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Refurbished PCs: To Buy or Not To Buy

Secondhand notebooks used to be the best way to score a great deal, but that may no longer be the case.


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by Jeffrey L. Wilson on March 10, 2009

new_refurbished_sh1There was a time, not too long ago, when if you wanted to get a notebook on the cheap, refurbished systems were your only option. Manufacturers were able to sell slightly used laptops that were cleaned up and repaired to work as new, with the hook of significant savings. But with the falling prices of notebooks and the emergence of the low-cost netbook, the question must be asked: are the savings worth buying a secondhand PC?

Refurbished notebooks are previously purchased systems that have been returned to a vendor. There is no guarantee that a specific model will be in stock, as opposed to new machines that are usually available for order at any time. Additionally, purchasing refurbished means that you’ll be unable to configure your notebook; you’re locked into the presented configuration, unless you’re keen on upgrading the RAM or hard drive yourself.

Deal or No Deal?

To get a cheaper version of a particular system you’ve had your eye on, buying a refurbished notebook is a smart choice; you get all of the manuals, power cords, batteries, and warranties as you would with a fresh purchase. HP, for example, offers a large number of refurbished notebooks at the HP Business Outlet. We were able to find a nicely configured 15-inch HP Compaq 8510p (2.5-GHz Intel Core 2 T9300 processor, 2GB of RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon X2600 graphics, Windows Vista Business with a downgrade to XP, 250GB HDD) for $1,049. That may not sound like huge savings, until you check the price of a new 8510p that’s identically configured: $1,849. That’s a startling $800 saved.

New Low-Cost Competition

On the other hand, if you don’t have a certain model in mind and simply want a low-cost system for Web surfing, writing documents, and checking e-mail, refurbished machines may not be as appealing.

Netbooks and the continually falling prices (and improving specs) on budget notebooks give PC shoppers more options than ever to land a new computer without draining the wallet, potentially making refurbished systems lose their luster.

“I don’t think that refurbished notebooks have been worth it for a number of years,” said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Group. “There’s not a lot of value for most people, and for most vendors, there isn’t a big enough profit margin on notebooks that they can reduce prices enough to make them attractive.”

Dell offers a wide range of refurbished notebooks at Delloutlet.com, where notebook shoppers can browse systems based on criteria including price, screen size, processor, storage capacity, RAM capacity, video card, and operating system. For example, a refurbished Dell Studio 15 (in Jet Black) packing a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5750 processor, 3GB of RAM, 250GB hard drive, and 15-inch display costs $559. The same notebook built new costs $724—a difference of $165. That’s a good chunk of change, but it may not be enough for a consumer to ignore the sense of confidence that comes with purchasing a brand-new system.

Netbooks such as the 8.9-inch, $349 Acer Aspire one (1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, 120GB HDD, and Windows XP), and budget systems, such as Dell’s very own 15-inch, $619 Studio 15 (2.0-GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core T3200 processor, 2GB of RAM, 250GB HDD, and Windows Vista Home Premium), generally trump refurbished notebooks, because shoppers can get very capable systems that are brand new for similar, if not outright cheaper, prices.

Even high-end systems from the likes of Alienware don’t prove attractive in the refurbished market place. “[Alienware] won’t reduce the price enough to make it worthwhile. You have to get the price down by 25 percent to make it attractive,” Baker said. “Besides, most people who are looking at a $2,000-or-more notebook aren’t going to mind spending the extra cash.”

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