Buying a Used Laptop

Buying a Used Laptop
by Barry Rogoff
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Why Should I Buy a Used Windows Laptop?
Buying a used laptop makes sense for two reasons:

1. An amazing bit of technology called the solid-state drive (SSD) has no moving parts and is roughly 10-15 times faster than a hard drive. Replacing a hard drive (HDD) with an SSD in a used computer is like getting a new computer for a fraction of what one would cost. See Solid State Drives for an explanation of why that's true.

2. Premium-quality laptops hold their value, last a long time, and are enjoyable to use. They have a nicer "feel" than cheap ones and if you use your laptop a lot, it makes a difference. If you don't mind a few scratches or dents, you can get a much better value in a used laptop than a new one. For example, I would rather have certain models of ten-year-old Dell XPS or Precision laptops than the overpriced, plastic junk they sell in big box stores.

Why Shouldn't I Buy a Used Laptop?
A used laptop may come with unpleasant surprises if you don't know what to look for. Most of the common problems you may encounter are described here. Make sure you can return the laptop if it has unexpected problems or if it doesn't meet expectations.

If you're buying on eBay be careful when buying from sellers that have fewer than 100 items sold and/or a feedback rating of less than 98% positive. Sellers with fewer than ten ratings are risky but everyone has to start somewhere. Read the feedback ratings. If the seller has less than 99.5% positive, read the negative and neutral reviews and see whether or not the seller has responded to them. Very few high-volume sellers have 100% positive.

Be very wary of "as-is" listings (no returns) and ones with fuzzy pictures and/or vague information. For example, "i7" means very little without a generation number or code name. See what the specs mean for more information.

If you're not afraid to take the cover off and replace parts in a laptop, a "parts only" listing may be a great deal. Batteries are easy to replace as is memory, as long as you don't have to remove a heat sink to get at both memory slots. That requires reapplying thermal paste between the heat sink and the chips on the motherboard, which is not something you want to take on unless you know what you're doing.

Should I Buy a Privately-Owned Laptop?
Carefully. There are some terrific deals out there and some terrible ones from dishonest people. There are laptops for sale that are like new and are being sold only because of circumstances. For example, someone got a gift they don't want or have changed jobs and no longer need their own laptop. I had to laugh when a friend who is a lifetime Windows user was given a MacBook as a birthday present by his family.

If you're not careful, you'll get problems the seller intentially left out of the description or wasn't knowledgable enough to describe accurately. Unethical sellers take advantage of the fact that having to return something bought online can be a very unpleasant and/or costly experience.

What Does Refurbished Mean?
In theory, it means "as good as new." All faulty components have been repaired or replaced but there can be a huge difference in the quality of the parts, workmanship, and expertise that go into the system depending on who did the refurbishing. You can safely assume that a "refurbished" laptop can boot the operating system but it may still have substantial flaws.

Should I Buy a "Factory Refurbished" Laptop?
In general, yes. These are usually laptops that were returned to the factory and had some defective part replaced. Some come with factory warranties. These are a generally a safe investment but the prices may be quite high.

Should I Buy a "Seller Refurbished" Laptop?
Carefully. It depends on the technical skills and ethics of the refurbisher and on the quality of the replacement parts. Some refurbishers use cheap replacement parts and do only the bare minimum needed to get the system running. Others install upgraded parts, configure the operating system and software, and do extensive hardware and software testing.

Should I Buy a "Professionally Refurbished" Laptop?
No. These are usually off-lease business laptops purchased and resold in bulk by office equipment wholesalers. Refurbishing companies use the cheapest possible replacement parts and advertise their computers as "better than new." If you ask them what's better about it they just laugh at you. Avoid these unless they come with a written warranty and you're certain about the honesty of the company, including how long it would take to fix a broken system.

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