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Buy a used Mac (without getting burned)

With the economy in the tank, you or someone you know is probably putting off the decision to buy a new Mac. But what about a used Mac? Sure, it doesn’t have all the glitz of a shiny new unibody MacBook, but an older-generation MacBook might just do the trick for a lot less money. Heck, you’d be surprised at how well an older iBook G4 can still handle just about everything that you might want to do. Here’s how to make sure your money is well spent.

1. Check the battery life (laptops only)

As any road warrior knows, laptop batteries don’t last forever. One day you may find that the nearly three hours of charge you used to get has dropped to under two. So how can you check to make sure the battery in the laptop you’re considering is still good? Test it.

When you go to look at the prospective laptop, take a copy of Christoph Sinai’s free coconutBattery ( ) on a thumb drive with you. Pop it in the drive to check how much life is still left in the battery. What you’re looking for is cycle count—that is, how many times the battery has been charged and discharged during its lifetime. According to Apple, you can typically only charge a battery 300 times before it stops holding an 80 percent charge.

If coconutBattery tells you that the computer’s cycle count is over 250, consider skipping that machine, or ask for a discount so you have money left to buy a new battery. Replacement batteries typically cost $129 from the Apple Store. That said, you might want to budget for a new battery in any case.

2. Ask if it’s still under warranty

Some of the worries that a lot of buyers of used Macs have (including me) come down to two questions: “How reliable is this Mac?” and “If the logic board breaks tomorrow, could I buy a replacement?” New Macs come with a one-year factory warranty that guarantees the reliability of all of the Mac’s parts. If anything from the RAM to the display dies within a year, you can get a replacement part for free (although you may have to wait a day or three for your local Apple Genius to order and install the part.)

Fortunately for you, some sellers of used Macs get rid of their gear before that year is up. Ask whether the Mac in question is covered and, if so, when the coverage expires. If the warranty is still valid (even if it’s in its last week), you can buy AppleCare, a two-year extended warranty. (The price of AppleCare depends on the type of Mac you purchase. See the AppleCare Web site for details.) That way, if the machine turns out to be a lemon or to have a defect, you’re covered.

If you do buy the Mac, be sure to have the prior owner transfer the warranty to you as soon as possible. A simple phone call to AppleCare, at 800/275-2273, should do the trick. He or she will need to give your contact information to the representative.

3. Check the optical drive and get the discs

Bring a DVD with you so you can verify that the optical drive works. Also make sure to get all of the computer’s installation DVDs. These discs tend to sit idle until the one extremely stressful day that you really, really need them. If your Mac’s software is on the fritz, those DVDs are probably going to be the first thing you look for—an entire OS reinstall can fix many a problem.

4. Consider a refurbished Mac

If buying a Mac out of warranty freaks you out, there are other options. First, consider the refurbished model section of Apple’s online store. You can often get a great deal on Apple hardware at a fraction of the cost of a new machine, plus it will come with Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Many independent Mac retailers offer a 90-day warranty on parts, labor, and hardware sold as part of a refurbished or reconditioned Mac system. Be sure to check with your local shop to find out what its policy is.

5. Beware of the deal that’s too good to be true

Never buy a Mac that’s undervalued unless it’s coming from a family member or a longtime friend you trust. How do you know what the going rate for a used Mac is? Check eBay. Look under the “Completed Listings” link, which will appear in the lower-left area of the window after you've searched for something. Searching eBay and craigslist.org (which is in various cities around the country) is a great way to see what the acceptable price range for an item is.

When buying the Mac, consider whether you’ll need to put any additional money into it for repairs, possibly including an older Airport card (not the Airport Extreme, which some older Macs, including the iBook G3, do not support), additional RAM, or anything else. That, plus whatever you’ve budgeted to spend, should give you a more realistic idea of what your total expenditure will be.

Cyrus Farivar frequently reports for Public Radio International, National Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and The Economist from his home in Oakland, California.

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