When it comes to Apple products, newer isn't always better

Apple products are functional, beautiful - and extremely expensive. Refurbished Apple products can be a welcome alternative to spending full price on the phone or laptop you need.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP/File
An Apple iPhone 6s Plus smartphone is displayed at the Apple store at The Grove in Los Angeles (Sept. 25, 2015). Buying Apple products refurbished instead of new can save serious cash.

There's a reason Apple products boast such an outspoken and devoted following: they're pretty, they're user-friendly, and they've topped the American Consumer Satisfaction Index's annual consumer satisfaction survey for the past 12 years and counting. So why doesn't everyone have one? Blame the price tag, because quality doesn't come cheap.

We've written before about why buying a Mac at the Apple store is a waste of money, but just because the brick and mortar store doesn't offer many (read: any) discounts on its gadgets, doesn't mean you can't find a deal on an iPhone, MacBook or iPad directly from Apple. How? One word: Refurbished.

A word of warning: we're going to get really deep into the weeds here. If you're looking for a TLDR; scroll down to the bottom and we've got you covered. If you want to learn absolutely everything there is to know about refurbished Apple products and learn a few hacks that will save you some serious cash, keep reading. We promise it's worth the ride.

What does "refurbished" mean in this context?

We get a lot of reader questions like: "Are refurbished Apple products worth it?" or "Can I trust refurbished Apple devices?" The answer to these questions is, in a word, yes. BUT -- it depends on where you buy them. Refurbished electronics have a reputation for being buggy, broken or without any kind of meaningful warranty, but when you buy an Apple Certified refurbished item, it's guaranteed to be just as good as something brand new -- as long as you buy it directly from the Apple Certified Refurbished section of Apple's website. Apple Certified Refurb items aren't going to be drastically cheaper than buying new (discounts hover around the 15 percent mark) but it still pays to go straight to the source for a few big reasons.

Whereas most companies that refurbish Macs (think MacMall, Mac Connection, B&HBest Buy and Abt Electronics) offer only a 90-day warranty and charge you for a longer one, Apple offers a one-year warranty that is the same as the warranty offered on its regular products, and gives refurb customers the option to purchase Apple Care as well. So if you purchase your refurbished Apple product somewhere other than the Apple Store, you're not going to be able to take it back to Apple for repairs -- your warranty will be tied with the store where you bought it, and that's where you'll have to take it if anything goes wrong.

And then there's the messy issue of open-box sales. If you buy an open-box Apple product from another retailer, you could be stuck with no warranty at all, because some resellers will only provide a warranty that's based on when the item was originally purchased. So if you're buying an open-box MacBook at Best Buy on March 1, 2016 and the previous owner of that MacBook bought it at Best Buy with a year-long warranty on March 4, 2015, you're now the proud owner of a laptop with a warranty that is set to expire in three days. Lucky you!

So what's the difference between "open-box" and "refurbished?"

A refurbished item was returned to the retailer because there was something wrong with it. When this happens, the retailer (or a third-party refurbishing outfit) takes it apart, fixes the problem and returns it to operational status before selling it again under a refurbished banner. Apple runs its refurbished items through pretty extensive testing. And since they are the ones that are making these products in the first place, that testing is going to be a lot better than the testing done by a resale company.

An open-box item is something that was returned to the retailer after the original buyer changed his or her mind. Often the store in question will inspect the item to determine whether or not it has anything mechanically wrong with it. If they deem it safe for resale, they call it an open-box sale. It's worth noting that this "inspection" isn't an official test, meaning the retailer usually doesn't take the item apart to make sure it's in pristine condition. Apple doesn't offer-box items, although many of the items it sells under the refurbished banner are likely open-box returns, it still has to call them refurbished because they've been previously owned.

For serious discounts on Apple products, utilize trade-in programs.

Have an old iPad, MacBook, iPhone or iPod laying around gathering dust? If you're looking to buy a new Apple product at a significant discount, look into the Apple Reuse and Recycling Program. Apple will buy your unused smartphones, laptops and tablets (and they don't have to be Apple products!) and issue you an Apple Store gift card as payment. If I wanted to buy a new laptop right now, I could get about $400 off by turning in my old iPhone and my 2011 MacBook Pro. That would make a refurbished MacBook Pro or 21-inch desktop around $600 -- nearly 50 percent off retail.

Even if the device you want to trade in for a discount isn't eligible for a trade-in at the Apple store, there are still a lot of places that will buy it from you. Here's a short list of retailers offering electronics buy-back programs:

Brad's Deals blogger Caroline Thompson researched all of these programs for a recent article on how to save on your next smartphone upgrade or purchase, and she found Amazon to be the most lucrative of the bunch:

"My pick for best value on this list is Amazon, hands down" she wrote. "I’m actually looking to sell my old 64GB iPhone 5s, so I ran it through each of these sites and Amazon gave me the highest offer by a long-shot. Where the other stores offered me on average about $70 cash back (albeit usually in cash), Amazon will credit my account $214.59 for sending in my old phone, which is in good, working condition. For me, an Amazon gift card is as good as cash, as I use the site daily to order everything from groceries and Prime Pantry household items to hair dye, winter coats and impractical leotards. Prices will vary based on the make and model of your old phone, so shop around and choose whatever feels right to you!"

How do I buy a refurbished Apple product like an expert?

We're going to break down the best refurb deals we could find on all your favorite Apple products in a minute, but before we do that, we thought we'd let you in on a few insider tips and tricks for refurb shopping:

  1. If you're going to buy an Apple Certified refurbished item, make sure you check the prices against the brand-new models at other retailers. New products are never discounted at the Apple Store, so while the price on an Apple Certified refurb will be lower than the Apple Store price on a new model, it might be selling for more than a discounted new item at another store. For example, this past holiday season, Walmart was selling the iPad Mini 2 -- brand new -- for $199, but the Apple Certified refurbished model was going for $229.
  2. Once you've done your homework and are sure that the refurbished price is the best out there, don't wait too long to buy. Apple refurbs sell out quickly and often take weeks to restock. This is especially true for laptops, iPads and the Mac Mini.
  3. Apple does not currently sell certified refurbished iPhones or Apple Watches. If you think you are buying a refurbished iPhone or Apple Watch directly from Apple you need to double-check the URL, because you are not on the official Apple website. You can of course buy refurbished iPhones and Apple Watches from other retailers, but they are not going to come with a significant warranty and they are also not going to be eligible for Apple Care. Bummer, I know.

With this expert knowledge under our belts, let's dive into the deals...

Refurbished Laptops

Apple offers a variety of different kinds of laptops, but because they don't update their styles very often, it can be tricky for the average consumer to tell the difference between a brand new model and something that's a few years old. Brad's Deals editor Casey has a special trick that can help you make sure the refurb you're buying has the same specs as a brand new model: check the part number.

We added two 12-inch, 'Space Gray' MacBooks to our Apple Store cart. The top MacBook is new, and the bottom is Apple Certified refurbished. We circled their model numbers in red, and as you can see, they match exactly except for the first letter.

As a rule, Apple Certified refurbished items will have model numbers that start with "F" but will otherwise match their new counterparts, so this is a good way to double check the specs before you spring for a refurb.

As we outlined earlier, Apple Certified refurbs go quickly, but here are a few things you can get right now:

Refurbished iPads

Apple Certified refurbished iPads get brand new cases, cables and packaging, which no other refurbishing outlet will offer you. Right now, the Apple Store is offering these deals on refurbished iPads:

Refurbished iPhones

As we pointed out above, Apple does not currently sell refurbished iPhones, so you won't be able to buy an Apple Certified iPhone refurb. It's not impossible to purchase a reliable refurbished iPhone elsewhere online, but it can get really tricky, really quick.

For one thing, most refurbished iPhones are carrier-locked. You might find a great deal on a refurbished iPhone 6s, but if you have Verizon and the phone in question is locked into T-Mobile, you're gonna be out of luck, and unlocked phones are always significantly more expensive. For another, you can never be truly sure what you're getting, even if you order from a reputable retailer like Amazon. Go type in "refurbished iPhone" into Amazon right now, and you'll see how difficult it can be to shop for a non-certified refurb. There are over 100k results, and for the newer models, the prices are honestly not even close to worth it.

If you like keeping up with all the latest iPhone iterations, it's a lot more cost-effective to go through your phone company. These days, pretty much every major carrier has a plan that allows you to upgrade your iPhone at least once a year without paying it off completely. We broke it down in detail in our recent article on smartphone upgrades, but here's the TLDR of that breakdown:

  • AT&T Next -- With this program, the lowest amount you can pay for the phone before you can upgrade is $390.
  • T-Mobile JUMP! -- With this program, the lowest amount you can pay for the phone before you can upgrade is $325.08.
  • T-Mobile JUMP! On Demand -- With this program, the lowest amount you can pay for the phone before you can upgrade is $20 (!!!), but you have to have an eligible new smartphone to trade in in order to get the deal.
  • Verizon iPhone Trade-in -- With this program, the lowest amount you can pay for the phone before you can upgrade is $182.48.
  • iPhone Forever from Sprint -- With this program, the lowest amount you can pay for the phone before you can upgrade is $316.68.

If you're intrigued by these numbers but confused about what it all means, we'd encourage you to take a look at the original blog post, where it's explained in great detail. If you still have questions after checking that out, feel free to leave us a comment and we'll try our best to help you understand!

Refurbished iMacs

As with laptops, make sure to double check the model number so you're you know exactly what you're getting before you decide to purchase an iMac. Right now, the Apple Store is selling quite a few different kinds of refurbished desktops, here are two that stood out to us:

Refurbished Mac Minis

Mac Minis offer the Mac desktop experience at a much lower price tag. They're essentially an entire computer stuffed into a smooth 7.7" square frame, and you can plug them into your TV or monitor and customize the size of the screen you want.

Right now, Apple is selling a refurbished 3.0GHz Dual-core Intel Core i7 Mac mini with a 1TB hard drive for $849. Apple doesn't sell this exact model new, but they are selling a new 2.8GHz Mac Mini for $999, so the refurbished option is both cheaper and has similar specs.

Refurbished Apple TVs

Currently, Apple is selling three iterations of the Apple TV new: a 32GB for $149.99 and a 64GB for $199.99, and the third generation, which doesn't have any storage, for $69. The refurb they're currently featuring is a third generation model from 2012 for $59. I have one of these (which I bought in 2013), and it's still up and running three years later.

To sum it all up...

  • Are refurbished Apple products good? Yes.
  • If you want the best warranty on a refurbished Apple device, go with Apple Certified products.
  • Open box and refurbished are not the same thing.
  • Apple Certified refurbs sell out quickly.
  • Trading in old electronics could save you big time on a new Mac.
  • Apple does not sell Certified Refurbished iPhones or Apple Watches.
  • Always double-check the refurb model number against that of its new counterpart.

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

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