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The best MacBook Air Value: New or Apple Certified Refurbished?

Sections: Features, Laptops, MacBook Air, Macintosh/Apple Hardware, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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For a few days after the WWDC keynote last week I thought I had the answer to my system upgrade quandary. There didn’t seem much not to like about the MacBook Airs: Haswell processors, all–day battery life, faster flash memory, better Wi-Fi, and a price cut to boot. Plenty of value added.

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However, I’m a ditherer when it comes to computer purchases. I tend to keep my Macs for a long time, so I will want to ensure as much as possible that I get a machine I’m going to be happy with. This process, involving much research and brainstorming, usually yields satisfying outcome. I could hardly have been more pleased with the performance and reliability of my current anchor Mac—a late 2008 model aluminum unibody MacBook that I purchased in March, 2009. It’s given over four years of flawless service, but is getting a bit long in the tooth with its 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo processor, and the 160 GB hard drive is essentially full, for all practical purposes.

I have been on the fence over whether to go with one of the last (presumably) non-Retina 13 inch MacBook Pros, with their capacious 500GB hard disk drives, internal optical drives, and extensive array of conductivity ports. However, the price cut to $1,099 for the base 13-inch MacBook Air, along with that machine’s upgraded spec, has tipped the balance in the Air’s favor.

So the roadmap seemed clear, or was it? My circumstances have changed since I bought the MacBook in ’09. I didn’t have an iPad then (nor did anyone else), but now I do, and that changes the dynamic substantially.

My iPad to is just about to tie the knot on its second year, and I would really like to upgrade to an iPad fourth or fifth generation this year, as much to get more speed and the better camera, as for the Retina display. However, I would also prefer to have a 256 GB storage drive and 8 GB of system RAM in my MacBook Air, which pushes the cumulative two-device hardware upgrade cost into the $2,000 neighborhood, which is a lot more than I would be comfortable paying.

Another alternative would be to upgrade the hard drive, and perhaps the RAM (currently 4GB) in my MacBook, and squeeze another year or so out of it while buying a new iPad. That makes considerable practical sense, although I hesitate to spend real money upgrading a 4-1/2 year old computer. There’s also the prospect of trying to get along with just a 11.6-inch MacBook Air for both desktop and portable duty, but the 1,366 x 768 panel resolution of the smaller Air’s display is too restricted for comfort. At least I think so. The 13-inch model has a more tolerable 900 pixel vertical resolution. I detest scrolling.

Last week, Apple released a fresh tranche of refurbished 2011 and 2012 MacBook Airs. The cheapest on offer is a 2011 11.6-inch model with the Sandy Bridge Core i5 CPU, virtually useless 64 GB memory and 2GB RAM at $679.00 (a better bet is the model with 128GB storage and 4GB of RAM at $719.00), but some of the 2012 model configurations offered are tempting, including a 2012 11.6-inch Air with 2GB Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB flash drive for $1,199. That would offer lots of computing performance and decent storage capacity if I was determined to go iPad-less with a MacBook Air, but you would be lucky to squeeze out four hours battery runtime with that i7 CPU, and you’re still stuck with poky Intel HD 4000 graphics. Arguably the best deal was the base model 2012 13-inch MacBook Pro for $850, but that one sold out quickly.

However, while there is usually no dramatic performance penalty to buying a one-generation back refurbished system, this time there is with the MacBook Air. The mid-2013 models represent a greater than average advance with their twice-as-long battery life with little or no performance penalty, better HD 5000 graphics, and and faster flash storage memory.

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So, while as a general rule I’m still convinced that Apple Certified Refurbished systems represent the better value, the 2013 MacBook Airs are the proverbial exception that proves the rule, and that buying new this time is the most desirable alternative.

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