Thursday, March 14, 2013

Guide To Buying a Refurbished Mac Computer

Part 1: Decide What To Get
I decided it's finally time to replace my HP Pavillion dv5000 laptop. Since I'm sure nobody has even heard of that model anymore, let's just say it's amazing it still works, struggling to run Windows XP with an AMD single-core processor, an 80GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM. I've had my heart set on a new(er) Mac laptop for some time now, and finally got the go-ahead from my better half to buy one.

After playing around on the models available as of this writing at the local Best Buy store, she wanted to buy the 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display on the spot. Not so fast, I said, and convinced her that we could grab a great deal by buying a refurb. And rather than buying a refurbished Mac to save money, I am buying a refurbished Mac to get more bang for my buck. Instead of getting a new 15" MacBook Pro Retina 2.4GHz core i7 with 8GB RAM and 256GB of flash storage, we could suddenly afford a refurbished MacBook Pro Retina 2.6GHZ core i7 with 16GB RAM and 512GB flash storage for about $150 more. Sweet! (I wanted the extra RAM and SSD space since nothing about the Retina generation of machines is user-serviceable without a lot of hassle.)

(You can also pick up an older generation machine at the refurb store for considerable savings. If I wanted a Mac mini as a home theater PC for example, I probably wouldn't mind settling for one from 2011.)

Part 2: Make Sure Refurb Is Right For You
A little online research yields an impressive amount of positive reviews for Apple's refurbished store. A variety of Mac magazines and forums say that you essentially get a brand new Mac, looked at by a real human, with the same 1-year warranty as the new ones. The only downside is that it ain't 100% brand new: someone else has already smelled that new computer smell and then sent it back for some reason or another. This doesn't bother me one bit: the average savings are around 15% on refurbished Macs, and some models (specifically the higher-spec'd one I was looking for) give deeper discounts of 25%+ off the regular retail price. And Apple guarantees them to be pretty much good as new.

As an aside, I think buying refurbished is a no-brainer for most people. I could have saved a bunch of money back in college if I had just shopped the online refurbished store the summer before I left for school instead of going to the Apple store in person. Luckily the kind salespeople talked me out of the notion that I needed a PowerBook (top of the line at the time) and convinced me the more pedestrian iBook G4 would suffice for my needs. And it did.

But I imagine there could be some situations where refurb isn't what you want. If you're giving a gift, for example, the possibility of having cosmetic defects or having some kind of stigma attached to your gift since it's a refurb would make me think twice. Or if I was getting one for work and someone else was paying the bill, bingo, I'd rather have a brand new one.

Part 3: Watch, Wait and Buy
At this point I knew exactly what I wanted and exactly where to get it. There was only one problem: the specific model I wanted with the extra RAM wasn't available at the Mac refurb store at that time. If you check the refurb store and see what you need, you're in luck. But I had to resort to some other tactics to retain my sanity - rather than check the refurb store every minute, I needed a tool that would check it for me and send me an alert when the product I wanted was available.

To my surprise there is actually a tool that does exactly that. Enter refurb.me (http://www.refurb.me/us/), an online tool (based out of Hong Kong, for what it's worth) that shows which items are in stock at the refurb store and can send users alerts via email or text message when your preferred build is available. Sure, it's a little sketchy since it's from Hong Kong and there doesn't seem to be any ads on the site, which leaves you wondering how they support their site... but whatever, there's definitely no harm in just looking at the refurb.me site, and it's way easier to track down a specific product there than on Apple's own store.

I signed up for a free refurb.me account (with one of my disposable email addresses) and (thought I) configured it to send me a text message when the refurb product I wanted was available. (more on that below.) I slept soundly, thinking I would be among the first to know if my soon-to-be new refurbished Mac was available for sale, day or night.

I also started using refurb tracker (http://refurb-tracker.com/) to create an RSS feed for the product I wanted. This tool lets you create a customized RSS feed for products on the Apple refurb store in specific categories. You can also create an RSS feed by user-enetered text, like "i7" and "16GB", then read them in a browser. Assuming I had everything set up right, if there were no new feeds, it meant that what I wanted wasn't available yet. Way easier than checking anything manually.

In the end though, both of these products didn't help me! One day I went to the refurb.me site and saw my target model was green, meaning in stock, but I hadn't gotten any notification at all! After looking at my refurb.me account, somehow I had created an account but not signed up for any notifications. Maybe I hadn't confirmed something with my account after clicking the email they sent me, maybe I misread something in their instructions (which aren't in the best English). Either way when my computer became available, there was no alert telling me about it.

At the same time, I also must have configured my refurb tracker RSS feed wrong (I had to use an app to read the RSS feed on my iPhone 4) so it didn't show me when a new product was added to the section of the refurbished store I was interested in! Luckily, I was able to get an order in without seeing a single alert.

In the end, compulsively checking the refurb.me website (not their alert service) and the Apple refurbished store is what let me jump on the new batch of products and order a new refurbished computer. I would say if you are using refurb.me or refurb tracker for something critical that you simply cannot afford to miss, you need to be extra careful about setting them up properly. There really isn't a way to test that they work, and in my case had I not manually checked the refurb.me website I would never have been able to get the deal I wanted. Lesson learned.

These two tools do have a few other perks though. The refurb.me site tells you when specific products were last seen and gives you a little graph of their price history, which can potentially help you anticipate when the next batch is going to be available. Of course, I also noticed (from the RSS history) that new groups of products hit the Apple store at seemingly random dates and times, and there was no obvious schedule for checking back to nab that elusive product.

One final caveat to the Apple refurb store: some of the products say "Available to ship in 24 hours" and some say "Ships in 1-5 business days". Not sure why that might be, but telling someone that's waiting that they'll send it in 1-5 business days is like telling a kid that Christmas could be coming any time between December 25 and December 30 this year. Still, I guess it's worth the wait since you can save a few dollars. Happy shopping!

2 comments:

  1. Based on my experience buying refurbished Iphones & an Ipad, I can guarantee that they are as good as new. I’ve owned these items for over a year, they still look good and have no manufacturing issues. If you wanna shop for used Apple devices and still have money left in your wallet, check out www.experimacsfl.com, you’ll enjoy Black Friday prices all year round!

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