Apple products aren’t cheap. It’s not surprising that people are trying to save money by exploring used and refurbished MacBook options.
But how to know which MacBook to buy? How to avoid a mistake when making a selection. How to make sure that the used MacBook will still be good enough in 3 or 5 years?
So, which MacBook should you buy? The best used 13inchMacBook Air is Mid 2013 (i7-4650U @ 1.7 GHz). The best used 11inchMacBook Air is Mid 2012 (i7-3667U @ 2.0 GHz). The best used 13inch MacBook Pro is Early 2015 (i7-5557U @ 3.1 GHz). The best used 15inch MacBook Pro is Mid 2014 (i7-4980HQ @ 2.8 GHz).
My claims are based on tons of research I made. But before I present my findings, let’s answer some common questions related to buying used MacBooks.
I have a lot of tables in the post.
Used vs. refurbished vs. new
Used MacBook is the one that was used by someone earlier. The refurbished MacBook is a used MacBook which was tested and cleaned by a seller (or a manufacturer). Usually, refurbished MacBooks come with a limited 30-day warranty, and the seller agrees to replace or refund in case problems were found during that period. Used products are sold as-is.
So, in theory, buyers prefer refurbished products to the used ones. However, refurbished products are usually more expensive than used.
What is the lifespan of a MacBook?
I know a lot of examples when people used MacBooks for longer than ten years and were happy with their laptops. And if it is reasonable to assume that an average MacBook (Air or Pro) can last for ten years, you can decide which used laptop is right for you.
For instance, if you plan to use it for the next five years, it makes sense to look for 5-year old or newer models.
Do MacBook Pros last longer than Airs?
This is an interesting question. Empirically, I believe that the chances that the hardware breaks are the same in case of Airs and Pros. However, since MBPs have better CPUs, it makes more sense to invest in MBPs than in MBAs. Better CPU means that old laptop still can run new or updated applications.
Do Macs last longer than PCS?
Definitely. I don’t know a computer laptop manufacturer which produces laptops that hold values longer than Apple.
Do Macs slow down over time?
Mechanical parts tend sich as fans or HDDs tend to break down over time. However, things like SSD, RAM, and CPU should perform as well as they used to 10 years ago. Fortunately, the latest MacBooks have minimal mechanical parts, so in theory, they should be fine.
The problem is as always with the software. If you keep using the same software and never update it, then you should be ok. But, if you install a new version of the game or Microsoft Office, then the new software may work slower.
Can I speed up my old MacBook Pro?
Yes, you can. I wrote an article about improving MacBook performance:
Earlier I named the best MacBooks in each category. How did I come to such conclusions? Let me show it on an example of MacBook Air.
What is most important when buying any laptop? Performance, expandability, upgradeability.
According to the GeekBench the CPU benchmarks for MacBook Air 13inch models looks like the following:
In this table, there are two benchmark columns: Single Core and Multi Core. The single-core benchmark shows how fast a single core is. It is a very important metric because the speed of most applications depends on the speed of one core.
Single-core benchmark is linear, i.e., if the MacBook with score 4000 is twice faster than MacBook with a score of 2000.
A Multi Core benchmark shows how the applications that use advantages of multiple processors can run. If you don’t have such applications having more core allows running more applications at the same time.
When choosing a MacBook, chose the ones with better Single Core score and then select the one with the best Multi Core score.
You may be wondering how it happened that the Mid 2013 model has a better score (3385) than Mid 2017 model (3341)? The 2013 model has a more powerful Core i7 processor when the 2017 model has Core i5 CPU. Core i7 is more advanced than i5; it has more on-board cache and more power. And in most cases, the older i7 is faster than newer i5.
But, when you compare Apples to Apples (pun intended), the picture makes more sense. A 2013 model with i5 processor has a score of 2678 which is way lower than 3341 of 2017 model with another i5 CPU.
It is also interesting to compare 2011 models along with the 13inch models. As you can see from the following table, the 11inch MBAs follow the same CPU pattern as 13inch ones (older i7 CPUs are faster than newer i5).
Now, let’s compare prices for each MacBook in the following table. The prices in the table are average prices from eBay. You may find cheaper or more expensive MacBooks on eBay because prices fluctuate daily.
In the table above, I listed the models and two columns: average price and CPU/price ratio. I used Single Core score as a CPU value in ratio calculations. The higher the ratio, the better the deal.
Based on my calculations, the best models were: Mid 2013 and Early 2014. With those models, you get most CPU for the buck.
Expandability and display
The newest MacBook Air has only 2 USB-C ports. It may sound not bad until you realize that when charging an MBA, one of the ports will be taken. So, if you have two devices connected to the new MBA and it needs charging, then one of the devices have to be disconnected (which may or may not be possible).
The expansion characteristics and screen resolutions of the MacBooks we compared earlier I put in the table below:
So, in theory, you can have 2 USB and 1 Thunderbolt devices and a memory card connected while powering a pre-2018 MBA. A 2018 MBA is the worst option when it comes to expandability.
The screen resolution was the same for all MBAs between 2012 and 2017. Only in 2018, MBA got a Retina display. So in case of MBA display is not a deciding factor.
Besides limiting the number of ports Apple in its obsession of making thinnest laptops made upgrades of the newest MacBooks impossible. I remember days when it was straightforward to change the RAM. Just pop up the cover at the bottom of the laptop, unplug old RAM, and plug in new.
Unfortunately, in MacBook Air, the RAM is soldered, so if you want to replace memory in MBA, you need to have special skills and tons of experience.
However, replacing SSD is something that anyone with little technical abilities can do. There is a well-known high-performance SSD upgrade from OWC (Amazon). They have options from 480GB to 2TB. If you are afraid to perform upgrade yourself, they offer expert installation as well for an additional charge.
There is also an alternative SSD upgrade from Feather (Amazon) which may be cheaper than OWC.
How do all above apply to the models we were reviewing? It is not possible to upgrade RAM on any MacBook models, but SSD upgrade is available for all MBAs except 2018.
So, what the conclusion? If we take into account all three factors: CPU/price ratio, expandability, and upgradeability, then MacBook Air 13-inch Mid 2013 (i7-4650U @ 1.7 GHz) is a winner.
Next, I will provide similar information for MacBook Pro 13 and 15-inch except for the price. Armed with the information, you will be able to make better decisions.
MacBook 13 inch
Expandability and display
None of the MacBook Pros in the tables above have upgradeable RAM. The SSD upgrades mentioned in the MBA section also apply to MBP 2013-2015. There is another SSD upgrade from OWC (Amazon) which works with 2012-2013 models. They have a good table which describes upgrade paths, so check it before buying SSD modules.
I would rank 13inch MacBook Pro is Early 2015 (i7-5557U @ 3.1 GHz) first on my list. It has a Retina display, a lot of expansion slots and its SSD can be upgraded. The second on my list is Mid 2012 (i7-3520M @ 2.9 GHz) because it was the last model that had SuperDrive.
MacBook 15 inch
Expandability and display
Similar to MBP 13inch, 15inch models do not allow changing RAM, but SSD upgrades are available for 2012-2015 models.
I would rank Mid 2014 (i7-4980HQ @ 2.8 GHz) first in the list of 15inch MacBook Pros. It has all the same parameters as 2015 but it’s cheaper. While 2016 comes with a TouchBar, the butterfly keyboard had a lot of issues (I have them too).
Where to buy used MacBooks
Apple Web Site
The first obvious option when shopping for a refurbished Mac is the Apple web site. Apple certifies all products here, and they are backed by a 1-year warranty. They come with all the required accessories and cables and get packaged in a brand new box.
However, even refurbished products when bought from Apple directly are costly. Also, Apple only has models from the last 2-3 years. Don’t expect to find a 5-year old MacBook on apple.com.
There are several stores that specialize in selling used Apple products. Among them Mac Of All Trades, PowerMax, MacMall and Gazelle.
These stores have a limited quantity of refurbished MacBooks from all years. If you are looking for reputable refurbished MacBook stores, it makes sense to browse what they offer. However, I find their prices are too high.
So, I can only recommend them if having a peace of mind when buying a used laptop is more important than getting the best deal for the money.
Following three options may provide the best buying opportunities, but they come with risks.
My friend recently bought MacBook Air 13-inch Early 2014 with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage for $276 on eBay.
At first, I didn’t believe him, but he showed me the receipt. I asked him how he managed to get the best deal, and he shared his tips with me, which I want to share with you now.
To make it easier for you, I selected all the options my friend selected when searching on eBay and prepared the links (affiliate) for each MacBook:
All you have to do now is to limit the max price you are willing to pay.
How to know if a price for MacBook is reasonable or not? There is Price Check thread on Reddit where you can ask people to price the MacBook with a specific configuration. So, anything below the price check value is a good deal.
This platform is the least safe place to look for deals. Craiglist has safety guidelines which everyone should follow. They include tips such as meeting at public places, avoiding inviting strangers into your home, having a friend accompany you.
Unfortunately, the Craiglist is full of bad people, and they know multiple ways to steal your money.
For instance, I found an excellent deal on a MacBook Air yesterday, and the Craiglist indicated that the seller was local. I sent him a request asking if he could provide additional screenshots so I can decide if the MacBook fits the description. He replied with some pictures and the email:
“I have some bad news, I am now in Edmonton, Canada. I hope we can still make the sale.”
I suspected that this was a scam when the new pictures were slightly different than the originals.
In the next email, he offered a way to make a deal using a service that looked legit except that wanted payments with money orders or Western Union. Here’s his email:
“I found a delivery company called Fast Way Direct that will deliver the Mac to you and allow you to test it before I receive my money. I can pay for a 2-day delivery. Please read their procedure so we can be on the same page: https://fastwaydirect.com/how-does-third-party-works”
I started searching what fastwaydirect is, and the only thing I found is a message on Reddit:
Remember, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
There is another service I found after reading Reddit suggestions: Swappa.com.It’s like eBay but works a little different.
When a seller initiates a listing, she gets a unique code. She has to write the code down on the piece of paper and then take the device pictures with the paper. So, you know that the seller has the device and it is the one you get.
In the case of Craiglist or eBay, you don’t have such assurance. I am sure the guy that was selling MacBook on Craiglist copied pics from other posts.
Next, the buyer can communicate with the seller and ask to reduce the price. If the seller lowers the price, it is available for everyone, and if you don’t move quickly, then someone can get the MacBook for the new price.
Sellers do not pay for placing listings, but buyers pay a Swappa fee. The fee is dynamic and depends on the price of the product.
Besides MacBooks, you can buy smartphones, smartwatches, and other devices on Swappa.
You can find the so-called renewed MacBooks here. In case you wonder what’s the difference between refurbished and renewed, renewed is a new name for certified refurbished.
The advantage of renewed MacBooks is that they backed up by Amazon, so they ship for free with Prime membership, and you can return them as easy as with any Amazon products.
Amazon has strict requirements for the companies that sell renewed products on its platform, so do not expect low prices. But expect better customer service.
New vs. Used
It may not be intuitive, but sometimes a new MacBook may be cheaper than a refurbished one. Before buying a used MacBook I suggest learning about different tips on saving on new MacBooks from my previous post:
Hi, I am Al. I’ve been working with computers for more than 20 years and I am passionate about Apple products. You can reach me at [email protected]
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