How to bag a bargain on a refurb Mac or iPod

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 plunging into recession and a pinch gripping consumers' wallets, Apple has stood firm: Cupertino doesn't do cheap. Price is the only area in which Apple refuses to compete.

When Apple rolls out a new machine, its predecessor is retired. No markdowns, 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 the Refurb Store was only open on Wednesdays. Thrifty Mac fans would queue to buy products offered on a 'when it's gone, it's gone' basis. Now this section of its website is proudly open all week. The products are sold as "Apple Certified Refurbished Products". They're described as pre-owned, which usually means one of two things. Either they've served as a demonstration unit in an Apple Store or they've been sold (as new) and returned – for whatever reason – to Apple.

One reason buyers are hesitant to 'go refurb' is because they think they're getting something that's more likely to break. With a PC you can just swap out a part if it breaks. With a Mac, that's possible but trickier. However, Apple insists its refurb machines are in "100% 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 out through the Refurb Store it's fully tested, including full burn-in testing – where the computer is left running for a period of time performing tasks repeatedly, in order to winkle out any issues. Any parts identified as defective are replaced, before a full cleaning and inspection process. The machine gets packed up with the relevant manuals and cables, and gets a special serial number.

In theory, they've gone though even more checks and assurances than a new machine. "I bought an old-style iMac 24-inch from the Refurbished Store," says MacFormat Forum regular SwissMac. "Not only did I get a 28% discount on its original price but the spec was improved, too. The online store said I should expect 1GB RAM and a 250GB HDD, but both of these were doubled when I checked them!"

It could be new

There's speculation that not all refurb items on the Apple Store are actually refurbished products. Buyers have reported receiving products that appear to be 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 for those in the know. That's not to say 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," says Apple. Plus, they don't come in their original packaging, which might affect your machine's 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 Apple Refurb Store quite a following and bargain hunters monitor it obsessively. There's even a Dashboard widget to let you keep an eye on it.

"With the Refurb Store widget you can always have an eye on the latest refurbished Mac products, that is to say discount deals, available in more than 15 countries," says the developer. "The interface is divided into three products – Mac, iPod and iPhone – and shows detailed product names and the refurb price. You can save more than 30% off the original price!"