'Book Value

Are Close-out MacBooks a Better Value than the New Models?

Charles Moore - 2009.07.14 - Tip Jar

Tech Radar's Ian Osborne observes that while the new Mac laptop revisions announced at WWDC on June 8 were in some respects an incremental upgrade, they also represented a huge increase in value for the money, with some of the new features and benefits introduced in January on the top-of-the-range 17" model filtering down to the 15" and newly Pro 13" 'Book - and the unusual phenomenon of prices dropping substantially as well.

So what about deals on previous-generation unibodies, either new (unused) or refurbished?

New vs. Close-out Pricing

For example, this week MacMall is offering an Apple refurbished 2.4 GHz 15.4" MacBook Pro with 2 GB RAM, and a 250 GB hard drive for $1,569.99 and a new 2.0 GHz 13.3" Unibody MacBook with 2 GB RAM, and a 160 GB hard drive (the exact machine configuration I'm typing this column on) for $1,024.99 (after a $75 mail-in rebate).

Over at the online Apple Store's Refurbished Macs page, your can get that same Unibody MacBook as an Apple Certified Refurbished unit (same warranty and AppleCare eligibility as a new Mac) for $949, the 2.4 GHz version with a 250 GB hard drive and illuminated keyboard for $1,099, and the Feb. 2008 2.4 GHz version of the base 15.4" Unibody MacBook Pro, also with 250 GB hard drive, for $1,349.

In current models, the 2.26 GHz 13" MacBook Pro sells for $1,199, and the new base 2.53 GHz 15" MacBook Pro for $1,699, but the newbies, as Tech Radar notes, come with substantial value added - especially the 13" model, which gets a FireWire 800 port, an SD Card slot, and an illuminated keyboard.

With the 15-incher, the value equation is more complicated, because some users may deem the older model's ExpressCard slot to be of greater value than the SD Card slot that's displaced it in the current model.

Note also that the $1,569.99 last-gen 15" 2.4 GHz model, while only $30 cheaper than the current base 2.53 GHz model, has a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9600M GPU with 256 MB of dedicated VRAM in addition to the GeForce 9400M integrated graphics, while the new model has only the 9400M. This, of course, applies to the $1,349 refurb from Apple as well.

All of Apple's current notebook models, except for the white MacBook, have built-in, non-swappable batteries of somewhat higher capacity (Apple claims up to 40% longer runtime), but you can't carry a spare for extended stretches away from wall current, which may weigh on your decision, depending on your needs and circumstances. This could tilt you in favor of a previous gen model.

Apple's Close-out Track Record

Good deals on "leftover" (more correctly, "end of life") Apple laptops used to be something you could bank on - literally - every time Apple made hardware revisions in the days before the company fine-tuned and tightened its inventory control. I bought my first Mac laptop - a PowerBook 5300, as an end-of-line unit at a substantial discount back in November 1996, just before the PowerBook 1400 was announced. In hindsight, I would've been better off paying a few hundred more and getting a 1400, which was a much superior computer in almost every way. There's a lesson in that.

On the other hand, when Apple introduced the Titanium PowerBook G4 in 2001, there was something of a run on leftover PowerBook G3 Series Pismo models, offered at a steep discount of (I think) something like about Can$1,000 off list by MacWarehouse here in Canada. I ordered one, but a couple of days later was informed that the remaining stock of 500 MHz Pismos had been oversubscribed by 6-to-1 in an order tsunami, and I had been bumped. In that case, the discounted Pismos were a serious bargain, since that model was one of the very best notebooks Apple ever made - arguably better than the Titanium PowerBook that replaced it. I eventually did get a Pismo - in fact I've owned three of them, two of which still going strong well into their tenth year of service.

So it depends. "Leftover" Mac laptops may or may not be an astute purchase option, and at the critical moment we don't have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, so it takes a bit of careful consideration of what you're getting in terms of real value for money saved.

New vs. Close-out Today

The new low-end 2.26 GHz 13" MacBook Pro has a list price $100 less than the foregoing 2.0 GHz 13" Unibody MacBook did, so the value of a discount off the list price of the older model should be viewed in the context of the current price for a machine substantially sweetened with a FireWire 800 port, an SD Card slot, greater RAM upgrade capacity, and a faster processor.

However, if digital audio ports are important to you, the 13" Unibody MacBook has them, while the 13" MacBook Pro doesn't. Otherwise (excluding how the the built-in battery issue sets with you) the Pro unit is a hands-down superior value.

Another aspect to consider is that if you purchase one of the current generation MacBook models before Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" is released in September, Apple will let you upgrade for a $9.95 handling fee for the installer disk instead of the $29.95 that other registered Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" users will have to pay (or $49 for a family five-pack) to upgrade to Snow Leopard. A small thing, but it should be factored into the value equation, since, as far as I know, it doesn't apply to leftovers or refurbs.

Advantage: New MacBook Pro Models

Personally, I've usually been inclined to shop for discounted, somewhat back from the bleeding edge hardware when upgrading my systems, but in this instance, with Apple's atypical price cuts on the value-added goodness of the revised mid-2009 models, I would go with a new one without hesitation unless I was really strapped for cash.

As it stands, I won't be shopping for a while, and I'm quite happy with the superb performance I'm getting and the drop-dead gorgeous looks of this 2.0 GHz Apple Refurbished Unibody MacBook.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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