Stop the Noiz

Beat the 'Mac Tax' by Buying Used

Frank Fox - 2009.04.21 - Tip Jar

When it came time to replace the aging 'Digital Audio' Power Mac G4 that my wife used for keeping track of her crafting hobby, I wanted to find something cheap. For most people the words cheap and Mac don't mix, but in my opinion a used Mac can be just as good as a new one for a lot less money.

The question was which Mac to buy.

I took a serious look at the computing needs for this computer, and they weren't too high: photo editing, web browsing, word processing, and maybe a game of solitaire. The current Power Mac could handle most of this stuff easily; my wife had just complained about some YouTube videos not coming thru smoothly. It was also still using Mac OS X 10.4 'Tiger', and I'd like to have all our Macs using OS X 10.5 'Leopard'.

I looked into buying a processor upgrade, but it wasn't worth the hassle for an 8-year-old computer. For about the same money I could get a faster Mac on eBay - and get a slightly newer Mac in the bargain.

For me, Low End Mac (LEM) and eBay make a great combination for shopping. I check the prices on eBay and then look up the specifications on LEM. Many auctions don't list the year or age of the computer, but using the specifications listed on LEM you can get a good idea how old the computer is from matching the details.

Used G4 Power Macs

One thing to remember about any Power Mac on eBay is that you have to pay on average $50 for shipping. That great deal may disappear when you add in the shipping charges.

I looked at the next two models up, either a Quicksilver or a Mirrored Drive Door (MDD) model. The G5 Power Macs would have been nice, but I don't like the cooling issues, and the prices were too high.

My budget for getting a replacement desktop was $100 to $200.

Now $100 for a Mac sounds like nothing, but that is what the single processor Quicksilver models are selling for on eBay . That would be twice the processor speed of my Digital Audio Power Mac, so it would be a noticeable improvement, but nothing else about the machine is better. It has the same bus speed, less memory, fewer hard drives, etc. The first Quicksilver models aren't even a full year newer. So while I could move things between my two Macs to beef up a Quicksilver model, it would be nothing more than a processor upgrade.

As I searched through prices, I found that each year newer adds about $50 to the selling price. If you went from a single processor to dual processors, there was another $50 increase. The pricing differences were roughly what I list in the table below. Some things - like extra RAM, software, and monitor - could make the prices vary a little, but not much. Some people wanted more for their computers, but there weren't many buyers.

Model Single Dual
Quicksilver (2001), 733 MHz to 867 MHz $100 $150
Quicksilver (2002), 800 MHz to 1 GHz $150 $200
Mirror Drive Door (MDD), 867 MHz to 1.25 GHz n/a $250-300
MDD (FireWire 800), 1 GHz to 1.42 GHz $250-300 $300
MDD 1.25 GHz (2003), 1.25 GHz $250-300 $350

I noticed that some of the MDD models were cheaper than expected - the FireWire 800 models can't boot into Mac OS 9, so they weren't worth as much.

The other thing that really surprised me was how little the processor speed increased over all these models. The first Quicksilvers went up to 867 MHz. The last Power Mac G4 came out in June 2003 and made it up to 1.25 GHz. That's a 44% increase, but it just doesn't look impressive by today's standard.

What About a Notebook?

Just as I was ready to go to my wife with the idea of getting an upgraded computer, I started to think about the other factor in computing, mobility. Wouldn't she like to have a laptop more than a desktop? Sure, but the budget would have to get a lot higher. Thankfully tax time does put a few dollars back in the wallet, and we were due a refund. So let's go shopping for a laptop.

Now the original $100 to $200 price range would get you an old iBook. I'd had one of these that had the logic board failure issue, and I wouldn't get another one. I didn't like any of the metal Powerbooks because of the reduced wifi range. That pushed me to look into the newer white Macbooks.

The first white Macbook came out in 2006 and topped out with 2.0 GHz Core Duo processors. The latest white Macbook has a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor. You can see that there won't be a big speed difference from year to year, so you have to look for other differences. I know that I liked the white Macbooks because we bought one last year for a family computer. (I have to admit that I used it more since I like to write my articles using it.)

As with the desktop models, I found around a $50 difference between models and years with the laptops. If a model had an extended warranty, you would have to pay an extra $50.

13" Core Duo (May 2006), 1.83-2.0 GHz Used $500
13" Core 2 (Late 2006), 1.83-2.0 GHz Used $550
13" Core 2 (May 2007), 2.0-2.16 GHz Used $600
13" Santa Rosa (Oct 2007), 2.0-2.2 GHz Used $650
13" Penryn (Feb 2008), 2.1-2.4 GHz Used $700
13" MacBook White (Oct 2008), 2.1 GHz Used $750
13" MacBook White (Jan 2009), 2.0 GHz Refurbished $849

While I was searching, I checked out a few other online retailers. My favorite one is Small Dog Electronics. They just happen to have a used 2.1GHz Macbook that had extra RAM and SuperDrive for $799. That was above the top end of my price range, but with Small Dog we were getting a 30-day warranty.

We bought the 2.1 GHz Macbook from Small Dog, and when it arrived I checked out the serial number. It was only 4 months old and still had the original Apple warranty on it. It was like brand new condition. Needless to say, my wife is totally happy with her new Mac.

The Value of a Used Mac

In the end, I spent more than I originally wanted to - but under the $1,000 limit in the Microsoft "Laptop Hunter" commercials. I found a lot of other choices that would have been good if I wanted to save a little more. You can buy a Mac desktop for between $100 and $350 or a nice laptop for between $500 and $999. It all depends on what you are willing to give up in order to save a few dollars.

The prices are going to keep changing, usually going down over time. If you want to use my pricing guide for your own shopping, I suggest that you try to get an even better deal. A little patience and price checking will make the one you finally get seem like a good deal.

If you are holding onto a 7- or 8-year-old Mac because you think the price of a brand new Mac is too much, don't just go ahead and get an upgrade. What you have is used, so buying a newer used model is no worse and will be a lot faster. LEM

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