Refurbished PCs: Sweet Deals or Lemons?Prices on used computers are extremely tempting. Should you bite?
Maybe I'm spoiled, but when I buy a new PC--or almost anything else, for that matter--I like it to be clean, shiny, and fresh from the factory. That's why I've never seriously considered purchasing anything but a custom-configured system from a reputable vendor, and I've generally recommended that others do the same. But lately the wobbly economy has prompted many of us to spend a little more time bargain hunting. And since some of the lowest PC prices around are for refurbished and used systems, I decided to swallow my snobbery and take another look at these discount deals.
Refurbished--also known as reconditioned or remanufactured--computers are easy to find. Major PC manufacturers, catalog merchants, and auction sites sell them online. Some of these systems are the offspring of canceled orders and have never even been taken out of the box, but most were returned for some reason by a customer. (Go ahead and ask, but you probably won't be able to sleuth out the history of a particular machine.) The returned PCs are typically cleaned, fixed, and updated if necessary (Dell completely rebuilds every returned PC); tested for problems; and reloaded with their included operating system. They're usually stickered at 10 to 30 percent below the price of a comparable new system.
One drawback to buying a refurbished PC is that you can't customize it. Your choice is generally limited to whatever systems happen to be available, and they usually don't feature the most current technology. So if you need a leading-edge processor or a system with specialized components, a refurb probably won't work for you. On the other hand, if you're a small-business or home user on a tight budget and you aren't fussy about features and power, purchasing a reconditioned PC might make sense.
Do You Need Speed?
One reason many people have shied away from buying refurbished systems is the speed gap. For a few hundred dollars more than a used system costs, the reasoning goes, you can buy a brand-new PC with a top-of-the-line processor. That's still true, and it's a compelling argument in favor of buying the latest and greatest. But with chip speeds exceeding an almost unfathomable 2 GHz, budget-conscious buyers might well consider saving a few Benjamins by sacrificing some speed.
Before you pull the trigger, however, you need to determine how fast is fast enough. That depends primarily on what you use your computer for. According to IDC analyst Shane Rau, most users wouldn't notice much of a performance difference between, say, a 1.2- and a 1.7-GHz processor. "The average PC user surfs the Internet, sends and receives e-mail, tracks finances, and maybe creates modest graphics. None of those tasks require any significant processor power; and by today's speeds, any Athlon or Pentium 4 would be plenty," Rau says.
On the other hand, if you spend your evenings editing video or careening around a racetrack in a virtual Porsche--or even if you run a hungry operating system like Windows XP--you should probably invest in all the processing power you can afford. Rau points out that users who frequently run multiple apps would likely benefit from a 1.7-GHz or faster chip.
In many cases, the amount of RAM your system sports is as important as your CPU speed. Let's say the processor in the refurb you're considering is a few hundred megahertz slower than the latest models. Adding an extra 128MB of memory is cheap (about $40 at press time) and could produce just as big a performance increase as upgrading to the latest CPU.
Even if you admit that you don't need a 2+-GHz CPU, the idea of buying something that was--let's face it--rejected by another user might conjure up disturbing images of blue monitor screens and late nights on the phone with tech support.
Better Than New?
The reality, according to sellers of refurbished systems, is quite the opposite. They insist that the extra maintenance and testing refurbished machines undergo make them at least as reliable as their factory-fresh counterparts. And in the case of CPUs, the claims are probably true. "Processors are manufactured to last far beyond a person's ability to wear them out with normal use," Rau explains.
But what about everything else? Since you probably won't know what brought the system back to the seller in the first place, you'll have to rely primarily on trust and--more important--a solid warranty. Some PC manufacturers offer the same return policy and warranty for refurbished systems as for new ones, which speaks well of their confidence in the computers. A standard return policy for a desktop system should provide, at minimum, 30 days for returns and a one-year limited warranty covering parts, labor, and telephone tech support. If a seller offers a significantly less-generous warranty or return policy for a used machine than for a new one, be wary.
Before you buy a refurbished system, price comparable new PCs. You can't know whether buying used makes sense until you know how much you're saving.
If you decide to take the plunge, don't hand over your credit card until you've recorded all the details of the transaction. Don't assume that a refurbished PC comes with everything that the equivalent new machine would: Ask the seller to identify the precise model and configuration; which components are included (some sellers omit things like monitors); all installed software, including version numbers; and the details of the warranty and return policy, including who pays for shipping. You'll need the documentation in case you don't get exactly what you paid for. I've received letters from readers who ordered a particular refurbished system, only to receive another one equipped with a slightly different CPU or video card.
The best place to buy a refurbished system is directly from an established PC manufacturer or mail-order vendor that provides complete product and warranty information and responsive customer service. If you're tempted by a too-good-to-pass-up deal at an auction site, be careful. It's almost always risky to buy a used PC from an individual, since in many cases you'll have no warranty or customer support to turn to when something goes wrong (and don't assume it won't).
Sites like UBid auction used PCs directly to consumers for manufacturers and companies. While they offer some great-sounding deals, product information can be spotty, and it's not always clear what you're getting. It's especially important to do your homework before you bid.
I admit that I haven't completely overcome my snobbish tendencies toward refurbs. But if it means getting a 1.4-GHz P4 system for less than half the price of the same PC new, I'll work on it.
Anne Kandra is a contributing editor for PC World. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.