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eBay No Longer Your Best Source for Low-end Macs

- 2006.10.03

It seems that everyone has made eBay their first stop for used equipment these days.

Does this frenzy of bidding mean that you can no longer get a great deal on a preowned Mac?

In early 2001, I needed a PowerBook for Web access when traveling. I really liked the PowerBook 1400 models, which had been out for more than a few of years, but they were still quite pricey on the used market.

Fortunately for my meager bankroll, I didn't need anything that fancy.

The 68040-based 500 series PowerBooks could run Mac OS 8.1, Eudora for email, Fetch for FTP uploads, and iCab for browsing. I could easily plug in a serial cable and make AppleTalk data transfers to my home Mac. (At the time, this was a PowerPC 601-accelerated Quadra 950.)

I knew I couldn't spring for a good working PowerBook, so I started bidding on the "for parts" ones, knowing that I had the time and skill to repair them. I ended up with two 520c PowerBooks and a 540c, all in broken or non-working condition, purchased for US$17 to $50 each.

As it turned out, there was nothing seriously wrong with any of them, and I was able to repair them all with just a few more dollars worth of parts. When I upgraded to a 1400c/166 late in 2003, I sold all three of these 'Books on eBay at a surprising profit.

PowerBook 540c
A repaired $50 "parts" PowerBook 540c. It sold for US$125, after nearly three years of use.

My 1400c started out as two eBay "parts" PowerBooks. I bought a third "parts" 1400 later and fixed it for my wife to use. None of these were purchased for more than US$85 with shipping.

The PowerBook 1400s were serviceable for a few years, even after I moved to OS X on my desktop Macs. It was still fairly easy to import Eudora messages into Mail, but there were other programs that weren't compatible.

The old batteries had lost their capacity, and I couldn't see spending the money to rebuild batteries for PowerBooks that really weren't serving us that well anymore.

My eBay System Crashes

Recently, the inevitability of needing an OS X 'Book drove me back to eBay. This time I was after bargain broken PowerBook "Pismo" G3s. I was in for an eye-opener.

I was shocked to see beat up, non-working Pismos with important parts missing going for well over US$100! I followed the auctions for three wasted weeks. I had bid on only one broken Pismo, and it went for more than twice what I thought was fair for the horrible condition it was in.

Were these buyers crazy?

There really didn't appear to be much, if any, savings in building a working Pismo from the parts of non-working ones. The same appeared to be true for the G3 iBooks.

Buying from a Retailer Can Be an Attractive Option

I hadn't even considered buying a Mac from an alternate online source until a timely link on Low End Mac grabbed my attention. It lead to a short piece about a quantity of used G3 iBooks being sold inexpensively by Other World Computing.

I have purchased memory, drives, and other odds and ends from OWC in the past. I went to the site, logged in, and purchased a basic 12" 500 MHz G3 iBook with some extra memory installed for just over US$202 including shipping. This was more than I wanted to spend, but the iBook came with clean OS 9 and OS X 10.2.8 installations, a useful applications package, all parts intact and working - plus a 60 day guarantee.

I couldn't come close to that price for a comparable working iBook on eBay.

Not a Buyers's Market

I got curious about other used Mac prices on eBay. Has it truly become a seller's marketplace? A quick look at some completed auctions for iMacs and G4 iBooks seemed to bear this out.

Compared to the prices on the Low End Mac's Best Deals pages, you can still save around $30 to $80 on working used Macs that normally retail in the $300 to $700 range by buying them on eBay. That doesn't include shipping, which is often over-inflated, and rarely does it include a meaningful guarantee ("not DOA" isn't a guarantee). In addition, you may still have to replace dead batteries or missing parts.

For the auctions that specifically describe a like-new working Mac with all parts and applicable peripherals, the savings are considerably less.

Your time is also worth something. Factor in the time spent searching and watching auctions and placing bids. I know I don't find these activities nearly as enjoyable as I used to, especially when hours are spent that yield nothing.

When you have added in some or all of these factors, your apparent eBay savings may be only an illusion.

Beyond eBay

Online retail prices for used Macs have gotten much better in recent years. eBay prices have undoubtedly contributed to this.

Consider that when you choose to buy from a used Mac source such as OWC, Small Dog, or Operator Headgap, just to name a few, the item has probably been put through a testing program and any faulty or borderline parts have been expertly replaced.

If a guarantee is provided, the retailer really doesn't want the item to come back for free repairs, so it's likely to be in pretty good condition when you get it.

Will the eBay Feeding Frenzy Ever Subside?

Barring mass buyer boycotts (maybe in an alternate universe), the pendulum probably won't swing back any time soon. eBay's successful TV ad campaigning in past few years may be one reason for this trend, but the days of cheap low-end Macs on eBay appear to be drawing to a close.

The good news is that you may actually be able to make some real money from your old Mac collection. LEM

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