As a Lead Mac Genius I could repair any Mac made in the last seven years. I probably still can today given the proper parts, but there in lies the rub. Repairing computers requires parts. Mac Genius don't actually repair broken components, they fix your Mac by replacing its failing parts. Sometimes parts are remanufactured like logic boards. Sometimes parts are new like hard drives. No matter the source, having a steady stream of parts is at least half the power of any Mac Genius, and the only reason I would buy AppleCare. (The other half is people skills and the expertise to properly diagnose a problem.)
But for some people AppleCare is more than just parts. It is the reassurance that should anything go wrong with their Mac, short of accidental damage, they will have someone to call, and somewhere to go to get their Mac fixed free of charge. For people that are less tech savvy than I, who stay awake at night thinking of bad things that could happen to their Mac, AppleCare's three year's of parts, labor, and phone support provides reassurance.
Most Mac users are neither ex Mac Genius or technology squeamish paranoids. They don't look up the latest service manuals to see what's changed, but they don't call AppleCare to find their way around iPhoto either. All they want from AppleCare is an accurate diagnosis and a quick repair of a problem that is beyond their time or ability to resolve. For them I offer these recommendations.
If you plan on buying a new computer every year don't buy AppleCare. Apple's standard one year warranty covers parts and labor on manufacturing defects and is included with all new or factory refurbished Macs. If you need phone support remember you get 90 days worth of free AppleCare support calls from the day you purchased your computer, and free support is only as far as your local Apple Store.
You can purchase the AppleCare Protection Plan anytime within the one-year limited warranty period. Your eligibility for coverage under the AppleCare Protection Plan starts from your hardware purchase date.
American Express and many premium charge card companies double your manufacture's warranty when you make eligible purchases on your card. These claims are not as easy to redeem as AppleCare, but an additional year of parts and labor on your Mac is an added benefit for paying with credit.
Homeowners insurance and specific riders that cover costly electronics are another reason to skip AppleCare. These policies often cover the accidental damage Apple won't.
Although I have never purchased an in-store warranty on any product, I have heard good things about Best Buy replacing failing MacBooks with the latest and greatest Apple portables. Buyers beware you are dealing with retail sales strategies when you invest in one of these policies.
Portable computers can still be sent out for flat rate mail-in repair. The cost of a flat rate repair outside of the standard warranty it almost equal to the cost of AppleCare. If you own a portable computer that is outside of its original one year warranty you only need to have it repaired once before the cost of AppleCare pays for itself.
Desktop Macs are never eligible for flat rate repairs. Each part must be purchased individually, and the cost of a single Xeon Mac Pro processor or 27 inch iMac display is several times the cost of AppleCare.
I always buy AppleCare for desktop Macs. iMac AppleCare is cheap considering it covers a difficult repair and cost of the integrated display. Mac Pro AppleCare is an investment on an expensive machine that will last at least three years.
An Apple display purchased at the same time as an eligible Mac can be covered under AppleCare. This is the only time I would purchase AppleCare on a MacBook or Mac mini. Otherwise I take my chances with the cost of a flat rate repair or finding replacement parts on my own.
I would never buy AppleCare on a iPod, iPhone, iPad, or AppleTV. These devices are more likely to be dropped or stolen than require repair for a manufacturing defect.
AppleCare covers a
AirPort Express Base Station, AirPort Extreme Base Station, or Time Capsule purchased no more than two years before your Mac purchase or during the term of your AppleCare Protection Plan coverage.
AppleCare never goes on sale through Apple, but can be purchased at a discount either through the educational store, or from a third-party reseller. Check to make sure the AppleCare box is sealed when purchasing from a third-party.
Older boxed copies of AppleCare can expire. If you have a valid receipt for both your computer and protection plan Apple will honor your AppleCare.
Finally, if you purchase AppleCare and feel you have made a mistake you can return AppleCare for a refund, but you won't get your full purchase price back. Instead, you'll get a pro-rated refund based on how long you've had the plan before returning it.
AppleCare might be the right choice for some people, but a waste for others. Only after looking at all of its advantages and alternative options can you determine if AppleCare is right for you.