Time marches on and technology gets cheaper.

Falling prices and constant improvement helped to underpin one of the longest economic booms in history.

But with the world in the grip of a recession and a pinch gripping consumers' wallets, Apple has stood firm: it doesn't do cheap.

Price is the only area in which it refuses to compete. When it rolls out a new machine, its predecessor is retired - no discounts. But for those in the know, Apple does provide a way of getting new computers at bargain prices. It's called the Refurb Store - an initiative that Apple has quietly run for years.

Waiting game

For a long time, Apple's official Refurb Store was only open on Wednesdays. Thrifty Mac fans would queue (virtually) to buy products offered on a 'when it's gone, it's gone' basis.

Now, however, it's open all week - head to store.apple.com or store.apple.com/uk and look for the Special Deals section, where all refurbished products live. The products are sold as Apple Certified Refurbished Products. They're described as pre-owned, which usually means that they've been used as a demonstration unit in an Apple Store or been sold (as new) and returned to Apple, for any reason.

One reason buyers are hesitant to 'go refurb' is because they think they're getting something more likely to break. With a PC, you can replace a part if it breaks. With a Mac, that's possible but trickier. However, Apple insists that its refurb products are in '100 percent working condition'.

Far from being polished up and bunged in a box, the machines go through a stringent series of checks. Before a Mac goes to the Refurb Store, it's fully tested, including full burn-in testing - where it's left running for a period of time performing tasks repeatedly, to winkle out any issues. Any defective parts are replaced, before a full cleaning and inspection process is carried out.

The machine then gets packed up with the relevant manuals and cables, and gets a special serial number. In theory, it has gone though more checks and assurances than a new machine.

"I bought an old-style iMac 24-inch from the Refurb Store," says MacFormat forum regular SwissMac. "Not only did I get a 28 percent discount on its original price but the spec was improved, too. The online store said to expect 1GB RAM and a 250GB hard drive, but both of these were doubled!"

Cheaper Macs: they could be new

There's speculation that not all items on the Refurb Store are actually refurbished products. Buyers have reported receiving kit that appears brand new.

The reason for this might be that Apple uses the Refurb Store as a clearing house for discontinued products. When a new MacBook comes out, the previous model will be obliterated from Apple's website - except for the occasional listing on the Refurb Store.

That's not to say that there are no drawbacks. "As these refurbished products have been unpacked and manipulated, they might exhibit some minor cosmetic imperfections, such as scratches, marks or discolouration," states Apple. Plus, some products don't come in original packaging, which may affect the resale value if you later put it on eBay.

There's no telling what will be on offer until you visit. Sometimes the cupboards are bare, but other times they overflow with bargains. This unpredictability has given the Refurb Store quite a following, and bargain-hunters monitor it obsessively.

There's even a Dashboard widget available to help you keep an eye on it. "With the widget, you can always have an eye on the latest refurbished products available in more than 15 countries," says the developer.

As mentioned earlier, a refurb often doesn't come in its original packaging. If it does, it might be torn or ripped where shipping labels have been added and removed. But this doesn't seem to reflect the quality of the product inside. "I've bought every Mac that I've ever owned from the Apple Refurb Store," says Mac fan Jon Waters from Cambridgeshire. "None of them has failed. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the refurbished Macs have actually run better than a family member's new Mac."

RAM upgrade

Some people take the money they save and pimp out their Mac further. "I just got a refurb iMac. It looks and works absolutely perfectly. With the money I saved, I bought an extra gigabyte of RAM, and a wireless keyboard and mouse," says Michelle King from Doncaster.

Bagging a bargain

Getting the best deal from the Refurb Store can be tricky. It's monitored slavishly by eagle-eyed bargain-hunters, and dithering often means that your item goes. You've got to be pretty quick when you know what you want - but choosing often isn't straightforward because of the variety on offer.

The Refurb Store is seen by obsessives as a bit of a barometer of Apple's plans for upcoming product updates. Often, in the run-up to big announcements, the Refurb Store will seem to offer more products that look likely to be refreshed.

"The last refurb product I bought from Apple came in complete retail packaging, shrink-wrapped," says Mac user IJ Reilly on the MacRumors message board. "The product refresh came a couple of weeks later."

Some have found it possible to snag bargains on the Refurb Store and 'flip' them on eBay for profit. Part of the reason products don't hang around for too long is that they're snapped up by Mac scalpers.

"You get what amount to brand-new products at less than retail price," says one source, who asked not to be named. "Often you can add £100 and sell them on eBay within a few hours.

You don't even have to order them yourself - if you're quick you can sell it on eBay, then order it to be delivered straight to the buyer." In theory, buyers can tell it's a refurb machine because the serial number is different, but most don't think to look - or simply don't know how.

Most refurb customers agree that buying refurbished is the safest way to get a cheap Mac. If you're still worried, there's a solution - you could use the money you saved to add AppleCare to any package, and not just to computers that you buy 'new'. As long as you purchase and register your AppleCare within one year of buying your product, you'll get an additional two years' warranty.

Apple Refurb Store vs eBay

Despite the success of the Refurb Store, when it comes to getting a Mac on the cheap, most turn to eBay. Picking up a machine here can be a bargain, but does have its pitfalls.

For some reason, Macs seem to be a popular target for scammers who create copies of legitimate auctions to snag eBayers into sending money via untraceable Western Union. Seasoned eBayers advise paying close attention to sellers' feedback. If they don't have a history of selling electronics, or haven't had a transaction in a while, be careful - their account may have been hijacked.

"Some people look at their 10 feedback and think these sellers are OK," says Roba on the MacRumors.com forum. "The feedback is usually suspect. A good majority of the people who left it aren't registered members any more."

Macs hold their resale value better than PCs, with used models changing hands for a good chunk of change long after disappearing from Apple's website. James Stoup of AppleMatters.com recently calculated just how much better they fare:

"A new machine currently costs $2,000, while a year-old one sells on eBay for around $1,500, and a two-year one for about $1,000. At this point, one would expect things to go downhill fairly rapidly, but instead, prices seem to level off a bit. This means you can sell a six-year-old laptop for close to $400. This is even more impressive when you realise you can buy a brand-new laptop from Dell starting at around $600."

Stoup thinks it's because Apple's hardware stays relevant for longer. "With Windows 7, reviews seem to recommend you run it on a new or recent machine. How many Mac users bought a new machine for Tiger? Quite a few, no doubt, but I ran Tiger fine on a six-year-old 667MHz laptop."

All of which adds up to one simple fact: if you're looking to buy a Mac but are concerned about the relatively high purchase prices of Apple's new machines, you should turn to the Refurb Store before you try looking anywhere else. Your next Mac is out there, and it'll cost less than you thought.