Mac Daniel's Advice

Tips when Buying a Mac through eBay

Evan Kleiman - 2002.10.31

It seems like now the common "don't get ripped off on eBay" articles are a dime a dozen on the various Internet magazines, even including this one. All of these articles give you tips on how to protect your money on eBay, namely your PayPal account, which seems to be ripping people off with a creative new way each and every day now.

But none of this articles specifically address the issue of buying a computer on eBay. Computers are probably the most easily wrecked item in shipping, and most of the times the people selling them don't even know about the product their peddling. I've heard dozens of computer buying horror stories, so let's try to prevent some of them in the future.

Never Buy from a Know-Nothing

The number one problem I've noticed on eBay's computer bidding pages is a lack of information on the seller's part. I've seen pages with phrases such as "My friend gave me this aqua and clear Apple for me to sell, it boots, I think." This should be a red light for anyone buying a computer.

If you've read any other Mac Daniel column, you know of the many problems that can occur with a Mac - or any computer, for that matter - and the guy selling this "aqua and clear" computer probably doesn't even know how to tell if his computer has one of these problems.

Also, if you've read any Mac Daniel columns, you know how hard it can be to fix a computer problem that you've created, let alone one that someone else has created. So beware of the advertisement page for a computer that looks like its current owner has no clue what's going on.

On a good page, the seller should clearly state the processor speed, memory, hard drive capacity, operating system, and any other pertinent information about the computer. Another good thing to look for is information on how the computer was used. While most computers are just from home use, you could be buying an extra computer from a school or business after upgrading. While there's nothing wrong with buying from them, because their support was probably better than most home users, it could have taken a pretty good beating in the office or classroom, so it might not be in the best shape.

Customizing your computer is cool, but do it yourself

There's an old saying that goes, "if you want something done right, do it yourself." With anything regarding customizing or upgrading your computer, this is also the case.

Often times on eBay you'll see a killer deal on a G3/400, tons of RAM, floppy drive, the whole deal. To the uninformed buyer, this seems like a great deal. However, the Low End Mac reader realizes that this is probably a G3/266 or something that has been either upgraded with a new CPU or has even been over clocked, among other possibilities. Of course, there really isn't anything wrong with upgrading an older Mac (hence this site). However, like the saying says, if you want something done right, you need to do it yourself. Never trust anyone else's upgrades, customization, or other handiwork.

The major downside of eBay is not knowing the history of a product, so your prospective Mac could have been upgraded by some sixteen-year-old computer whiz trying to push more out of his computer, while ultimately making it fast or more functional, but losing much reliability in the process. Of course, no offense to any sixteen-year-old computer whiz out there that might be reading this. I, being one, too, have my own basement full of wrecked Power Macs.

Pictures are worth a thousand words - or dollars

While you can't actually be there to actually inspect your product when bidding on eBay, pictures can be a real help. Most good sellers will provide pictures of the outside of the computer and any extra peripherals. Another good help on a selling page is a picture of the computer turned on, showing the "About This Mac" screen. It provides a good insight into system software, memory, and operating systems, depending on what type of computer you're buying.

Another thing that helps while looking at pictures of Macs for sale is that you're actually looking at a picture of the Macintosh you're waiting to buy. While this might seem absurd, many eBay auction pages have pictures of the model you're prospectively buying, but these pictures seem rather Apple-esque. This is probably because they are. Many people who are too lazy to take pictures on their own or who have no access to a scanner or digital camera to do this.

While this doesn't really reflect on the computer itself, just don't expect to see a mint condition Blue and White G3 just because the picture was copied from Apple.com

Speaking of Stealing: Illegal Software

Many computers you'll look at on eBay will include massive amounts of software, usually those like Photoshop, Office, Toast, and others. Unfortunately, unless you're getting the original box and CDs that came with these programs, you're probably not getting them legally.

When selling their old computer, many users will install all of their new computer's software on the old computer. The seller will usually include some small disclaimer of how the software isn't legal on the bottom of the page. It's not legal, and the software isn't really yours. This is definitely something you should take into consideration when purchasing a used computer through eBay.

A good way to tell if you're getting illegal software is to just ask, or, usually if a computer from 1999 (i.e. a blue and white G3) includes the latest software (i.e., Jaguar). Of course, the chances of getting caught and/or prosecuted is debatable, as well as the morality of this issue, but nonetheless, it's still something you shouldn't be doing,.

An End Note: Mac Users Aren't Jerks

Many of the computer rip-off horror stories we hear lately are from people buying bargain PCs from some eBay-based company. The common eBay-based Internet PC vendor selling shady computers and the Mac user trying to get rid of an extra Mac around his or her house are very different sellers. (Admit it, everyone has a compact Mac under their desk or in their basement. If you don't, eBay does have a nice selection).

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