Buying a Used Mac

Why do I recommend that most people buy their Mac brand-spanking new? My reasons range from maximizing your investment, to not wasting time in the purchase process, to squeezing the most efficient production power out of your computer, to plain ol’ street cred.
Until recently, every time I looked at the options for used Macs — mostly on eBay — going the pre-owned route made little sense to me. Macs have long enjoyed a high resale value, but each new revision to the hardware used faster processors, accepted more memory and bigger hard drives. and better accommodated the latest OS X. So a buyer might save a couple of hundred dollars, but I would feel that their investment just wouldn’t last long enough to justify the initial savings.

Apple’s move to the Intel processors has changed the scenario. Macs that sport Intel Core 2 Duo are just marvelous. Also, from mid-2007 until just recently, the most popular, bread-and-butter models — iMacs, MacBooks, and MacBook Pros — have supported a maximum of 4 GB (“gigabytes”) of PC5300 RAM (“random-access memory”). Other specs such as bus speed and hard-drive sizes have improved, but in my experience, processor and memory are the most important factors in how a computer is going to perform the common day-to-day tasks of opening a document, loading a web page, or opening the average application.

Meanwhile, Mac minis didn’t change between mid-2007 and just this month. And while Mac Pros have seen some impressive gains in benchmarking, even the early versions of those machines would cut with a blazing saber through any tasks the average, non-professional Mac user could ever dream of throwing at them. The MacBook Air has remained quite static since its release.

So, yes, I’m suggesting that for many folks, a Mac from late 2007 will serve just as well as one from off the shelf at the Apple store. But eBay is definitely may not be the place to buy one, and definitely is. If you have a bit of patience, and some time, you can find a great machine at A MacBook, for example, might run you as little as $600.

Here are my requirements. If the machine you find on craigslist (or wherever) does not meet these, please do not spend your good money on it:

  • It has to sport an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or better, such as an i5 or i7. I don’t care what speed, but it can’t just be Intel Core Duo (note the lack of the “2”).
  • It has to be upgradeable to at least 4 GB RAM (memory)
  • It has to be either coverable by, or already covered by, the AppleCare Protection Plan (APP), which extends Apple’s hardware and software warranty to 3 years from purchase date. AppleCare can be applied to a Mac up to a year from original purchase date, so if the Mac you find is still young enough, and the original buyer didn’t get APP, be ready to buy it from Apple or Amazon or somewhere.

Note that if the Mac does not already have that 4 GB or AppleCare, you can use that as a bargaining chit. But if I may iterate: if it doesn’t have AppleCare and is older than a year, DON’T BUY THE MAC. Right before a Mac’s AppleCare coverage is going to run out, I strongly encourage you to take it to the Apple Store Genius Bar and asking them to give its hardware a once-over. If there’s anything wrong, they’ll fix it.

Should I buy a new Mac? (And what’s wrong with my old one?)

My laptop is a few years old, and running slowly. You suggest upgrading memory to speed a Mac up. Am I better off purchasing a completely new one rather than simply upgrading this one?

A Mac should last at least 3 years, the length of the extended AppleCare agreement. After AppleCare expires, you will have to pay for repairs. On a laptop, unless you’re skilled or intrepid, this is going to include parts and labor. Let’s ballpark the average likely repair — from a $200 hard drive to a $900 logic board — at $550.

Now, you can find a good, slightly used Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook on Craigslist for as little as $600. I used not to recommend that people buy used Macs, but the Core 2 Duos are just fantastic machines, and any one that can be upgraded to 4GB RAM is good enough for me or for almost any of my clients (the ones who don’t do serious graphics or multimedia production). If you do opt for a second-hand Mac, please make sure it is either covered by AppleCare or eligible for it, being younger than a year since original purchase date.

That said, I still place a lot of value in buying a new Mac, or one of Apple’s great refurb units.

When should I buy a new Mac?

My standard spiel (which usually starts with the words “my standard spiel”) is this:

After 3 years, you should have a new computer in your budget. After four years, be ready and willing to lay down some jack for a Mac. After five years, your Mac is past its prime, and will not be up to whatever awesome software Apple and other developer/magicians will have concocted.

Is it likely that a simple memory upgrade will solve my speed problem …

Yes, but depending on the model, a G4 Mac can, at most, go up to 2GB RAM, which is too little for modern computing.

… or would you expect others issues to be involved?

Check this post on slow macs and the spinning beach ball to learn how to use Activity Monitor to troubleshoot your Mac.

Where to buy a new Mac

I was wondering where the best deals would be for a new Mac would be? I want to start looking over the next few months for either an iMac like the one I use here, a Mac mini or an eMac. Any suggestions?

I just want to kick this one off, and ask for anyone reading to post their own thoughts on the matter. I’m going to ramble a bit now, but if you want to know how to buy a new Mac, I intend this to be a good place to start.

Which Mac Should I Buy?

Just poking around, I found this great Buyer’s Guide, which will give you some idea (not gospel, just suggestion) about whether it’s a good time to buy the particular model of Mac you have your eye on.

N.B.: I’ve said this before, but RAM, RAM, RAM! Don’t buy a new Mac with less than 2Gb RAM. You certainly don’t have to buy the RAM direct from Apple. I have all of my clients go to Crucial for much cheaper, and lifetime-warrantied, memory. Crucial actually makes the RAM that Apple puts in its computers, but they sell it for a lot less.

So, the eMac is dead, long live the educational-level iMac. But it’s severely crippled — it lacks Bluetooth and other stuff, so let’s skip past that one.

The Mac mini is a fantastic product, for certain applications. I use mine as a media server and to back up my home computers. They are also great for office administration and clerical work, kids, and some basic document production. Don’t consider them an option for more heavy-duty graphics or multimedia work. Factor in price of keyboard, mouse, and monitor if you don’t already have ’em.

The iMac or MacBook are right in the pocket for a household, and I know many graphic designers and photographers who have landed on the iMac as their main production machine.

If you will use your Mac for any pro-level production, or you like a big screen, or you’re a gamer or other sort of speed freak (wait, that’s maybe not the best choice of phrase 😉 or you purely want bragging rights, you should think about a Mac Pro or MacBook Pro.

Where Should I Buy It?

It’s very clear that, unless you’re a bit of a geek and want to mess around with an older machine, you should buy your Mac new. That includes Apple-refurbished units. You can buy used Macs at from SmallDog or PowerMax, or even eBay, but Macs hold a pretty good resale value through at least the first 3 years, so you simply won’t save all that much buying used.

Rejoice in refurb: Go to and look in the right column for “Looking for a great deal?” next to the “SAVE” sticker. On the ensuing pages, you’ll find refurbished Macs, and as long as you buy AppleCare with them (which you must do anyway), any of those are great.

Before you make a purchase, please allow me to put you in touch with my friends at the Apple Store at La Cantera. Also, Apple has finally set up a small-business sales department, which seems to be doing some pretty aggressive outreach. I have a contact on that team as well, but I’ve been really grateful to the folks at La Cantera for the service they’ve given every one of my customers.

By the way, if you haven’t been out to that store, it’s really worth it. They’ve established themselves on the forefront of the Apple Retail division.

Lastly, if someone in your household currently haunts the halls of academia, the best discounts on Macs are for educators and students. Go to the Education version of the Apple Store

That’s all on this for now. I’m anxious to hear some other opinions.