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How to buy a refurbished Mac or MacBook computer

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Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple's Macs aren't cheap. Buying a premium, elegantly crafted machine comes with a price, and many are willing to shell out the big bucks, whether it's for the newest iMac or the powerhouse M1 MacBook Pros.

But if you want a Mac but just can't pay the hefty price, then a refurbished Mac is your next best option. Here is everything you need to know about buying a refurbished Mac, whether it's through Apple or another retailer.

Difficulty

Easy

Duration

5 minutes

What You Need

  • A computer or phone with internet access

What does refurbished actually mean?

Buying a refurbished Mac is different than buying a used, resold one. With the latter, owners are simply reselling their Mac with any existing problems it may have. Think of this scenario as buying a used car from a stranger. You really don't know what you're getting into problem-wise until you fire it up and after your wallet is drained.

Refurbished is different. The Mac is still pre-owned, but it was returned to a professional because of an issue or traded in for a newer model. Any malfunctioning parts are replaced, the product is tested to ensure everything works, and it's repackaged for resale. Think of this scenario as buying a used car from a dealership.

In both cases, the Mac is sold at a discount. However, refurbished Macs are often just as good as new ones, saving you money. A used Mac sold by a stranger may end up costing you more in the end.

Apple manages its own refurbished store, complete with its Certified Refurbished designation. Trained professionals ensure every device functions properly before putting it up for sale. The store offers the highest quality, so you're essentially getting a machine that barely differs from its on-the-shelf counterpart. It's a great instant-discount option when shopping for a new Mac.

A caveat applies, however, in that it's unusual to find current-generation Macs that have been refurbished, given that they likely haven't been returned. Typically, new products are on the market for at least a few months before any refurbished models appear. When they do, they're quickly snapped up.

The greatest range of products, then, will probably be between one and two years old. Anything newer is extremely difficult to find.

iMac sit on display at the official opening of the new Apple Store Via Del Corso.
Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Buying from Apple

Apple's Refurbished shop is the place to go if you want to buy a refurbished Mac straight from the manufacturer. With Apple, you know that returned Macs have been inspected, fixed, cleaned, and repackaged by professionals. Apple even backs these products with the same warranty you'd find on a new Mac, and you can further protect your device with AppleCare coverage.

Here are some additional notes to consider:

  • Apple's guarantee: 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, as the average rate hovers around 15%, which is good but not great. If you're lucky, some discounts can be as high as 25%.
  • Apple refurbishes more than just Macs: Macs and MacBooks are some of the most popular options, but Apple sells refurbished models of just about everything in the company's arsenal, including Apple Watches and iPhones. The website's leftmost menu shows what's available and what isn't, but keep in mind that inventory can change quickly, especially for popular products.
  • New models mean cheaper, last-gen refurbished models: Refurbished items become extremely popular when a new Apple product arrives. Sure, refurbished versions of new products take a while to appear, but potential buyers immediately begin wondering if they can get an older model for a cheaper price, which drives them to seek refurbished products. In other words, availability tends to be scarce and competitive immediately following a major release.
  • Cheaper models tend to be the most in-demand: For example, iPads with just Wi-Fi are hard to find, but those with cellular options are more common.
  • No-cost shipping and returns: You just can't beat free.
iMac sit on display at the official opening of the new Apple Store Via Del Corso.
Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Choosing the right vendor

There are options beyond the Apple Store if you're looking to grab a refurbished Mac. Many third-party vendors -- including Amazon and Best Buy -- specialize in refurbishing. These stores don't always offer products refurbished by Apple. Instead, they have in-house technicians that specialize in Mac repair. Even more, these stores offer their own guarantee and, at times, better discounts than Apple.

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. Instead, look for quality brands that offer well-reviewed refurbished items. Some of the more common retailers include:

Other World Computing: OWC specializes in used computers and tends to shy away from smaller Apple devices. The good news is the company has a great reputation and its prices are generally lower than that of Apple's, plus there's a two-week return policy.

Mac of All Trades: Mac of All Trades offers some of the best deals in the Mac world. Quality can sometimes be an issue, but the one-year warranty and expedited shipping make this a great alternative to the Apple Store. Keep in mind, however, that inventory tends to be in high demand, so options are limited.

Amazon: Amazon is a great place to find online options collected from a variety of vendors, including Apple R Us and Open Electronics. Always look for a high user rating before you think about buying, however, and keep in mind that many of the available models only differ slightly, so it can be difficult to find what you want.

PowerMax: PowerMax is a Premier Partner with Apple for Macs, iPads, and iPhones, and it provides a 120-day warranty for used Macs. The site is harder to navigate and use than something like the Apple Refurbished Store, though, so some patience is required.

Best Buy: Best Buy is an Apple Authorized Service Provider. In addition to offering repairs when an Apple Store isn't available, this chain sells a limited number of refurbished Macs through its own program. They're frequently sold out, but if you're a Best Buy customer and can get loyalty points or other benefits, it's definitely worth a glance.

Signs of a good deal

Price is one of the most important factors of a sweet deal, but there are other things to consider. Whether searching the refurbished section of Apple's website or exploring other vendors, here's what to watch for:

  • Warranties and return policies: A warranty provides some protection if your refurbished Mac unexpectedly bites the dust, saving you from wasting too much money. A great example of this is Apple's one-year warranty for refurbished goods. Thankfully, other vendors offer similar lines of protection.
  • Testing: You want to buy a Mac 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 ensure the utmost quality.
  • Hands-on examination: This often isn't possible when buying online, but if you're perusing local dealers, make sure you can examine and test the product yourself. Doing so will allow you 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 its used counterpart.

Signs of a bad deal

If you decide to utilize lesser-known thirty-party suppliers, here are signs of a deal you should avoid:

  • No warranties or guarantees: Steer clear of vendors that don’t give you any sort of protection or return policy. Furthermore, if the warranty is notably short, then the seller most likely doesn’t believe that their product is dependable. You are rolling the dice here, so considering looking elsewhere.
  • No pictures: If you find that your vendor isn’t displaying actual images of a product and isn’t a reliable vendor, we suggest you run far away. These people can't be trusted. 
  • A model that’s too old for you and Apple: Although you might manage to obtain an outdated product for a lower price, that doesn’t mean it's the best idea to go this route. Older products stretch the meaning of “refurbished” because they typically don't have adequate support for the latest MacOS features and consist of old parts. If you’re thinking about buying a refurbished item that’s over three years old, we suggest asking if the battery has ever been replaced. Also be sure to check Apple's site to see which Macs are compatible with the latest version of MacOS.
  • Refurbished goods that aren’t refurbished: There are times when a store claims their item is refurbished, but what they really mean is it's used. This is prevalent among smaller merchants on Amazon and eBay. We advise picking a store that genuinely markets refurbished goods and doesn’t put too much faith in the terminology.
Tyler Lacoma
Former Digital Trends Contributor
If it can be streamed, voice-activated, made better with an app, or beaten by mashing buttons, Tyler's into it. When he's not…
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