One side effect of the amazing Apple Retail Store experience is that for some new Apple customers, it makes them wonder if there is a benefit to buying directly from Apple: Is it better to buy a MacBook Air direct from Apple? Or, in the case of an iPhone, should you get your iPhone from AT&T or Verizon or from Apple? Does it matter?

In the vast majority of cases, there is no compelling reason to buy directly from Apple. In fact, I think it’s usually better not to. I’ll explain.

Should You Buy Direct from Apple — or From Another Retailer?

The only benefit in buying directly from Apple is when you want to pay more for a custom configuration of a MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, Mac Pro, or Mac mini.

Since there are no custom configurations in an iPad, iPod, or iPhone, there is no need to buy direct at all. In fact, you can usually save money if you don’t buy direct. Walmart, ironically, often has the best deals on iPhones, and the cellular service carriers tolerate the extra sales channel just fine.

What About AppleCare and Warranty?

The first time any friend, colleague, or family buys an Apple product, I usually get a call or text: “Should I buy AppleCare with my _______?” I almost always say no. Why? The reason I shell out for Apple products in the first place is that I expect them to be of outstanding quality and just work. That’s part of the Apple promise. And if you abuse your MacBook or drop it, AppleCare is meaningless. Besides, here’s another little secret: You have an entire year from the date of purchase to decide if you should buy AppleCare coverage for your device, and you can get that easily from Apple online or in a store. That means that if, in the first year, you suspect that something might not be working quite right with your MacBook Air, you can add two more years of coverage of manufacturer defects by buying AppleCare. (Even so, I would first try to take the MacBook Air into an Apple Retail Store to ask the advice of an Apple Genius: “Is this something that is a defect or can easily be fixed or should I shell out a lot of money to buy AppleCare?”)

All-in-all, I’m a huge fan of Apple, but I never get AppleCare. If you’re spending more than $2,000 on a Mac, maybe . . . but an entry-level Mac? No way. The risk of product failure after a year versus the cost is a ratio I just don’t like. My advice is to keep your money in the bank and save it for another Apple product in the future.

AppleCare+ for iPhone, on the other hand, is a toss up — if you’re prone to breaking your iPhones or dropping them in water, AppleCare+ covers you by letting you repair the iPhone for just $79, which you can use up to twice. You can buy this within the first 60 days you own your iPhone, but you’ll need to take it to an Apple Retail Store or let Apple run a remote diagnostic on it first.

Back to Custom Configurations for Macs

For consumers, there’s only two big reasons to buy direct from Apple: 1) you absolutely must have a brand new Mac the same day it’s first available (from an Apple Retail Store), or 2) you want to order a custom configuration (online).

What sort of custom configurations are worth it? Your basic options are to add more memory, more storage, or a faster processor. In the case of the MacBook Pro, it’s usually more cost-efficient to simply buy the next level of MacBook Pro than it is to upgrade these components individually.

Apple’s MacBook Air, though, is the exception — there are only four models to choose from, and the only differences are screen size and 128GB or 256GB of storage. If you are certain you want a MacBook Air, you can upgrade the memory from 4GB to 8GB ($100) and upgrade the storage from 256GB to 512GB ($300), and upgrade the processor from 1.4 GHz to 1.7GHz ($150). The new total? $1,749.

If you’re going to head down this path, the smarter buy is a MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which will sport a faster, better processor and a Retina Display for $1,799 (and usually less if you buy online from some non-Apple retailer).

There’s one more tip here: Upgrading your memory and storage in a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina Display is a good idea if you are going to have the MacBook for 3 years and you’re flirting with “power user” territory by multitasking with many apps or using large and complicated programs. (If you’re going to be using email, tweak some photos, make short videos, and surf the web, the standard configurations will be fine.)

Personally, while I always swing into Apple Retail Stores when I have the chance — always a great experience — I usually buy online in order to a) get a better deal than what Apple offers direct, and b) so I don’t have to spend time and money driving through traffic to get somewhere.

Besides, I also believe that buying from retailers other than Apple helps to promote the entire Apple ecosystem by giving Apple and the companies incentives to offer more Apple products through more diverse channels.

Need Help Choosing a New Apple Mac, iPhone, or iPad?

About the author

Chris Maxcer

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I've been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and I still remember the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. I'm a big fan of elegant gear and great tech, but there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. Online I like to call out cool stuff on Wicked Cool Bite and blog with my buddies at Man Makes Fire. To catch me, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at the url of this site.