise that students, professionals, and entertainment gurus around the world struggle to afford the brand new, super-resolution iMacs and MacBooks. But there is a savior, and its name is refurbished products – a way to get instant discounts on Apple products just as good as new versions.

Refurbished what now?

Let’s get one thing clear — refurbished is not the same as resold. Resold just means that someone is selling the same item again, often used, with all the problems that entails. Refurbished means that the Apple product of your eye was sent back to (ideally) a professional because of a minor issue, or because it was no longer wanted. Any malfunctioning parts are replaced, the product is given a once-over to make sure that everything is shiny and working right, and then it is repackaged to be sold again, better than ever.

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Because refurbished Apple products cannot be sold at MSRP, they are typically sold at a discount, which means you save money while buying a product that is often just as good as new. How much money you save depends on the product, what went wrong, and availability, as well as who you shop with. We bet you have a lot of questions, so here are the answers.

What you can get

Apple MacBook Gold 2015 hero
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Here’s a bit of good news, no matter what product you have your eyes on. Every major Apple product, including multiple generations of Macs, is available refurbished. However, supplies ebb and flow over time, so there’s no telling what refurbished goods will be in stock when you look online.

Related: What’s the best MacBook for you?

A couple other caveats also apply. First, it’s unusual to find just-launched Apple products that have been refurbished, for the obvious reason — not have come back yet! Typically products have to be out for at least a few months before any refurbished Mac deals hit the market, and these will be quickly snapped up. The greatest range of products will probably be one to two years old. It is difficult to find refurbished Apple electronics beyond a few years old.

The key is finding both a supplier you can trust, and exactly what you are look for. When it comes from vendors, you can either choose from Apple…or try out the other guys.

Buying from Apple

If you want to buy straight from the source, then head over to Apple’s Refurbished and Clearance section of their online store. Buying from the maker is great when it comes to refurbished items, because you know they have been professionally inspected, fixed, cleaned and repackaged by people with experience in those specific electronics – with no interest in cheating you. Apple even backs these products with the same warranty of a new Mac, and you can further that protection via AppleCare.

Related: Apple bolsters its warranties with better battery coverage

With Apple, there’s a give and take. Both pre-owned and once-defective models are available, and Apple guarantees that all products meet Finished Goods testing. However, the discounts on the Online Store are a bit underwhelming. Around 10% is the average discount rate, which is good but doesn’t exactly get hearts thumping. Some discounts can be as high as 25% if you get lucky, but Apple’s deals are difficult to predict. The company puts up new stock frequently, but it rarely lasts long.

Choosing the right vendor

Trust is paramount here. Don’t just type a search into eBay and look for the best possible prices.

There are other options beyond the Apple store to grab that perfect refurbished iPad or iMac. These are third party vendors that specialize in refurbishing, and you can find them across the Internet from eBay to large online stores. These stores can’t offer official refurbished products, but they can provide used products that have been fixed up. Also, you can find better discounts than those offered at the Apple Store.

Trust is paramount here. Don’t just type a search into eBay and look for the best possible prices — that’s a quick route to scams and disappointment. Start by searching the most well-intentioned, specialized sellers. This includes Mac of All Trades, Other World Computing, and to a lesser extent PowerMax, among others (but not once-popular The Mac Store, which is now Simply Mac, an Apple affiliate that no longer offers refurbished goods).

Signs of a good deal

Obviously price is one of the most important factors of a sweet deal, but hold your horses and look for other signs of a smart buy. Whether searching the Refurbished Mac of the Apple Store or exploring other vendors, here’s what to watch for.

  • Warranties and return policies: A warranty provides some protection if your refurbished Mac suddenly re-bites the dust after you get it, saving you from wasting too much money. A great example is the Apple’s own one-year free warranty for refurbished goods, but other vendors offer protection too.
  • Testing: You want to buy a good from a company that offers product testing. Apple is the best at this, but other vendors also offer their own (albeit not brand-certified) testing procedures to assure quality.
  • Hands-on examination: This isn’t usually possible when buying online, but if you are looking at local dealers, make sure you can examine and test the product yourself to look for any obvious problems before buying.
  • Original materials: The original box, instructions and accessories are a great bonus. A reputable refurbished product should have these, as the like-new experience is part of what separates a refurbished model from a generic used Mac.

Signs of a bad deal

If you decide to head out to lesser-known third parties on eBay, Amazon and other corners of the Net, here are the signs that should send alarm bells shrieking in your head.

  • No warranties or guarantees: If a vendor doesn’t offer any type of protection or return policy, back away slowly. You are rolling the dice here, except the dice are made of your money.
  • No pictures: Come on, this is obvious. If someone isn’t posting real pictures of a product and isn’t a trusted vendor…don’t trust them.
  • A model that’s too old for you and Apple: While you may be able to get an older product for less money, that doesn’t mean you should. Old products stretch the meaning of “refurbished” because they usually lack support for the latest OS X features and have an old battery, hard drive and other components. If considered a so-called refurb that’s more than three years old, ask if the battery has ever been replaced.
  • Refurbished goods that aren’t refurbished: Sometimes a store says “refurbished” but it really means “selling used stuff.” This is common among smaller vendors on Amazon and eBay. Use a store that actually refurbishes and don’t put too much trust in the word itself.

Conclusion

A refurbished Mac may sound like a risk, but it’s actually a great way to save money. In fact, it’s arguable that there’s very little reason to ever buy a new Mac, if time is not of the essence. By waiting for models to pop up on the official refurbished Mac page you can save a bit of money while obtaining the same level of quality and the same warranty. Get out there and start your search!