The Used Mac Buyer’s Guide

Image of used Macs: Macbook Pro, Mac Mini, iMac, Mac Pro

You or the kid needs a new Mac, but money’s a bit tight. Not to worry — since Macs usually have a nice long lifetime, your chances of finding a used Mac that’s affordable and able to run most of the latest operating systems and apps are quite good. In this short buyer’s guide, we’ll give you some tips on what to watch out for and how to make that vintage Mac keep up with the newer models.

Check the Model Number and Year of Manufacture

Whether you’re buying your Mac from a reputable dealer or from someone in your neighborhood, the first thing you should do is check the model number and year of manufacture. Even honest people have a tendency to forget exactly when they purchased a computer, and knowing the model and year it was produced is important — especially if you want to run the latest operating system on that Mac.

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to check. If you have “hands” on the machine, turn it on, go to the Apple Menu, and select About This Mac. You should see a display similar to this:

About This Mac on recent macOS releases reveal the model and year, processor specs, memory, graphics card, and other information
About This Mac on recent macOS releases reveal the model and year, processor specs, memory, graphics card, and other information

This particular Mac is a MacBook Pro, 15-inch, 2016. Other information that can be useful includes the installed memory, the graphics card type, and the processor type and speed. If the Mac is running an older version of Mac OS X, About This Mac may look like this:

About This Mac on an older version of Mac OS X
About This Mac on an older version of Mac OS X

In this case, if you wish to see the serial number of the Mac you’ll have to double-click on the version number under OS X. Note that this screen does not show the model and year of manufacture — to find this, launch System Information or System Profiler from the Utilities folder in the Application folder, or click the System Info or More Info button on the About This Mac screen.

Click on Hardware, and you’ll see the model identifier — in this case, the Mac is a MacBookPro14,3. This model identifier can be useful for several things. First, type that identifier into your favorite browser’s search/address field and you can find out a lot of important info:

System Information / System Profiler is the place to find out specifics about the Mac hardware
System Information / System Profiler is the place to find out specifics about the Mac hardware

Here we see that a MacBook Pro 14,3 is a mid-2017 MacBook Pro with Retina Display, Touch Bar and four Thunderbolt 3 ports. Sounds pretty good… if the price is right.

What if you can’t actually look for this info on a Mac? In that case, ask the seller to take a screenshot and email it to you. Reputable online sellers will often include the screenshots of System Info/System Profiler with exterior photos of the Mac.

The Hands-On Test

If you can actually get your hands on the used Mac, turn it on. If it boots up, you at least know that it has a working hard drive or SSD and can load the operating system.

I always like to look at the screen to see if there are any dead pixels; my favorite way to do this is to open Pages (if it’s loaded on the Mac) to a blank page and then look for tiny black dots that indicate a dead pixel. Chances are good that you might find one or more on an older Mac, so decide if you can put up with those little black spots or if it’s time to move on.

Especially with newer MacBook Pros, it’s a good idea to do a keyboard test. The best test phrase is the tried-and-true “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”, which uses all 26 letters in the alphabet. Try all of the number and punctuation keys as well, and on Touch Bar MacBook Pro, make sure that the Touch Bar and especially the Touch ID/Power Button works.

Check that Touch Bar on new MacBook Pros. The dark square at far right is actually the power button and Touch ID fingerprint reader
Check that Touch Bar on new MacBook Pros. The dark square at far right is actually the power button and Touch ID fingerprint reader

Does the Mac have a trackpad? Check out all corners of the pad and be sure that it registers clicks properly. If it’s using a mouse, check the clicking and tracking of the mouse.

On any Mac, I suggest testing the ports. If you are looking at a newer Mac with Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports, bring along a device like a hub with an SD card reader and try it on every port. With older USB-A based Macs, a good test is to try out a USB flash drive on all ports.

How about the speakers and video camera on the Mac? Play some music or a YouTube video and listen to the sound quality. Test the camera by launching either FaceTime or Photo Booth, then taking some photos.

I also recommend testing Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. For Bluetooth, if the Mac is using a wireless mouse or trackpad, as long as those are working you know that Bluetooth is working fine. Wi-Fi? Ask if you can connect to the seller’s network, or if there’s no network available and you happen to have an iPhone along, just set up a Personal Hotspot (Settings > Personal Hotspot) and see if the Mac connects to that.

Two things that can ruin your purchase of a used Mac are a firmware password and/or a Mac that is still logged into the previous owner’s iCloud account. In the first case, you can check if there’s a firmware password by restarting the device into Recovery Mode. That’s done by rebooting while holding down Command-R. If the Mac has been set with a firmware password, it won’t boot into Recovery Mode without the password. That’s the time to ask the owner to remove the password.

Why is it important that the Mac is logged out of iCloud? A previous owner can go to Find My Mac and disable your newly-purchased used Mac, either by mistake or maliciously!

How can you check whether or not a user is still logged into iCloud? Launch System Preferences, click on iCloud, and make sure the user is logged out. However, since Macs can have multiple user accounts, it’s a good idea to also go to System Preferences > Users and Groups and see if there is more than one user. If there is, have the seller remove the other users so that you’re assured that one of them isn’t logged into iCloud.

All of this can be resolved if the seller has completely wiped the Mac and installed a fresh copy of the operating system, so that’s a good question to ask when you’re looking at a used Mac. Even if the previous owner of a used Mac says they’ve wiped the Mac and reinstalled the OS, I recommend booting into Recovery Mode and then installing the operating system yourself.

Safe Places to Buy a Used Mac

I wouldn’t recommend buying a used Mac from eBay or Craigslist for a number of reasons, including scams and sellers who traffic stolen equipment. Probably the safest place to purchase a used Mac is from Apple by checking their Certified Refurbished store. This is also one of the more expensive places to buy a used Mac, but you do get an Apple warranty and the assurance that the device has gone through some stringent testing.

Another safe haven in a world of scammers is none other than MacSales.com. We sell a variety of new and used desktop and laptop Macs, all of which come with an unconditional 14-day money-back guarantee, a one year warranty, and have been inspected and certified by OWC’s technical team.

Other World Computing (MacSales.com) is an excellent source for used Macs

In many major cities, it’s also possible to find Apple Authorized Resellers that not only sell new equipment, but quality used Macs as well. A simple Google search for “Used Macs” in your city will usually provide you with a list of shops where you can go and put your hands on the used equipment you’re interested in.

Caveat Emptor — Let the Buyer Beware

Regardless of where you decide to purchase a used Mac, be sure to use some common sense when buying. If someone comes up to you on the street and offers you a new MacBook Pro for a few hundred bucks, alarm bells should go off in your head as it’s probably stolen equipment. Sure, a new Mac laptop for $200 would be nice, but it’s probably coming with some very nasty strings attached.

If you’re buying from a local seller and something seems amiss, just walk away. The legal and safe online alternatives might not get you a Mac tomorrow, but at least you have some assurance that it’s not stolen, loaded with malware, set up to be shut off after your purchase, or that you’re going to be arrested for receiving stolen goods.

Stay safe, be smart, and enjoy your used Mac for many years to come!



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