Ask LH: What Should I Watch Out For When Buying A Used Computer?

Dear Lifehacker, I need a laptop, but I don't want to stack a bunch of cash on one. I've seen some used ones for sale that seem OK, and a few friends have offered to sell me their last-year's models now that they've upgraded. Is there anything wrong with buying last generation's model, slightly used? Anything I should worry about? Thanks, Cautious Buyer

Dear Cautious Buyer,

You don't want to get screwed buying a used system, but deciding whether you should is a lot like deciding on a new computer: you have to think about what you're going to use it for, what else you'll need to buy to make it work for you, and how long you want to keep it. In this case, you also have to think about how those things stack up against the cost of a new model. Let's tackle each concern, one at a time. Photo by Bruno Cordioli.

What Do You Need The Computer For?

Before you buy any computer -- new or used -- you should ask yourself what you're planning to do with it. Since the majority used computers are a generation or two behind the most recent models, they may not make sense if you're contemplating cutting-edge work. Here are some criteria to keep in mind:

  • Portability: Do you travel often? Do you expect to take your work with you? Size and weight will be a concern in that case: make sure the system you're buying is small enough you can comfortably transport it, but be aware that with portability often (but not always) comes a tradeoff in features and horsepower.
  • Specs: Think about the applications you plan to run. Will you be doing any high-end gaming? Video or audio encoding? Anything else that's CPU or memory-intensive? How much storage will you need? Make sure to consider the specs of the system against the apps you're going to use and ask yourself: Can this computer handle your needs? (Often the answer is "Yes.") If not, is the money you'll save on a used machine worth slower apps, or sticking with earlier versions without new features? (More on this later.)
  • Power: If you're buying a laptop, especially a used one, look up how much a replacement battery will cost, or a spare AC adaptor. Depending on how the system was used before it went up for sale, that battery may or may not hold a decent charge; it could be through its recharge cycles and ready to be recycled. This is especially important if you plan to travel, or work in multiple locations.

Sit down and think about the way you plan to use the system. if your day-to-day computing involves lots of webapps, web services, and few desktop applications, a lightweight system may work for you. If you really need desktop horsepower for gaming, design, and video editing, you want to make sure that used system is up to the challenge.

Make Sure You're Not Better Off Buying New (Or Refurbished!)

The smile of a friend looking to offload a system may be enticing, and you may think you're getting a great deal by taking that laptop off their hands, but make sure you do your homework before you hand over your cash. Before you say yes, consider these things:

Included Software and Peripherals: Remember, a new computer seller will include an operating system and usually at least a one-year warranty. If you're buying refurb or from an authorised reseller, they'll probably include the licence for the OS, and offer their own service plan. Check what comes with yours -- or how much it would cost to get what you need. The same applies to peripherals such as keyboards and mice.

Competitive Pricing: Aside from raw specs and stats, look at the price of the used model, and compare it to the price of a new, comparable system. Remember, used doesn't always equal bargain, even if your friend is tossing in some pre-installed software or an external hard drive. Would you spend the same buying new or refurb, perhaps with that previously mentioned warranty?

Price Your Upgrades: Many people buy a used system and completely underestimate how much they'll wind up spending on it in upgrades. Sure, that $300 used laptop may look like a bargain, but once you buy an external hard drive, a Windows 7 licence, and any apps you need to buy, it's not looking like much of a deal anymore. Heaven forbid you plan to upgrade the hardware in the immediate future -- the cost of a new SSD alone on top of the purchase price may make buying new a more attractive option.

Take a Test Drive

If you're buying from a private seller, see if you can organise a test drive of the system. It might be difficult to negotiate, but a short period of use with the system, even a few hours, can make the difference in knowing if the thing will boot and hold a charge. At the very least, take some time to turn it on and give it a good look. A few things to check:

  • Check the frame and body for cracks or surface damage.
  • Check the screen for haze, dead pixels or discolouration.
  • Check the inputs, ports and optical drive for any broken or malfunctioning parts. Bring peripherals with you if possible.
  • Check the included software, and make sure the keys or media are available to you.

Remember: Caveat Emptor

Buying a used or old system doesn't have to be a bad experience, but you do have to be cautious when shopping. There are plenty of bargains to be had on eBay or Gumtree, and even from your friends looking to offload their old systems, but make sure you're not throwing your money away. Some computer models have high resale values, so make sure to do your homework long before arranging to meet, and make sure you can't get a better deal buying new or refurbished. Photo by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    There are quite a few who buy a few hundred retired business PCs, slam on an illegal copy of windows, and then resell them individually - it's hard to price match with illegal. Anything under $300 with win 7 ultimate is highly suspect.

    (owning an illegal copy may not actually affect you, but there is always the chance that microsoft will break your system later on. It happened with XP.)

      A lot of business PC's come with a legitimate license for a Windows Operating system. Generally the sticker will be on the side of the case. Or on a laptop on the bottom of the chasis

    ^ Or just use Linux - the operating system is one of the biggest expenses to deal with, so if a free OS will meet your needs then you can remove the issue entirely. If you just need to do word processing, web browsing and email, and playback or slight editing of media like photos, videos and music ,then most solid Linux distributions will work as well for you as Windows and they're free.

    Consider the battery if it is a laptop. Even a 1 year old laptop can have a battery on its way out. May want to factor cost of a new battery as well.

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