There’s nothing special about a Mac purchased from the Apple Store. The ghost of Steve Jobs doesn't sprinkle magic iDust on it, and the Geniuses haven’t loaded it up with bonus software.
It's exactly the same computer as one purchased at any other authorized source*. The difference is the price. On any given Mac laptop or desktop computer, you’ll always find the highest price at the Apple Store. With very few exceptions, the price for a Mac at the Apple Store will remain consistent from the day it is released to the day it is discontinued.
Apple’s done a great job catering to Mac fans with stores that are monuments to aesthetically pleasing design and staff that are as Apple-focused as the shoppers. By all means, go, check out the newest models, and take care of your repairs. But you should never buy a computer in the Apple Store, no matter how cool the hipster Genius makes you feel. So where is the best place to buy a Mac? You’ll always find a better deal by getting online and checking out the alternatives in the form of Apple Authorized Resellers and Apple's own special pricing departments.
Apple Authorized Resellers frequently have the best deals on Mac computers and laptops. The big names in the game include: MacMall, Mac Connection, B&H, Buy.com, Best Buy and Abt Electronics. There are a number of advantages to shopping at these stores. First off, they provide discounts off the retail price. For instance, MacMall has the current lowest price on a new 11.6” MacBook Air. At $824, it is 8 percent off the Apple Store's retail price. The next big advantage is free software and rebate offers. B&H is currently offering a free six-month trial of Parallels Access 2.0 with your Mac purchase, and MacMall has a whole slew of rebate offers for free or discounted printers and free or discounted software. Finally, you can save on sales tax from many of these resellers, depending on your location. And most of the time, shipping is free (or the price is discounted enough to make up for it).
A quick note: if the website you are looking at has a shoddy design and the prices are too low to be believed, it probably isn’t an Apple Authorized site and may not be a trustworthy business. Any site you see on Brad's Deals is safe.
Students, teachers, and education staff can save up to $200 on Macs by purchasing through the Apple Education Store. With these price reductions, buying through Apple can be a good deal, even though you will pay sales tax. Ground shipping is always free with a Mac purchase (from any of the Apple Stores). The best time for a student to purchase is in the summer months, when Apple usually runs a back-to-school promotion. For a few years now, Apple's been offering students a $100 Apple Store Gift Card with the purchase of a Mac, and a $50 Apple Store Gift Card with the purchase of a qualifying iPad or iPhone.
The Apple-Certified Refurbished Mac Department is the other big way to buy from Apple and save. Getting a great deal on a refurb can have a lot to do with timing. Apple refurbs are current or previous generation models that have been tested, refurbished, and re-certified. They carry the same one-year, extendable warranty as regular Macs. These purchases also qualify for the $100 off printer rebate, and students can purchase refurbs through the education store to get the gift card.
This is the exception to the rule. The one time of year you can find variations in pricing at the Apple Store is on Black Friday. Sadly, these sales consist of the same 5 percent off deals year after year, so if you're looking so score a good deal on a Mac on Black Friday, we recommend shopping anywhere but the Apple Store. Resist the siren's call of the Apple Store's shining halls and come to us for the best online deals.
* David in the comments section pointed out that if you want to participate in Apple's paid One-to-One training program, you must purchase your Mac from the Apple Store, or the Apple Store online (including Education and Refurbs). You cannot take part in the program if you purchase from an Authorized Reseller.
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