Time marches on and technology gets cheaper. Falling prices and constant improvement has helped to underpin one of the longest economic booms in history. But with the world flirting with 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.
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!"
As mentioned earlier, often a refurb doesn't come in its original packaging. If it does, it might be torn or ripped where shipping labels have been added and torn off. But this doesn't seem to reflect the quality of the product inside.
"I've bought every Mac that I have ever owned from the Apple Refurb Store," says Mac fan, Jon Waters from Cambridgeshire. "That includes every Mac I've bought for my wife, every Mac at my office and every Mac I've suggested to my friends and family. Everything's come from the Refurb Store and none 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."
Some people take the money they save and pimp out their Mac further. "I'm on my second Apple refurb," says Michelle King from Doncaster. "I have a refurb PowerBook that's served me well for years without any issues. And I just got a refurb iMac. It looks and works absolutely perfectly. With the money I saved I bought an extra gigabyte of RAM, a wireless keyboard and a wireless mouse."
Bagging a bargain
Getting the best deal from the Refurb Store can be a bit of a dark art. The store is monitored slavishly by many eagle-eyed bargain hunters and dithering for too long often means that your item goes. But choosing often isn't straightforward because of the variety of products on offer.
For instance, there's a white MacBook with a 2.1GHz Intel Core Duo processor and a Combo drive for £599 - £100 off the RRP. But for an extra £38, you could order a model with a 2.2GHz processor and an 8x SuperDrive. Or, for an extra £60 on top of that, you could have the sexier black model - and take the memory from 1GB to 2GB and get a 160GB hard drive.
Apple's Refurb Store is seen by obsessives as a barometer of Apple's plans for product updates. Often, in the run-up to Macworld, the Refurb Store will seem to offer more products that look likely to be refreshed - whether it be laptops or iMacs. "The last refurb product I bought from Apple (an iPod) came in complete retail packaging, shrink-wrapped," says Mac fan IJ Reilly on the MacRumors message board.
"The product refresh came a couple of weeks later (drat!). I believe selling off new hardware as 'refurbished' is one of the sneaky ways Apple has of clearing out excess inventory before a refresh." Some have found it possible to snag bargains on the Refurb Store and 'flip' them on eBay for a small profit. Part of the reason products don't hang around for too long is that they're snapped up by Mac scalpers.
"You're getting what amounts to brand new products at less than their 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 from the Refurb Store to be delivered straight to the buyer."
In theory, buyers can tell it's a refurbished machine because the serial number is different, but most don't bother/think to look - or they simply don't know how.
Peace of mind
Most refurb customers agree that buying refurbished is the safest way to get a cheap Mac. But if you're still worried, there's a solution - you could use the money you saved to add AppleCare to a package.
You can buy AppleCare to protect any machine, not just 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 of warranty cover.
Refurb Store versus eBay
Despite the success of Apple's Refurb Store, when it comes to getting a Mac on the cheap, most turn to eBay - a goldmine for refurbished or 'used' - Macs. Picking up a machine here can be a bargain, but it's not without its pitfalls.
For some reason, Macs seem to be a popular target for scammers who will create copies of legitimate auctions in an attempt to snag eBayers into sending money via untraceable Western Union. Seasoned eBayers advise paying close attention to a buyer's feedback. If they don't have a history of selling electronics, or they haven't had a transaction in a while, be extra careful - their account may have been hijacked by a scammer.
Recently, a spate of listings for £500 MacBook Pro machines worried buyers. "Some people look at their 10 feedback and think that these sellers are OK," says Roba on the MacRumors.com forum. "These sellers' feedback is usually very suspect. A good majority of the people who have left them feedback aren't even registered members any more."
It's widely known that Macs hold their resale value better than PCs, with used models changing hands for a good chunk of change long after they've disappeared from the Apple Store website. James Stoup of AppleMatters.com recently ran some numbers to calculate just how better they fare.
"A new machine currently costs $2,000, while a year-old machine 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 from there fairly rapidly (like with PCs). But instead, prices seem to level off a bit, which means you can - and in fact, I just did - sell a six-year-old laptop for close to $400. This is even more impressive when you realise that you can buy a brand new laptop from Dell, Acer, Toshiba and the like starting at around $600."
Stoup thinks it's because Apple's hardware stays relevant longer than the equivalent in the PC world. "With Windows Vista, all the reviews I have read seem to recommend you run the operating system on either a new machine or at least a fairly recent one. How many Mac users bought a new machine to run Tiger? Quite a few, no doubt, but it should be noted that I ran Tiger just fine on a six-year-old 667MHz laptop. Go get a six-year-old Dell and let me know how well it runs Vista."
Apple isn't the only company offering official refurbs, either; Cancom is also an Apple-authorised refurbished seller, so if you can't find the Mac or iPod you want through Apple's store go to www.cancomuk.com/home/clearance/refurbished-products. Don't give up hope; your next Mac is out there, waiting to be bought. And it's going to cost you less that you thought.