Used Macs

Computers are expensive things. A premium laptop
can cost as much a decent second hand car, and even
at the budget end something like an iMac still demands
expenditure comparable to a really good television
or sound system. Even the bits and pieces added afterwards,
like software, printers, and so on can easily come
in at over a hundred dollars a throw. Even the best
computers can seem to have a frighteningly short
shelf life: without significant upgrades, after two
to three years it can be difficult to find new games
that will work on your once top of the line desktop
computer, and only slightly longer for multimedia
applications and things like Internet browser plug-ins.
All told then, people who place high demands on their
computers for their work and entertainment can easily
tie up two or three thousand dollars in them, and
expect to replace a large portion of that every few

Unsurprisingly then, many people look to find ways
of saving money when shopping for computer equipment
by buying second hand. If all you want to do is surf
the web or use productivity applications like word
processors and spreadsheets, then an older Macintosh
can fit the bill very well. Many offices and schools
use computers that are four or five years old without
any problems at all. However, once you start looking
at older machines than the USB-equipped G3 computers
of the late nineties, you run into the problems of
the radical change in the ports used for connecting
printers and other gizmos like scanners and removable
drives. Getting hold of devices that use the serial,
ADB, and SCSI ports popular then is difficult now,
while the majority of modern FireWire and USB devices
cannot easily be adapted to work with Macs lacking
those ports.

But assuming you are looking for computers that
have the right set of ports for the peripherals you
own and adequate speed, storage, and memory for the
tasks you intend to use it for; then buying a used
machine can be a sensible way to save money and a
lot of fun to boot. Of the Macintosh computers I
have owned over the last ten years, eight have been
second hand machines, compared with only four that
I have bought brand new. Some have been bought for
serious use, but others simply to add to my collection
of vintage Macs, and for the most part all have worked
well. What follows are a few tips that are worth
considering if buying a second hand Macintosh appeals
to you.

Refurbished and Ex-Demo Machines

Buying a refurbished or ex-demo machine is by far
the safest way to get hold of good Macintosh at a
low price. Refurbished machines are usually current
or previous generation stock that has been sent back
to the dealer for a variety of reasons, and were
then rebuilt and repackaged. Apple sells refurbished
computers online at the Apple
, and that should certainly be the first
port of call for anyone wanting a deep discount on
the usual retail price. There are numerous computer
stores that sell refurbished Macs as well, such MacResQ,
Dog Electronics
, and Power
. A search on Google using “refurbished
Macs” will bring up a host of other sources.
Generally, refurbished computers are in good physical
condition and come with the original packaging, system
disks, and so on. They also come with a warranty,
typically for 90 days, though Apple offers the full
1-year warranty that comes with their regular stock.
The only catch to all this is that the discounts
relative to buying similar machines new is fairly
small; expect something of the order of ten to thirty

Ex-demo, or ex-demonstration, stock are machines
that have been used in a showroom or sales floor
but have now become obsolete since the stuff being
sold has changed. To promote a quick sale, ex-demo
computers are sold at a significant discount. This
commonly happens when a computer producer changes
their line-up and dealers need to quickly make space
for the new models. Ex-demo stock often shows a bit
of wear and tear, as you would expect, but otherwise
comes with the same sort of security as the dealer’s
regular stock. So unless otherwise stated, ex-demo
equipment can be expected to come with the regular
Apple 1-year warranty. This is because demo equipment
is drawn from the retailer’s regular stock, and not
loaned by Apple, and so the retailer, not Apple,
bears the costs of the discount. Although ex-demo
equipment isn’t available all the time, the time
to look is when Apple announces a new range of products.
Discounts are comparable to those on refurbished
stock, maybe even a bit better, depending on how
anxious the dealer is to clear out the stuff.

Computer Repair Stores

Many cities have stores that specialise in buying
in used computer equipment, particularly PCs, games
consoles, and entertainment software. These can be
well worth visiting. The advantage to many of these
stores is that they have their stock set up and working
in the showroom, which gives the prospective purchaser
the chance to test out the machines before laying
down the cash. The salespeople are generally knowledgeable,
particularly if computer sales is only part of their
business and complements their repair and upgrading
services. Another bonus is the wider range of stock
likely to be seen. Whereas conventional retailers
carry only the most recent lines, these stores can
be expected to carry stock of all vintages: you are
just as likely to find a ten year old PowerBook as
a two year old iMac.

Location is everything when it comes to shopping
in used computer stores. Places located in big, commercial
cities are the best as they tend to buy in bulk purchases
of desktop and laptop machines from publishers, accountants,
and so on that regularly update their IT equipment.
Prices vary wildly depending on the age of the item
being sold, but in general tend to be competitive
with the going rate for used computers sold on the

Yard Sales, Small Ads, and Thrift Stores

The American tradition of yard sales provides fertile
ground for Mac users wanting a machine on a budget,
but unlike refurbished or ex-demo stock, anything
bought from a yard sale is very much caveat emptor
(“buyer beware”). Usually anything offered
for sale is simply dumped in a box and priced, and
it may be impossible to even check the computer works.
The plus side is of course the prices can be ridiculously
low: the Mac SE sitting on the table across from
me here came with the cables, manuals, and a printer
all for the princely sum of one US dollar.

The small ads, or classified ads, in many newspapers
and magazines can be a useful way to track down used
computer equipment, but like yard sales there are
no guarantees involved. The one notable thing about
people selling used computers in computer magazines
is that they often expect unreasonable prices (you’ll
often see a used Mac a year or so old being sold
for much the same as a similar refurbished item –
but without the pre-sale servicing or a guarantee).
On the other hand, sales in newspapers are often
much more realistic, but still, be sure and compare
the price asked there with what similar equipment
is going for at one of the refurbished Mac dealers.

Thrift stores occasionally take in computer equipment,
and price them a little higher than a yard sale but
generally much less than a private seller in a small
ad. Almost always they are sold “as is”,
with no warranty that they work, though you may be
able to ask to plug the thing in and see if it works
before buying. Even if the thing dies when you get
it home, at least you can console yourself that the
money wasn’t wasted and is probably doing more good
with Goodwill than in your back pocket.

Online Auctions (Such as eBay)

Buying online is the easiest way to see a wide variety
of equipment, but it is not without its problems.
The most important of these is that auctions are
designed to get people to pay over the market value
for goods by stimulating their desire to win. Skillful
buyers circumvent this by bidding very carefully,
but most people who log onto eBay do it not to make
a wise purchase but to get hold of something rare
or difficult to find in any other channel. This certainly
holds true for used Mac hunters; no other venue offers
such a wide range of computers of every age and at
every price point.

A big problem for computer buyers is that a lot
of the stuff sold on eBay and other similar auction
and trading sites is sold without a warranty. Since
you cannot inspect the goods, you must go very largely
on trust that what you are buying is in good condition.
To be fair, many of these auction sites have feedback
or ratings given for the various sellers, so you
can at least get a sense of how trustworthy other
buyers have found them to be, but this still falls
short of an actual guarantee.

Often, you’ll see the seller point out some flaw
to the machine, but mask it somewhat by saying that
“they’re no computer expert” or that “someone
told them it was easy fix”. This may or may
not be true, but don’t place any money on it. Assume
only what the advertisement says, that the thing
has this fault, and bear in mind that few computer
repair jobs come in at under a hundred dollars. Another
common disclosure is that the seller “lacks
experience of Apple computers” and so has no
idea if the thing works since he or she can’t test
it out. Again, play it safe and assume this is nonsense,
and a heads-up that something might be wrong.

A hidden catch to buying from an auction is that
while the price of the actual computer may seem low,
many sellers use the shipping costs to guarantee
a healthy profit (a quick look on eBay while I was
writing this gave me fixed shipping fees on SE and
Classic sized computers ranging from $25 to $50).
So it is critical not to look just at the bidding
price, but on the delivery costs as well. On balance,
buying on an online auction is my least recommended
way to get a used Macintosh. The risks are high,
and the savings often not that great and frequently

Buying from Friends

Not recommended. I sold a PowerBook to a friend
once, and now he’s no longer my friend. The problem
with money and friendship is they don’t mix; if something
goes wrong with the computer after it’s sold, the
buyer is going to feel tricked. If you must buy from
a friend, then at least come to an agreement on the
condition of the machine at the time of sale, and
ask the seller if you can try the thing out for a
week or two to reassure yourself everything is working


There are two golden rules to buying used computers.
Firstly, do your research before spending any money.
It is all too easy to get a computer at a bargain
price, but then find out that it doesn’t run the
applications you need or connect to your printers
or network. Even if the thing was a steal at twice
the price, if it’s no good to you, it’s still a waste
of money. Portable computers in particular do not
age well, so if you are shopping for a PowerBook
find out not just about the condition of the main
battery but the internal PRAM battery (that keeps
track of date, time, and other settings), whether
or not the AC adapter works properly, and if all
the ports still function. Cosmetic details are less
important and usually a cheaper fix, but a computer
that looks good from the outside is likely one that
has been well looked after and so a much better bet
for the careful shopper.

The second golden rule is to examine the deal carefully.
A warranty is worth paying extra for and dealers
who offer them are much more likely to be sure that
the goods they are selling are sound and in working
order. If you cannot get a warranty, then at least
try and see the machine first hand to see that it
is working. Finally, don’t forget that shipping can
up the cost of purchases markedly, especially at
the cheaper end of the market. A $25 shipping fee
on a $2000 machine is trivial, but on a $100 one
it is far more significant, and probably prohibitive.

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