Shop Smart: Savvy Computer Shopping

A system, whether it's a desktop or a laptop, is the biggest investment most Mac users make. Fortunately, there are ways to get more Mac for your money, and to extend the life of the system you already have.

The Best Time to Buy

Apple often introduces additions or updates to its hardware line at major conferences, such as Macworld Conference & Expo (both in the United States and abroad) and the Worldwide Developers Conference. So to avoid buying a top Mac on Sunday and then seeing it replaced -- and its price dropped -- on Wednesday, don't buy right before a conference.

Apple also announces new machines at random times, so keep an eye on the analyst reports that are often quoted on Mac news sites such as MacCentral ( www.maccentral.com ) and in general-technology newsletters such as NewsFactor ( www.newsfactor .com ). Signs that may point to an imminent hardware upgrade are reports of Apple clearing out inventory or halting shipments of certain products. And if Apple hasn't updated a product for a long while, an upgrade may be just around the corner.

In 2004, Apple may have a presence at the following major conferences: Macworld Conference & Expo San Francisco (January 5 through January 9), the Worldwide Developers Conference (usually in May or June), and Apple Expo Paris (in September). -- alan graham

Second Time's a Charm

Apple-refurbished products are often great deals. Whether someone has returned a Mac or a Mac is found to be defective, Apple puts the machine through a stringent refurbishment process and gives it an original Apple one-year limited warranty. Buying refurbished equipment could save you 10 to 30 percent of the price of a new Mac.

We compared prices for an eMac and an iBook -- both new and refurbished -- at three suppliers. We chose the online Apple Store ( http://store.apple.com; go to the Special Deals section), the Small Dog Electronics Web site ( www.smalldog.com ), and a brick-and-mortar CompUSA store ( www.compusa.com ). The refurbished items won the price war every time. -- ag

Put Your Education to Work

You may be eligible to purchase a Mac for less through an educational discount. At an Apple Store, the hoi polloi can buy a 1.25GHz Power Mac G4 with an 80GB hard drive and a DVD-R/CD-RW drive for $1,299. With an educational discount, it costs only $1,199.

But you can't just waltz into a store, announce yourself as a teacher at the School of Hard Knocks, and expect to save 100 bucks. To qualify, you must be an employee of a K–12 institution, a school-board member, a PTA or PTO executive, affiliated with a qualified home school, or an employee of a preschool. College and university faculty, staff, and students also qualify.

You can get the educational discount through your institution's hardware-purchasing program; to find out more, contact your school's MIS department. Or go through the Apple Store Web site -- just click on Educational Discount on the main page. After you enter your school name and complete your order, Apple calls your institution to verify that you're appropriately involved in bookish endeavors.

If Apple doesn't sell the product you're looking for, Gradware ( www.gradware.com ) also offers significant educational discounts (often as much as 50 percent). You'll need to fax them proof of your student status, such as a student ID, a class schedule, or a letter on your school's letterhead. -- ag

Package Deals

If you don't need a new computer right away, keep an eye out for special package deals that can make the most of your money. For example, at press time, ClubMac ( www.clubmac.com ) threw in a free Epson Stylus C84 color ink-jet printer (which has a list price of $99) with any Mac purchase. Just be sure to read the fine print. Many packages are a deal only after a mail-in rebate. If you don't take that extra step, you won't save any money. -- ag

Finance It

Gotta have a Mac now but can't afford to pay the full price all at once? Consider using the Apple Instant Loan, which gives you as long as five years to pay. Depending on your credit history, you can get a credit line of up to $10,000. Interest rates start at 9.99 percent and go up from there, so you could end up with a painfully large bill, but there aren't any penalties if you pay off the loan early. Plus, there are no processing costs or annual fees. You can apply for the Apple Instant Loan at the Apple Store site. -- ag

Preventive Care

"Would you like to purchase an extended warranty?" Who hasn't heard that question from a salesperson? Some retailers push extended warranties to drive up commissions, but that doesn't mean they're always a bad deal. Apple offers an extended warranty, the AppleCare Protection Plan. It can add substantially to a Mac's price -- as much as $249 for an iBook and $349 for a PowerBook. But if your Mac has serious problems (and especially if you're not comfortable tackling repairs yourself), an extended warranty can pay for itself on your first visit to the repair shop. (Just remember that if you're willing to crack open your Mac's case, you can save a lot of money. See " Before You Replace It, Repair It " for more.)

What You Get The AppleCare Protection Plan extends coverage of Apple-certified repairs from one year to three years, and it gives you free phone support for three years.

CompUSA also offers extended warranties on Apple products (with the iBook, for example, the extended warranty costs $249); however, coverage length is only two years. Also, CompUSA's protection doesn't include direct Apple phone support.

Buy It Now or Later You can add the AppleCare Protection Plan as long as your original warranty is in effect. CompUSA isn't so lenient -- you must buy it when you buy the Apple product. Both companies let you purchase the extended warranties at their online and retail stores. -- ag

TIP

You can still buy an Apple extended warranty, as long as you're covered by your original warranty.

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