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When is fixing your Mac just throwing good money after bad?

This scenario replays almost every time I go to work at the local Apple retailer: A customer walks in with an older Mac that isn't working right. It happens sooner or later with just about any reasonably complicated device you own, whether it's your car, your washing machine, TV set, or even your Mac. So what's the answer?

It ultimately depends on a few factors — and price isn't the only thing to consider. How much faster will a new machine be? How have your needs changed since you first bought the Mac you're bringing in for repair? How much longer do you plan on keeping it anyway?

Labor

If your Mac is out of warranty, the first thing to know is that most places are going to charge you just to look at it. Our standard fee is $125.95 — it's a flat labor rate we charge regardless of how many hours the tech actually works on your device. That price will vary from business to business.

Parts

There's also the question of what needs to get fixed. If you've spilled a soda on the keyboard of your Mac laptop, for example, it can vary depending on the model and the severity of the damage. For some Macs it might mean replacing the entire "top case," which integrates the keyboard, trackpad and battery. The main logic board might have to be replaced, which is big money. Or perhaps just the MagSafe board needs to get pulled.

I see a lot of older Macs — five years, maybe older — come in with problems with their hard drives. Hard drives spin continuously when they're powered, and eventually those spindle motors and the read/write heads wear out. The good news is that hard drives are cheap to replace, and putting an SSD in place of a regular hard disk can often lead to dramatic performance improvements. The bad news is that if you don't have a backup, you may be facing lost data or a lengthy and expensive process of file recovery.

One common repair we have in the store is a screen replacement for a laptop. It's usually a younger user — college-aged or younger — and there's usually an accident or mishap to explain the damage: Leaving a heavy object on the computer, dropping it off a desk, falling asleep with it on the bed and having it crash to the floor. Screens are ridiculously costly for MacBooks — often almost half the price of the device. One way to cut that cost is to ship your laptop out to a mail-order repair service like iResQ. That's what I did when I needed to replace the screen on an '09 white MacBook. I saved hundreds and have been satisfied with the replacement screen.

Usability

There's a point of diminishing return when you fix a computer, as well, where you're simply not going to see any more performance or usability enhancements. Where fixing it may let you limp along for a while longer, but ultimately won't improve things. In those cases, it's almost always a good idea to retire your device.

My general rule of thumb is that if the repair costs are going to equal or be greater than half the cost of buying a new computer, I'll try to talk the customer into replacing the computer instead. At that point you get a brand new computer that works fast and efficiently, and you get the added benefit of a full warranty.

Just remember that neither Apple's standard warranty nor AppleCare cover accidental damage, so think twice before you decide to take a nap with your MacBook Pro beside you, as one of my recent customers did.

17 Comments
  • The title of this article makes no sense to me. Also, noticed you guys have done a poor job editing mistakes out of articles lately.
  • Agree. Title makes no sense I had to read it again to figure out what they meant lol. Sent from the iMore App
  • I must be old. I thought "throwing good money after bad" was a common expression. Get off my lawn, you two Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah, me too... I agree with you Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Same here
  • I thought it was pretty apt.
  • Yeah idk where any confusion could come in on this. Plain English to me.
  • Swapping the HDD for an SSD really makes an incredible difference. My girlfriends Dual core, 4gb ram, 2009 MacBook Pro became a bit sluggish and was taking close to a minute to turn on. I swapped the HDD for an SSD and couldn't believe the difference. Now when turning it on, web browsing and word document editing etc it's pretty much as quick as my quad core, 16 gb ram, flash storage MacBook Pro. The SSD only cost £70 for 120 GB and took about an hour to swap and re download/install Yosemite so absolutely worth it!! Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree!! I put on in on my 2008 MacBook and am able to run Yosemite like a breeze. That's pretty impressive to run a laptop that is over 6 years old with the latest OS, with zero issues. Sent from the iMore App
  • Meanwhile my 6 year old laptop cant run windows 8 properly...
  • Put some ssd's in mine and the wife's MBP'S this weekend both mid 2012's, and has it ever woke them up lol
    mine kingston fury 250gb
    hers crucial mx100 256gb
  • I just found out at an Apple Store that Macs over about 5 years old are considered "vintage" and they do not stock parts for them. I had to buy a replacement fan online from a non-Apple source.
  • Hey Peter - some good points and timely, as I was just discussing this with an onsite client in Boston today. One other major factor that's worth factoring in: Costs/issues with upgrading the software: will some of your software stop working or have to be upgraded? This can be a particular concern for people who use apps such as Photoshop/creative suite. RAM is another great option (if your Mac supports RAM upgrades), and coupled with a replacement SSD drive can really give the system a serious speed boost.
  • It is completely worth it to me to fix what you have if it is still good. I opted to get the 2012 mac mini to replace the one i previously had (BlackTie) over the 2014 Model because unlike the 2014 model when and if the time comes it is easily accessible and upgradable. I already bought an SSD and attached it as an external drive that handles OS X Yosemite and use the mac's sata hdd as storage creating my own fusion drive. Macs are incredibly reliable machines. If you check out sites like crucial getting replacement parts are not really a big deal. I think that most people get caught up in the I have to have something new and stopped realizing that they purchased these devices with a purpose in mind and as long as it serves its purpose it can still be used Someone who can upgrade or fix his/her device are tech companies worst nightmare because people like this hold on to their devices longer and usually are able to tweak their machines to perform just as well as newer ones. I think this is why Apple has chosen to make their newer macs non accessible
  • Good advice Peter. I have always debated when it was time to just throw in the towel and this article really helps with the Mac aspect of it. Could always apply this in other areas too, great read. Sent from the iMore App
  • Glad someone is still interested in writing about MacBooks, all us users get the cold shoulder to iOS devices. Don't get me wrong, I have them all, but I'm the old dinosaur that still plugs my iOS devices into a Mac daily. So maintaining my OS machine is most important. Sent from the iMore App
  • "If the repair costs are going to equal or be greater than half the cost of buying a new computer" - that's a helpful guide. The family iMac is 7 going on 8 this year. And a 6 year old Macbook, which I may replace the battery on, but both (over)due for retirement soon. I upgraded to a MBP late last year and the difference is night and day.