How to Buy an Apple Computer
© Amit Singh. All Rights Reserved. Written in Early 2003
On August 12, 1981 IBM introduced its personal computer, the PC, a $1,565 machine with one 5.25-inch floppy disk drive and 16 KB of memory. Steve Jobs, the chairman of Apple at that time, confidently proclaimed that: "We are going to out-market IBM. We've got our shit together."
Less than two weeks later, on August 24th, Apple released an almost condescending full page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal that challenged IBM boldly - very boldly.
It might be debated how much, or how little things have changed in over two decades. Depending on how you look at it, Apple still might place a similar ad, and it wouldn't be out of context!
As you compare the latest top of the line IBM ThinkPad with the latest PowerBook, it is interesting to note that there are many ways to buy an Apple. Depending on which way you go, the time to acquire one and the money you spend in doing so can vary greatly.
This page is a summary of some of the common alternatives I have come across, and is meant to help the reader in figuring out the most appropriate way for them.
- Apple Retail Stores
- 3rd Party Retail Stores
- Apple Online Store
- 3rd Party Online Retailers
- Educational Discounts
- ADC Discounts
- ADC Student Discounts
- Employee Discounts
- What about memory?
- What about AppleCare?
- What about Microsoft Office?
At the time of this writing, the flagship notebook offering from Apple is the 17" PowerBook. Let us take that notebook as an example, and compare various options of buying it. Let us first list the "Apple" retail prices of this computer and some key accessories/add-ons.
|PowerBook G4 17"||$2999|
|PC2700 DDR SO-DIMM 512 MB||$300|
|Apple Care for PowerBook Enrollment Kit||$349|
|Brenthaven Professional Backpack 17"||$179|
|Microsoft Office v.X Professional Edition||$499|
|Microsoft Office v.X Promotional Pack||$199|
According to Apple:
Apple did not have any retail stores of their own until 2001, when they opened their first in Virginia and California.
A retail Apple store might be the nicest place to get a first hand experience of Apple hardware and software. These stores also have various demonstrations, workshops and presentations that might be of help to some customers. They have a support "bar" (no, there are no drinks) where you can get tech-support. Most Apple store employees I have talked to come across as Mac enthusiasts (no surprises there), and to be fair to them, they have tried to help most of the time I visit them. Click here to find a retail Apple store (if any!) near you.
While a retail Apple store might be the place to visit to look at things, you might be able to buy cheaper from elsewhere, unless instant gratification is a top priority on your list. At a retail Apple store in California (state tax being 8.25%), a PowerBook G4 17" base system (henceforth referred to as PB17) would cost you $2999 ($3246.42 with 8.25% tax). If you want to maximize the amount of RAM by purchasing a 512 MB SO-DIMM, that's an additional $300 ($324.75 with 8.25% tax). They would most likely charge a $40 RAM installation fee as well. The total for RAM amounts to $340. Finally, AppleCare Protection Plan is $349 ($377.8 with 8.25% tax).
If cost is not an issue, you don't really need to read any of this. If you cannot get the item you are trying to buy from anywhere else faster, and if a nearby Apple store has what you want in stock, buying from there would probably be the best choice. Regardless of what your motivation for buying from a retail Apple store might be, there are some benefits (note that these might be inconsequential to some people, while very valuable to some others):
- Assuming you are buying an expensive piece of hardware (such as the PB17), you should in many cases be able to convince your sales person to "test" it for you (for example, dead and/or stuck pixels in case of LCDs).
- If you are essentially an end-user, and do tasks like installing extra RAM on your own, the store employees will do it for you (as mentioned earlier, at a fee, but you might be able to get them to waive it).
- If you do not have the expertise to install OS updates, install and configure applications and learn how to use peripherals, the store employees will help you.
- This might be a contrived "benefit", but at the retail store you can split your payment across multiple methods (more than one credit card, check, cash etc.)
- Apple might be running specials, such as a 10% discount on software and peripherals if you buy a PB17, that you might want to take advantage of.
- In many cases, your sales person might give you (sometimes substantial) discounts on items like extra software, AppleCare and peripherals.
- Of course, under normal circumstances, you get what you buy immediately. There is no waiting for an item to get shipped (the PB17 is another story though).
Of course, there are perhaps a greater number of reasons why you would not want to buy from a retail Apple store:
- Depending on your state, you have to pay taxes, which you might be able to save if you buy online from a retailer.
- If you are reasonably enterprising, some of the abovementioned benefits (such as store employees installing your RAM and doing OS updates for you) are entirely unnecessary, and a waste of money (if you do pay for them).
- Memory bought at a retail Apple store could be bought much cheaper elsewhere.
- While most electronics stores (such as Fry's) and many online retailers have a "no questions asked, no cost" return policy, you have to pay a 10% re-stocking fee if you return something after opening it.
- ADC discounts (more on this later) are not available at the retail stores.
Note that if you are a student and possess an student ID (presumably belonging to a school, college or university recognized by Apple), then you can get educational discounts (these are not the same as "Student Developer" discounts) at the retail stores. A PB17 purchased in California using the educational discount is $2699 ($2921.67 with 8.25% tax). Extra 512 MB RAM is $270 ($292.28 with 8.25% tax), while AppleCare is $239 ($258.72 with 8.25% tax).
Most big name electronics and computer retail stores carry Apple computers. There usually is no major benefit (other than availability, of course) in buying from one of these place over an Apple retail store (unless your area does not have an Apple store).
Most of the pros and cons that apply to an Apple store would also apply to these stores (some places even have "real" Apple employees to "help" you).
It is common knowledge (I am not sure if this is alleged or a fact) that Apple does not allow retailers to re-price Apple systems arbitrarily. Therefore, the base price of a new Apple system would probably be the same, in some cases $5 less, no matter where you buy. These place do offer "bundles" though, in order to make their offering more attractive. Some examples of bundles include one or more of the following:
- Free RAM (with or without installation fee)
- Free printer
- Free carrying case
- Free Airport card
- Free Airport (Extreme or otherwise) base station
Some places in California (in addition to the Apple retail stores) where you can walk in an buy Apple computers are:
- Best Buy, various locations
- ComputerWare, various locations
- Elite Computers & Software, Cupertino
- Fry's Electronics, various locations
- Macadam Computers, San Francisco
- Micro Center, various locations
- Wolf Camera, various locations
You can buy accessories, apparel, and software at the Apple Employee Store at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, but not computers.
Apple's Online Store might be a good place to place "early" orders (although the PB17 left a bad taste in the mouth), even though you would most likely be paying tax because of Apple's omnipresence. Moreover, you would typically be paying the MSRP. Education customers can buy from the K-12 Store or the Higher-ed Store. More importantly, the online store is the only place to buy if you want to use an ADC discount (more on this later). You can track your order, once placed, at Apple's Order Status page. Even if you do not buy from Apple's Online Store, it is a good place to configure a system. You wouldn't possibly get more complete and accurate specifications of current systems elsewhere.
As briefly mentioned before, you might benefit by buying from 3rd party retailers because:
- You can save tax (which could be substantial) if you order from an appropriately located retailer.
- You can get good deals via "bundles".
Many Mac related web sites, such as powerbookcentral.com, track the best available deals and bundles. Click here for a longer list of Mac related web sites.
Some major Apple retailers include:
Apple maintains a (longer) list of Internet & Catalog Resellers.
If you are a student, life is good for you (at least from the point of view of buying an Apple). You can get an educational discount at least at the following places:
- Apple Online Store: PB17 $2699 ($2921.67 with 8.25% tax), 512 MB RAM $270 ($292.28 with 8.25% tax), AppleCare $239($258.72 with 8.25% tax)
- Apple Retail Store: same prices as Apple Online Store
- University/School/Campus Store: You might be able to get a bigger discount (than the Apple store) at your campus store. Until the summer of 2003, it actually was the norm: Apple Store's educational prices were higher than that of Stanford Computer Store's, for example. Apple thereafter reduced its online/retail store educational prices to reflect a uniform 10% discount on hardware. In any case, if you want to buy from Stanford University Computer Store, you must have a Stanford ID to do so. Again, it might be possible to persuade your school's shop to give you a bigger discount than Apple.
ADC stands for Apple Developer Connection. According to the Apple Developer web site:
You can read about the detail of the ADC Hardware Purchase Program here. Here is a summary though:
The PB17 with a 20% discount is $2399.2 ($2597.2 with 8.25% tax), 512 MB RAM is $240 ($259.8 with 8.25% tax) while there is no discount on AppleCare.
Moreover, it is useful to know that ONE ADC discount (the ones listed above and the ADC student discount) allow you to purchase ONE "system". According to Apple, a system is defined as follows:
- One (1) CPU with one (1) monitor, OR
- One (1) iMac, OR
- One (1) portable
In addition, you would get the same discount on certain peripherals and add-ons, such as iPod, additional RAM, and so on. However, you will not get a discount on products not made by Apple (such as the Brenthaven backpack).
Note that many people have reported that they managed to purchase a "system" consisting of a PB17 AND an Apple Cinema Display AND an iPod, etc. This might not work always though, but it doesn't hurt to try!
The "best" way to get access to an ADC discount, if it applies to you, is discussed next.
Here is the summary: If you are currently a full-time or part-time student, and if you sign up online with ADC for a US $99 fee, you get ONE ADC discount (that's not one per year, but simply ONE). Please visit the ADC Student web site for more details.
As you can see, this is very enticing (after spending $99 you can buy a $2999 PB17 for $2399), but that's what makes this prone to misuse. You can easily find numerous people selling "information" (particularly on eBay) that tells you "how to get a 20% discount on Apple products"!
In practice, this is how it works:
- Sign up online with the Apple Developer Connection for U.S. $99. It is best to use a credit card to pay for this because that would make your "benefits" kick-in immediately. In theory, it shouldn't really matter if you use your own credit card or somebody else's, but Apple might get picky in order to avoid fraud, so if possible, use your own card/billing address. Note that you can use your discount IMMEDIATELY after purchasing the $99 ADC Student membership - simply buy online at the online store, and use your ADC user ID while checking out. If you do not follow instructions listed in the next step, your order is likely to get cancelled.
- Apple may or may not send you an email asking for a copy of your credentials. It is worthwhile (and would help your validation proceed faster) if you do what's mentioned in the following email (quoted verbatim):
Note that ADC is "different" from the Apple online or retail stores. In particular:
- You cannot use the ADC discount at the retail Apple stores.
- If there is a problem with your ADC Student verification (and you have already placed an order using your discount), you must call the ADC folks, NOT the Apple online store.
However, it is good to note that ADC orders apparently do not have a lower priority than "normal" (full price) orders.
Firstly, if you work for a "big" company (Oracle, for example), you might be able to purchase an Apple system at a discount.
If you happen to work for Apple, well, why are you reading this?
If you know somebody who works for Apple, you might be able to get a "good" discount through them. Apple employees are pretty consistent about not disclosing the logistics of these discounts, and I would not claim I know anything (I am not an Apple employee), but following are some "educated guesses".
There are broadly two kinds of Apple employee discounts:
- The "friends & family" variety: an employee can use these discounts, say, a few times every year, to buy an Apple system. These discounts are usually smaller than the ADC discounts.
- The "personal" variety: these are much more coveted, with more restrictions, and bigger than the ADC discounts. You would be extremely lucky to find an Apple employee willing to "waste" their "personal" discount on you! Moreover, legally speaking, an employee cannot buy a system using their discount and sell it for profit. I presume it is OK, however, to "give" it to somebody, or legally sell it for the same price (or less) they bought it for.
Even Apple employees I have spoken to have "recommended" that it is "better" not to buy memory from Apple. Of course, if you do buy RAM from Apple, you might have more peace of mind. For example, if you get AppleCare, it would cover the RAM as well, etc. Apple charges a premium price for memory though.
Consider the Made4Mac link on Apple's web site. You might see a "Kingston RAM Upgrades" link on that page. If you follow that link and eventually find pricing for a 512 MB PC2700 DDR SO-DIMM (for the PB17), you would find that the price thus found is much cheaper than Apple's price (on a certain date, the lowest Kingston price thus found was $120 as compare to Apple's $300!). Kingston is very reputable, and (sort of) endorsed by Apple, so it would be worthwhile (and not risky) to save money while buying RAM. "Unbranded" memory might be had for as little as $90 for a 512 MB PC2700 DDR SO-DIMM.
Moreover, if you are keen on finding the absolutely lowest price for RAM, you
might want to try sites such as ramseeker.com
and dealram.com, that occur reasonably
up-to-date prices on various kinds of memory.
AppleCare is highly recommended, particularly for notebook computers. It seems that a campus store might be the cheapest place to buy AppleCare (consider $239 at a University campus store (or the Apple Store with an educational discount) vs. $349 retail). Since AppleCare is not "bound" to a specific computer until you register it, you could in theory ask a student friend to buy it for you if you are not a student yourself. The ethics of doing so are left to the reader as an exercise.
If you are buying Microsoft Office v.X along with an Apple computer, you might be able to get a big discount. For example, at the time of this writing, you can get Office for $199 (a discount of $300) if you buy it with an Apple computer.
Microsoft employees can get Office v.X for as little as $50, apparently!
Finally, for the example of the PB17, here is a comparison table of the (pre-tax) prices you can get if you are eligible:
|Purchase Method||Apple Retail Price||Educational Discount||Stanford Store||ADC Discount||Employee Discount|
|Apple Retail Price||$2999||0||300||300||600||>749|
|Employee Discount||< $2250||0|
|Price||Price Differences Between Methods|