Blog — Tips and Tricks from the Mac Zen Team

How and why to buy a Refurbished or Clearance Mac

If you've gone shopping for a new Mac in the last decade or so, you might've found just how difficult it is to snag a deal. Apple products are very rarely on sale, and their pricing is remarkably consistent, whether you're shopping online, in a corporate store, or at a third party retailer like our friends at Byte Computers.

However, there is one place you can reliably find discounts on factory-sealed Apple stuff, buried in the links at the bottom of the official Apple Store website: the Refurbished and Clearance section. Yea, a veritable bounty of discounts! But just like any sale rack, there are some tricks to finding just what you need. 

Fellow deal-hunters will be glad to know that these "refurbished" machines are, for all intents and purposes, factory fresh. Most of the inventory here is either sealed in box and unsold, or consists of returns from Apple or third-party retail locations. The latter machines are painstakingly disassembled, tested, and put back together with the same rigorous standards as a fresh-off-the-line model, so there's no need to worry about the providence or status of your new Mac. They also come with a 1-year warranty, free shipping, and free returns, plus they qualify for AppleCare.

The real rub comes when you compare the specs of these models to each other and to the machines in the regular lineup; as you'll find, many of the units here have custom upgrades that prevented them from going back into regular stock. Sussing out what these changes mean for you is often the hardest part.

Let's look at a couple examples. Here's a refurbished 13.3-inch MacBook Air on sale for $1139. The base 13" Macbook Air is $1199, so are we really only saving $60 here? To find out, you need to take a look at the specs. For one, this machine comes with 256GB of flash storage — that is, how much room you have to store pictures, movies, music, etc. whereas the base model comes with only 128 GB, and it usually costs $250 to go with the larger version. But! That's not all. This refurbished Mac has 4GB of memory (AKA RAM), as opposed to the 8GB that comes in a new model.

Usually, having lower specs than the regular model is a sign that this refurbished computer is either a machine that's been sitting around in stock for a while unsold, or that it's actually an older model than the current lineup. In this case, checking wikipedia, you can see that the model hasn't changed, but that 8GB of RAM has been standard on 13" MacBook Airs since April 19 of this year.

So, what's this mean? This computer would likely be great for someone who has a fair bit of "media", i.e. those movie, music etc. files we talked about, but still wants a lightweight machine. They also need to have pretty casual requirements for use; someone trying to edit video, produce music, or do a lot of things at once would likely have an issue with only 4GB of RAM.

Here's another one, this 12-inch MacBook in the clearance section. By comparing the specs, you can see that it's got a slightly different processor (Intel Core M vs. Intel Core m3) and a different graphics card (Intel HD Graphics 5300 vs. Intel HD Graphics 515). It's also marked as being released originally in April 2015 as opposed to the new model released in April 2016. However, both this and the new base model have a 1.1 GHz processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, making them quite comparable. At $1649 vs. $1349 it's a $300 savings, but there is one catch — it's got the slightly odd French Canadian keyboard.

The sheer number of refurb models available right now, and the diversity of specs can sometimes make it pretty tough to tell what's a good deal, and whether the machine you're looking at is going to suit your needs. But with some judicious googling and comparing of specs, you can usually make a pretty good educated guess. If you're unsure, or if you'd like us to take a look at what you've got and make a recommendation, just drop us a line any time. Happy bargain hunting!