Buying used and refurbished Apple in 2021, what should I know?
December 24, 2021 3:50 PM   Subscribe

I need to purchase a mac laptop and apple watch. I am on a limited budget, and so I want to buy refurbished/used. But its been a loooong time since I've done that. I don't need anything even as new as Apple Refurbished laptops, and want to keep the price under $600. I am afraid of the risks with buying used, so purchased a macbook via Amazon's Renewed program and was MASSIVELY let down. So what are my other options? My series 2 watch is dying, so I also want to replace/upgrade.

I have a very limited budget. The laptop is for school and I want to stick with the Apple ecosystem both for convenience and familiarity, and because I am starting to learn and am comfortable with their accessibility tools.

I purchased a 2017 12" macbook (1.2ghz, 8g, 256g) via amazon, as their renewed program had certain standards they claimed would be met - no serious cosmetic damages, checked over for defects, minimum 80% battery life. The cost was more than used would be by the tune of $150-$200, but that was worth it for me to not have unknowns and scams.

Laptop came with HUGE dents in the cover and back, covered in crumbs (like they didn't even wipe it down), crumbs and gunk between the keys and the holes for the speakers look clogged, and the battery life is only 75%, when the guarantee is at least 80% battery life. It's a used notebook and it appears there isn't any QA to assure that they met the standards of the program. I feel fleeced, and while I'm grateful I can return, I could just as easily gotten something used from ebay with their return policy (I think, its been a while since I purchased a big ticket item on ebay).

So I'm trying to decide what to buy and from where next. I like the idea of refurbished or some kind of guarantee, even if it costs more. But I know nothing about the refurbished market right now. I keep getting adds for Back Market, but do not know the quality. Conversely, I'm not super opposed to used if the price is right, but need some advice on what diagnostics to check - I figured out how to do for battery life, but unsure what else to do. I'm relatively computer saavy, but my knowledge is old and out of date. I can open a terminal and check systems logs but shrug emoji on hardware diagnostics.

I think this also applies to wanting a new used or refurbished apple watch. I planned to buy refurbished or even the renewed program, but now I'm leary given my experience with amazon renewed. While I know it COULD be one random bad experience, a closer look at reviews on amazon and Back Market shows others complaining about issues w/r/t either scratches or hardware problems, thus making me believe that the refurbished/renewed market isn't much better than used unless directly from, say, Apple.

- Smaller Macbook or macbook pro that can run at least the latest os.
- lightweight for portability as I have shoulder problems that make carrying heavy laptops difficult, so probably a 12" or 13". 13" would be preferable but I've had a 12" in the past and the mistake I purchased was a 12"
- at least 8gig memory and 256gig hard drive so I can transfer over files from the cloud. But 512gig would be ideal
- Preferably gold because I like when things match and I have a gold I phone
- would actually take a damaged unit if the price discount was steep enough
- in good enough condition to not have to worry about repairs for a while
- needs to be able to run accessibility options like voice control, dictation, alternate pointer control (camera) and maybe the resource heavy Dragon Naturally Speaking
Budget: Ideal under $500, could stretch to $600

Apple Watch:
- 38mm/40mm
- series 4 or later -I want fall detection and ECG. I have had some bad falls, including one where I lost consciousness. Would just feel better having that. I think that means no SE
- Ideally under $200, could stretch budget to $300 though this stretch is harder
- ideally gold for the same reasons above

I don't need AskMe to find those items, but rather where I can find used or refurbished to meet those standards, and how to navigate the second hand market to get a decent price with fewer problems. That might mean used but how to look for potential problems, or resellers of refurbished and new that have a good quality standard and/or decent return period if there are problems. (however, won't turn away some suggestions to specific products)
posted by [insert clever name here] to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like Apple's own refurb site, which is the most reliable place to go, is out of your price range, but you may want to look into Mac of All Trades.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:35 PM on December 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

Have you tried Swappa? I've never bought there myself, but it's often recommended here when asking about buying used tech.
posted by cgg at 4:43 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Don’t buy any used Macs from Other World Computing - they sent me a MacBook Air 11” with a bad key and tried to run out the 30-day warranty so they wouldn’t have to address it. I had to fight them to send a replacement key cap and it still doesn’t work well.
posted by porn in the woods at 5:04 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The resale value of working used Apple laptops has always been crazy high due to the very limited supply. Buy a $10 casio watch and use that money to fund a new laptop.
posted by Lanark at 5:07 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I bought a 2015 11-inch MacBook Air on Swappa for $300 last month. It's very lightweight and running Big Sur. It's not as flashy as an up to date Mac but it works. If you're open to larger computers (I really wanted 11 inches) you can get more up to date ones for $400-$500. Swappa has watches too.
posted by hungrytiger at 5:15 PM on December 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I like Mac of All Trades.
posted by 8603 at 6:14 PM on December 24, 2021

I've yet to hear anything good about Amazon "Renewed" stuff. It's just used. Amazon can barely keep their vendors from committing outright fraud; they do not strike me as a company that is remotely capable of maintaining quality standards for refurbished tech goods. TBH, I think it just gives a veneer of quality for shifty sellers to hide behind, rather than having to build up a good reputation and brand by themselves. Yuck.

I've yet to buy a laptop from Swappa, but I've bought my last three or four phones there, plus an iPad, and sold two or three items as well. Every experience has been good, including even the one where someone sent me a locked phone by mistake and I had to return it; the seller express-shipped me the replacement at no charge. People seem to be pretty honest, leaning towards conservative, in their ratings of item condition. So I wouldn't have any hesitation in buying a laptop on there.

If you buy on eBay, I would buy from someone who seems to be "in the business" of buying and refurbishing/reselling computers rather than someone who is doing a one-off sale. If you look at a seller's other auctions, it's generally pretty obvious what the underlying business is like. What you really want is someone who is buying gently-used corporate or edu turn-ins and cleaning them up for sale, which is a business with pretty thin margins that's done on volume. Avoid anything that looks too good to be true; there are basically no "deals" to be had in Apple gear (unless you have a rich uncle or something).

One thing to keep in mind is the maximum version of Mac OS that a particular model can run (without hacking it). E.g., you are good to run the latest OS version all the way back to the Mid 2014 model MBP, but as soon as you get to the Late 2013 model, you should notice a discount in price due to the inability to run Big Sur. If you can get away with Catalina for your current software needs, and only expect the machine to last a year or two at most, you might save some money that way.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:19 PM on December 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

Will note I’ve had good experiences with Mac of All Trades (but many many years ago) and Apple’s refurb store. I always check the latter for any Apple products before looking at full retail.
posted by hijinx at 9:36 PM on December 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I presume you’re in the US. I’m in the UK and bought a refurbed iMac a few months ago from a place called Hoxton Macs and it arrived like new. I may never buy a new computer again. I wouldn’t give up on the refurbed thing. But wherever you buy from, check the reviews are solid first.
posted by cultureclash82 at 9:53 PM on December 24, 2021

Apple's refurbished stock changes continually, and it takes some time and patience to find the best deal. I would use Refurb Tracker to set up an alert when an Intel-based MacBook Air shows up.

Their price history database shows the Intel models go for about $650 these days. If you sold your current model for $100-$200 you might be in budget. (Unless I misread and your budget includes the value of the unit you are trying to return) The Intel models are indeed not the latest greatest but they will do the job and you will have the peace of mind that the unit has been reconditioned to factory specs with a full one year of warranty.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:48 AM on December 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: JoeyZdeco yes, value includes the laptop I’m returning. Max $600 overall. It really doesn’t need to be a powerful or new computer, just not so old that I’m constantly waiting on the spinning wheel. I have have a really old iMac (2011 education edition) that is barely tolerable and does not have the accessibility features I need because it only supports high Sierra. It doesn’t have Bluetooth, so doesn’t support my trackball. Also the constantly spinning wheel for minor tasks is maddening. This is where I say it doesn’t need to be much- if it’s faster than that and is new enough to do voice control and alternative pointer input- iirc that requires Catalina and above. I was working off of a 15” 2014 MBP that has a disk failure but was perfectly adequate. It might be fixable but I really need something that is light enough for me to carry - I also had a loaner laptop from my university, but it was a bulky windows laptop that made carrying difficult. Plus windows, A) yuck B) I am not familiar with their accessibility tools and I am already having a hard enough time transitioning to (I hope to eventually try and fix that MBP, because I have years worth of work I don’t want to lose but dunno if I will be able to).

I also had a 2016 macbook that died about a year and a half ago, so have a sense of how that model worked, and thus have been looking at models at that level and newer.

(I am pretty sure in retrospect that both failed because of power/voltage issues at my old apartment. Ive never had macs die, period and that apartment had observable power sags. (Sigh)).

The MBP was a refurb from Apple many years ago when it was new to me. And I have an Apple refurbished ipad. So I’m a big fan, it’s just even the cheapest laptops there are out of my price range right now. Just barely in the grand scheme of things, but they are.

Someone upthread suggested that I skip the Apple Watch and apply that to laptop, but my Apple Watch is one of those tools that has helped keep me on task and as someone with adhd, I need all the help I can get. But aside from the failing battery, it died spectacularly last night. I had to go without it for weeks at a time in 2019/early due to pain and swelling in my arms, and it was a nightmare. I am surprisingly dependent on tech in my life. If I had any thought of limping the watch along for any longer, that is out the window.

I may eventually be able to get a new/better laptop through my states vocational rehab program- in fact I likely should have by now if they weren’t so slow, I’m waiting on an assistive tech eval and I am sans laptop right now. My hope/plan is to then resell whatever laptop I get and use that to add to the budget for a new laptop. Also why inadvertently purchasing a busted and janky laptop is such a problem, I know macs have a decent resale value and I was counting on that. I really just need enough to get by for near future, which could be 1-6 months.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:53 AM on December 25, 2021

You are trying to buy something below its market price. The refurb market price is actually around what Apple is selling it for, and the secondary market betting that is largely composed of what Apple wouldn’t take back.

I’m sorry but I think that any attempt to go outside that ecosystem is going to be a crapshoot. Definitely stay away from Amazon refurbs. In your shoes I ended up learning Linux.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:57 AM on December 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

I've never bought a mac off of ebay, but I have bought thinkpads there from multiple sellers and been pleasantly surprised by how pristine their condition was. (Surprised because I was wary of buying secondhand without being able to see and try out the computer first; before the pandemic I'd always bought locally.) Ebay also has some nice filtering tools, so you can filter for most of your criteria pretty easily. I haven't had to file any kind of dispute with anyone so I don't know how that process goes, but I've seen a lot of comments to the effect that ebay tends to side with the buyer rather than the seller.

I'd make sure the seller has a very high rating (99.[as close to 9 as possible]), that they've sold a fair amount before - ideally a fair amount of the same type of item (macs, or laptops in general) - and that the listing has a lot of detail and pictures that aren't stock photos. The exception to the last point would be bulk sellers listing macs that were used in business/school environments.

Ultimately, though, I'll say what I always say: buying a computer (or other device like a smartwatch) is basically a crapshoot. Everyone can be acting honestly and responsibly and your device might still die or malfunction 6 months from now, or the moment it goes out of warranty if it's new. To be honest, that's why I always try to buy under my budget if possible - there's always the chance I'll have to repair or replace things.
posted by trig at 11:06 AM on December 25, 2021

I am pretty sure in retrospect that both failed because of power/voltage issues at my old apartment.

FWIW, at risk of a sidebar, this... is very unlikely to be the case. If anything, voltage spikes might kill the AC adapter that powers the laptop (and which contains a number of protective features to keep transient spikes from ending up on the DC lines feeding the machine), but sags in particular are very unlikely to destroy a laptop itself.

If you look at the adapter's specs, they are rated to work just fine at 100% duty cycle down to 100V AC, because that's what's used in some parts of Japan as line voltage, and up to at least 240V, because that's what's used in Europe and other places.

Maybe you just had a run of bad luck, but if some outside factor did "kill" those machines, I would be concerned that it still might be present, because it was probably not the electrical system in your residence. I have done some rather horrifying and dark things to power Apple laptops (shitty Chinese diesel generators, solar panels, etc.) and they are quite hard to kill.

I would just be cautious, since that is a bit suspicious for two laptops to fail in the same way in a short amount of time like that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:31 PM on December 25, 2021

If you buy a Macbook from Ebay, chances are it's stolen unless the seller can prove the firmware password. A friend sold me their MBP and when I needed to replace the keyboard bc it was failing due to manufacturer defects, we both found out that they bought a stolen MBP, because that was what the Apple Repair store needed to make sure that it was mine. The seller closed its store and left no traces. Very unpleasant experience, ended up needing to pay $900 to replace both the keyboard and the entire hard drive itself so I could set my own firmware password. If you are okay with that, I would feel comfortable buying off Ebay regardless.
posted by yueliang at 1:45 AM on December 28, 2021

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