When you buy an Apple hardware product such as a Mac or an iPad, you get a one-year hardware warranty and 90 days of free phone-based tech support, starting from the date of purchase. If something goes wrong--other than, say, you dropping your MacBook Air in a bucket of soapy water--Apple generally picks up the tab for repairing or replacing your hardware (at its discretion).

As most of us know, however, things tend to go south with hardware sometime after the included warranty expires. Often, it seems to happen the very next day. Let's call it Klutzy's Law. To ensure that your spiffy purchase continues to work without requiring you to pay for repairs and support as the need arises, Apple offers AppleCare Protection Plans as add-on purchases. But what do they give you? How much do they cost? And most importantly, are they worth it? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

How AppleCare works

AppleCare (or AppleCare+ for iPhones and iPads) is an insurance policy for your devices. You pay an up-front cost to cover any potential problems. But more precisely, AppleCare plans extend the length of your hardware coverage for both repairs and support. Apple offers four separate plans--for Macs and Apple displays, iPhones, iPads, and iPods and Apple TVs.

How long it extends support: For Macs and displays, AppleCare gets you a total of three years' support--in other words, it extends phone support by 33 months and the limited warranty by two years (for a total of three years). For all other products--iPods, iPads, iPhones, and Apple TVs--AppleCare gives you a total of two years of support.

When to buy it: It's easiest to buy AppleCare when you buy your new hardware, but you don't have to purchase it that way. For Macs, displays, iPods, and Apple TVs, you can buy an AppleCare Protection Plan at any time during the one-year warranty period.

For iPhones and iPads, you have just 30 days to decide if it's worth it. And to complicate things further, if you don't get AppleCare+ when you buy your new phone or tablet, the only way to add it is in person from an Apple retail store; this is because you have to provide proof of purchase (to verify that it's within the 30-day eligibility period, measured from when Apple shipped and charged you for your order) and submit your device to an inspection (to make sure you didn't decide to pony up only after accidentally smashing the screen on your pretty new iOS device).

Where the repairs happen: AppleCare offers a variety of ways you can deliver your product for servicing, including carry-in (Apple Stores or Authorized Service Providers), drop-off (to UPS stores in the United States, for iPod and iPhone only), mail-in, or on-site (for desktops). You can also get parts (so you can service your product yourself).

To arrange service, you can visit Apple's Support & Service Options page or make a Genius Bar appointment at a local store. Apple's FAQ page provides lots of helpful info about the process.

What AppleCare covers (and costs)

So what does an AppleCare plan actually get you? The answer varies depending on the product. You'll find links to the specific pages for each product on the main AppleCare page in the Apple Store. Here are the basics:

Mac support: For Macs, AppleCare offers parts-and-labor repair coverage from Apple-authorized technicians for the computer, its included accessories (power adapter, for example), and any Apple-supplied RAM. A Mac plan also covers AirPort hardware (purchased up to two years before your Mac purchase or during the term of your AppleCare plan), an Apple USB SuperDrive (for the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro with Retina display, iMac, and Mac mini), and an Apple display purchased at the same time as, and on the same receipt as, your Mac.

In additional to hardware coverage, AppleCare also gives you access to some software support. Have questions about OS X, iLife, and iWork? Can't connect to your printer or your AirPort networks? Give Apple Support a call.

AppleCare for desktop hardware generally costs less than or the same as support for laptops (see price chart below). That makes sense when you consider that portables are more accident-prone and have smaller, more-expensive components.

iPhone and iPad support: AppleCare+, the special brand of AppleCare for iPhones and iPads, covers the devices (specifically their batteries and defects in materials or workmanship), the included cables and power adapters (but not, apparently, headphones), and your AirPort hardware.

The AppleCare+ plan for iPhones and iPads costs $99, but AppleCare+ comes with a bonus: It also covers accidental damage. If you break your device, or even drop it in the pool, Apple will repair or replace the device for a set fee of $49. You can take advantage of this accidental-damage benefit twice over the duration of your AppleCare+ plan.

iPod support: For iPods, AppleCare covers the iPod itself, the battery (if its charge holds less than 50 percent of its original capacity), and the included earphones and USB cable. And as with all other hardware, AppleCare includes unlimited phone tech support. You'll pay $59 for the iPod touch or iPod classic plan.

Apple TV support: AppleCare for the Apple TV covers the device and included accessories (remote and power cord). Coverage also includes your AirPort hardware (much as AppleCare for Macs does), as well as phone tech support. You'll pay $29 for the Apple TV AppleCare plan.

Display support: If you buy AppleCare support for your Apple display for $99, the plan will extend your support to three years. Beside the display itself, it covers the built-in camera, mic, and speakers; and the power cord. It also includes telephone assistance.

Good wherever you go: Keep in mind that AppleCare plans are global, so if you're traveling and have a problem, or your child jets off to spend her junior year abroad in Amsterdam, you've covered. Options vary by country, however.

To read all the legal mumbo-jumbo surrounding AppleCare, make sure to visit the AppleCare terms and conditions page.

Should you pay for AppleCare?

Whether AppleCare is worth the extra expense will depend on many factors, but here are a few general questions to ask yourself.

Do you use the device for work? If so, consider whether you could do without your device for an extended period of time or be able to come up with the money to repair it on short notice. For a few hundred dollars, AppleCare could give you a guarantee that is well worth the money.

Does your credit card extend warranties automatically? American Express cards, for example, can extend the terms of a U.S. manufacturer's warranty for up to one additional year when you buy something with the card. In fact, most cards from Visa, MasterCard, and Discovery include similar protection, usually with up to $10,000 in coverage. Of course, those extended warranties have restrictions and don't include things like Apple phone tech support. When you weigh your options, think about how long you typically own hardware products and what kind of service you generally need.

Does my renter's or homeowner's insurance cover the kind of accidental damage that AppleCare+ does with iPhones and iPads? It's possible, yes, so be sure to look at your policy ahead of any big purchases.

Is it better to just set aside some money in a "repair fund" instead? AppleCare is basically an insurance policy, so the main question for you is whether the up-front costs are worth the peace of mind they bring with them. Would you rather set aside some money in case of an accident or pay up front and know that if your Mac's logic board goes bad in two years, you won't have to pay $800 to fix it?

Should you only consider AppleCare if you plan to get it for all your hardware? If you're a family with multiple computers, phones, and tablets, the cost for AppleCare can quickly add up. Each device is different, and the chances of them all needing service within the coverage period are slim, so you're better off targeting the portable devices, those used by the kids, or the ones you know you'll be keeping for a long time. Save your money on the other products.

If you don't live near an Apple Store, does AppleCare make sense? Although it's convenient to be able to walk into the local Apple Store with a misbehaving MacBook Air, that's not the only way to get service. If your town has no Apple Store, AppleCare plans actually give you options you wouldn't otherwise have: You can talk to Apple about an issue, and if the company decides it's a problem covered by AppleCare, it will usually send you a box to ship your device in, fix the device, and then send it back to you. As mentioned earlier, AppleCare also works with authorized repair facilities. You can find them by choosing your desired country and following the links on Apple's site.

Do you keep your hardware for a long time, or do you upgrade often? If you're the type of person who buys a new Mac every year (hey, some people can swing it), then AppleCare may be somewhat pointless. But if you're like most people, chances are you're going to keep stuff around longer. Keep in mind that if you sell (or give away) your hardware, you can transfer the ownership of the AppleCare plan, which adds value to the sale price if you want to upgrade after a few years.

Do you like to call up tech support for every little thing? If your first inclination when things get wonky is to pick up the phone and ask for help, then AppleCare's extended phone support might be worth it all by itself.

Breaking it down

If you're the kind of person who skips to the end of a book to find out what happened, here's a quick cheat sheet for deciding whether to get AppleCare for different types of hardware. (Of course, these are generalizations, so you'll have to make up your own mind depending on your situation.)

Mac desktops:  AppleCare for desktops is relatively inexpensive, which might make it tempting, but it's still not really worth it when you figure that you'll probably plop your computer down in one place and keep it there for a while. Desktop Macs are also pretty reliable.

Verdict: No

MacBooks:  Considering all the goodness packed into such a small package, a lot can go wrong with a laptop over several years. I generally buy AppleCare with my portable Macs.

Verdict: Yes

Displays: I've found Apple displays to be pretty solid, and you probably won't need software support for them. Spend your money elsewhere.

Verdict: No

iPhones: Trust me, if you own an iPhone long enough, you'll crack the screen, drop it in the toilet, step on it, or otherwise cause it harm. You may only pay a few hundred dollars for an iPhone on contract, but if you have to replace it, you'll be paying full price (and even a screen replacement costs a bunch). AppleCare+ seems like a no-brainer these days considering the plan's reasonable pricing and acceptable deductible.

Verdict: Yes

iPads:  Like iPhones, iPads are trouble magnets (especially if you let the kids use them). One question to ask yourself is, how comfortable are you with fixing things yourself? If you don't opt for AppleCare+, you can try to fix it yourself, although I don't recommend it. Or you can pay Apple to repair your out-of-warranty iPad for $219 to $299. If neither sounds like a good solution, opt for AppleCare+.

Verdict: Yes

Apple TVs:  I've owned every model of Apple TV and have never had a problem with any. That's not to say it can't happen, but paying nearly a third of the price of a new Apple TV doesn't seem worth it.

Verdict: No

iPods:  As with the Apple TV, iPods are pretty hardy. And the thought of paying $39 for AppleCare on a $49 iPod shuffle is a bit hard to swallow. Paying $59 to double the warranty on an iPod touch, however, might be more palatable.

Verdict: No