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The Ultimate Mac Buyer’s Guide, Part 2: The Huge Value of Refurbished and Used Macs

This is the second in a series of articles from Mac Expert Lloyd Chambers examining the many considerations Mac users must make when choosing the best Mac for their needs.

In The Ultimate Mac Buyer’s Guide, Part 1, he outlined how best to choose a Mac for your needs. In Part 3, he discusses high-end configurations, and in Part 4, he tackles how to figure out how much memory your Mac really needs.

In this article, I discuss the pros and cons of buying refurbished or used Macs. In The Ultimate Mac Buyers Guide, Part 1, I outlined how best to choose a Mac for your needs, starting with form factor and other physical considerations, plus touching on performance and what counts and what doesn’t so much. I mostly left price and value out of that discussion.

What’s the difference between the latest and greatest Mac and last year’s model? One year. Yeah, Mac performance today is way more than most users can use, stunningly strong, and that has been true for 3-4 years now.

The Apple marketing persuasion machine hypnotizes users into thinking that each new Mac or iPhone is a big improvement. Rarely is that true other than incremental gains and sometimes obnoxious negatives. Newer is not always better. The reality is still brewing its coffee while the “faster and better” narrative sprints around Silicon Valley thrice and is digesting lunch before anyone takes a hard look.

In these times especially, a dollar saved is way more than a dollar earned—and it’s not what you make, it’s what you keep. Keep more by spending 2/3 to 1/2 or even less for a Mac that delivers serious value with no significant operational differences. Parent with kids? Your ship has arrived!

For example, the last Mac I bought (in April 2023) was an Apple MacBook Pro M1 Max at a deep discount (see in-depth review). Yes, I’d have liked the M2 Max or M3 Max version (well, maybe not), but I’d have spent $5600 instead of $3200 for marginal real-world gains while traveling, even considering my professional photography needs. Put simply, it would matter very little while on the road.

Perhaps you are in a similar situation where 90% of the real-world performance for 60% of the cost makes sense? And that 10% or even 20% is subtle for most uses and users.

Value: Big performance for a fraction of the cost

Here in 2024, Macs have gotten so impressive that just about anything made in the last 4-5 years will rarely disappoint.

For example, we see a steady stream of refurbished Macs with the M1 chip, which, though three years old and two generations behind the status quo, remains a seriously impressive performer. And the best Mac ever designed, the iMac 5K, is no longer produced by Apple, yet, in my humble opinion, it is still is the best overall Mac in existence.

Besides absolute cost, there are multiple reasons that a refurbished or used Mac might make sense for you:

  1. Better value: Performs amply for required tasks at a fractional cost.
  2. Convenience/appeal: Apple no longer makes an iMac 5K but it’s still IMO the best overall design, ever.
  3. Compatibility: Running existing or old software that will not otherwise run. For example, my business accounting software is an expensive upgrade that will not run past macOS Mojave.
  4. Virtual machines: New Apple M1/M2/M3 Macs will not run older software that is Intel-based. For example, I “lost” half a dozen Parallels virtual machines this way.
  5. Matching existing setup: Another matching computer for workflow reasons. Use what is proven to work in professional environments—get another copy of what you know works.

I’ve bought a number of my Macs refurbished in like-new condition, saving 15% or more each time. Can’t tell the difference vs new, excepting the outer box.

Refurbished/used considerations

The “sweet spot” of a full factory or factory-equivalent warranty at a steep discount makes most sense to me as a risk mitigation strategy. Weigh that against a shorter warranty.

  1. Apple factory refurbished with full Apple warranty, generally eligible for AppleCare.
  2. Used with partial warranty (Apple or otherwise) e.g. 90 days.
  3. Used “as is”. So long as you have a reasonable evaluation period, this can be a terrific deal.

Warranty is the most serious concern because Mac repair costs can be high, so high that it often means scrapping it. A used Mac lacking a warranty should have some reasonable grace period to verify its status. However, often these are deeply discounted with nothing wrong and are likely to just keep running.

For example, I have a 2012 MacBook Pro that ran as a server 24/7 for about 7 years. No issues until it finally gave up due to a battery that went to 0% life due to a bug in macOS that caused that to be a problem (otherwise it was fine). I chose to swap it out—that’s a lot of runtime and value!

Batteries age and wear out so that picking out a used laptop warrants some consideration. Make sure the battery life is at least 80% and that the battery can be replaced at reasonable cost—with some models the battery replacement is not an easy job.

I don’t mind cosmetics much; you ought to see my 2019 iMac 5K, which took a header from my desk to the floor of my Sprinter van… the metal has a couple of collission-grade dents. It’s run flawlessly since. I suppose I could file off the sharp edges.

Recommendations

Desktops are generally more reliable than laptops. They are not subject to bumps and thumps as with a laptop. Being better cooled, desktops also sidestep the biggest risk for electronics failure: heat stress. If you do not need a laptop, you get more for less with a desktop computer. Desktops are also far better in ergonomic terms.

Refurbished and new Macs and more at MacSales…

A keyboard and mouse are needed with desktop computers, and might also be useful with laptops in a desktop setup eg with a separate display.

TIP: the Apple Magic Mouse is an ergonomic/usability dumpster fire; I go for the old USB-A Apple Mighty Mouse (wired) with the scroll thing on top. Plug the mouse into the matching Apple Wired Keyboard with Numeric Keypad  and then just plug goes into the Mac.

Displays

You’ll need a display for a Mac Studio or Mac Mini. And a 2nd display for other Macs can enhance workflow productivity. I am a big fan of the Retina displays. Check out the Apple 27″ 5K Studio Display for example. Here on MacSales, you can get a brand-new, factory sealed Studio Display at a huge discount.

Apple Cinema Displays at MacSales…

iMac 5K / 4K and similar

iMac 5K

The iMac 5K is my all-time favorite Mac. The gorgeous 5K display is so good that buying this computer is basically like getting a free computer with a really nice 5K display! It is hard to overstate just how nice this combination is—incredible!

iMac 5K and similar at on MacSales

And yet Apple inexplicably no longer makes the iMac 5K, and with no signs of replacing it. Another huge plus to this machine is that memory can be upgraded in minutes all the way to 128GB. The 2020 iMac 5K and 2019 iMac 5K are particularly nice, the 2020 being the last of the line. I am *so* tempted to grab one before they disappear.

Macbook Pro and MacBook

MacBook Pro

The best value in laptops is the factory refurbished 2021 MacBook Pro M1 Max, but with a little time that will shift to the 2022 MacBook Pro M2 Max.

Even if you’re a professional, the M1 Max will likely meet all of your needs. If you can’t find an M1 Max, be on the lookout for used and refurbished M2 Max models.

MacBook Pro at OWC and MacBook/Air at OWC

Mac Studio and Mac mini

These desktops are an excellent choice, but a separate display is required. They make the most sense when you have a display already (otherwise see iMac 5K).

The Mac Mini suits a lot of people, but the Mac Studio M1 Max or M2 Max is a particularly capable and better cooled machine, and suitable for many years of usage. Unfortunately, newer models (of both) do not have upgradeable memory. So, be sure to get enough to grow, because these machines should last a long time.

Mac Studio at OWC… and Mac mini at OWC…
Apple Mac Studio

Conclusions

Refurbished and used Macs can be a terrific savings when they match up with your needs. Especially with the full factory warranty they rock—my hands-down preference for saving while giving up little or nothing.

OWC regularly gets fresh batches of factory refurbished and used Macs, as well as other used Macs, iPhones, iPad, etc. Each used Mac is certified by Apple Certified Technicians and backed by an OWC warranty.

Check out all new and used Macs at OWC…

View all posts by Lloyd Chambers… Lloyd’s photo web site is diglloyd.com, computers is MacPerformanceGuide.com, cycling and health are found at WindInMyFace.com, software tools including disk testing and data integrity validation at diglloydTools.com. Patreon page.

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Lloyd Chambers
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10 Comments

  • Thanks Lloyd…. I may jump to the M! when they come down , but the 16″ 8 core w 64gb and 8tb ssd that I bought after our last consulting round has me satisfied “enough” for the time being. I’m also an aesthetic sucker for that machined unibody.

  • Seems like you’re implying that the switch from the (current bargain) intel macbook pros to the M1 Macbook pros had compelling real world advantages?

  • You didn’t address the issue of the non-replaceable internal SSD, which seems like kind of a ticking timebomb.

      • But a used one is already further along in the process. Sure, you could put an external drive on the computer if the internal drive fails, but you’d have to be careful not to buy one that’s much slower than the original drive, and if you ever wanted to sell the computer later on, having a non-functional internal boot drive is probably not good for resale value.

        Does Apple put in a new drive when they refurbish them?

        • Apple Refurbished Macs are not old computers. They are basically returns that someone used for 15 days or so. I see no valid concern here unless Apple would start selling computers that are actually used. These are basic buy-and-return.

        • “Does Apple put in a new drive when they refurbish them?”

          I don’t think Apple can install a new drive when refurbishing, since in most cases it is a soldered-on SSD. That would be very expensive (parts and labor), and have reliability concerns.

          SSDs these days have very long lifetimes. It is possible to wear one out, but with rare exceptions, it would have to have been intentionally abused.

          • They’re not just used for storage though. They’re used as virtual memory, as well, and quite possibly very heavily if your computer has the minimum RAM specs.

            • True. Ideally, Apple would provide a %life remaining statistic.

              In life you takes your chances. I’d say the odds are darn good with used Macs.