Buying a Used MacBook: How Old is Too Old?

Sherlock Slater is considering buying a used MacBook:

I’ve used a Mac before and loved using OS X. I’m considering buying a secondhand MacBook or a MacBook Pro. In buying a used MacBook, how old of a laptop should I consider? I’m looking for one that is worth its price or is likely to last another 3-4 years.

A white MacBook

When Buying a Used MacBook, Consider Apple’s Original Intention

Thanks for asking your question, Sherlock. I use the most recent MacBook Pro in order to stay abreast of the very latest in Apple technology, but our resident expert in behind-the-curve technology, Harold Johnson, shares an experience that may help us determine an answer to your question:

About a year ago, a friend lent me a MacBook that he’d been having trouble getting to run, a mid-2007 “Core 2 Duo.” I didn’t get around to playing with it for several months, choosing instead to continue riding my aging PowerBook G4, which had more RAM and a larger hard drive than the newer laptop. Once I finally got around to upgrading the MacBook’s RAM and installing a newer operating system, however, I found myself pleasantly surprised at the system’s performance. It’s true that the switch from a PowerPC (PPC) to an Intel CPU, a faster system bus, and speedier memory all add up to a snappier Mac. Yet it wasn’t so much the hardware improvements as it was the upgraded operating system that delighted me. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing out on by sticking with older OS and its applications.

Apple Inc (note the emphasis on “Inc”) is a public business, one that is beholden to its shareholders as much as its customers. Every business needs to profit in order to sustain itself, but a public business also needs to profit in order to satisfy its shareholders, and Apple’s way of profiting has always been accomplished by selling new hardware. As part of its strategy of selling new hardware, Apple customarily makes upgrades to its operating system(s) that become, over time, only available to the most recent devices the company delivers to the market. In other words, Apple devices do not always age gracefully. For most consumers, Apple products tend to become obsolete within a few years.

A few people will disagree with this assessment, perhaps by pointing out that Apple hardware maintains value in the marketplace far longer than similar PC hardware. It’s true that you’ll find four or five-year-old MacBooks being sold for hundreds of dollars on the used marketplace, while arguably comparable four or five-year-old PC laptops are usually sold for less. Yet the fact that some consumers are willing to pay more when buying a used MacBook than they will when buying, say, a Toshiba Satellite laptop doesn’t mean the Apple hardware will last longer than the PC. The five-year-old MacBook you purchase today may not be able to run the next upgrade of Apple’s operating system. Harold’s experience demonstrates that:

For a few months I had some real fun with my “new” MacBook. Being able to run the latest Mac operating system enabled me to install and use the latest versions of my favorite applications, many of which included features that I found to be considerable additions to older versions of the programs. I was also finally able to run Google’s Chrome browser, which I’d only been able to run on a PC because the browser had never been made available for older PPC-based Macs.

Many of the improvements to both third-party applications and Apple’s own software made an agreeable difference to the way I work and play. I was far more connected in the social networking space, for example, due to being able to use more of the social networking services I’d been unable to use on my older Mac’s aging browsers. I no longer had to switch between using my old PowerBook and a newer PC in order to get certain tasks done, since all of the applications I needed to get my work done were available for the newer Mac. Not only did I find myself more productive, but I was finally able to play World of Warcraft, which was only available for Intel-based Macs.

In July, Apple introduced the next version of its operating system. Along with this announcement came the news that the latest version of OS X would not be able to run on the MacBook I was using. With each passing moment from the day that OS X Mountain Lion was released, the mid-2007 MacBook would be drifting toward obsolescence, the rate of its decline depending on how quickly developers decided to end development on applications that would still run on the now-older OS. If I wanted to continue to stay current, I would have to sooner or later upgrade to a newer MacBook.

Resources such as EveryMac.com provide valuable info to a consumer considering buying a used MacBook

Resources such as EveryMac.com provide valuable info to a consumer considering buying a used MacBook. (Image by EveryMac)

It’s anyone’s guess how long Apple will continue to make its operating system and software available to its hardware. In Harold’s case, if the MacBook he was using had still been able to run the latest version of OS X, a reasonable guess as to how long he would’ve been able to stay current might have been another two years or so. As long as his MacBook’s hardware was still capable of running the latest applications, it would have been unnecessary for Harold to buy a newer MacBook unless he simply wanted to experience a speedier system. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and he would soon find certain applications outdated and newer versions unable to be installed.

My recommendation when considering buying a used MacBook is to stick with one that is at least able to run the most current version of Apple’s operating system. Use a website such as EveryMac.com to find this out (as well as other valuable information, such as whether the MacBook’s RAM is able to be upgraded beyond Apple’s specifications). If you can afford to, buy a refurbished Mac directly from Apple. If you can’t afford a MacBook that is less than three or four years old, you shouldn’t bother buying one. With a Mac that is older than that, you’ll still be able to run plenty of applications, but you may not be able to run the ones that you want to.

I’m sure there are plenty of readers who disagree with me about this. Buying a used MacBook is not something everyone should do, but there are a number of folks out there who have found happiness in older Apple laptops. Some have given “obsolete” Macs new lives by running Linux or other operating systems on them. If you have opinions that differ from mine, please feel free to share them by posting them!

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Chris has consistently expressed his convictions and visions outright, supplying practical information to targeted audiences: media agencies, business owners, technology consumers, software and hardware professionals, et al. He remains a passionate personality in the tech community-at-large. He's a geek.