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Ready to Return

Follow these tips to ensure smooth holiday returns.

by K.T. Bradford on November 17, 2008

laptop-gift_shIt happens to us all: you receive a gift that doesn't fit, isn't quite what you asked for, or is simply not right for you. In most cases you can easily return or exchange it with no hassle, but with major electronics like notebooks and handheld devices, there are extra considerations to take into account: minor annoyances like restocking fees and major hassles like the security risks presented by leftover data. Take some simple precautions to avoid catastrophe and make sure your electronics are ready to return.

Common Sense

As with any other kind of gift or purchase, make sure that you keep the receipt. For laptops and handhelds, keep all of the packaging, documentation, and included media in a safe place. Some stores won't accept a return if one or more of these things are missing (particularly the packaging). One sure way to render your electronics non-returnable is to permanently modify or personalize them by etching your name into the casing, applying non-removable decorations, or something similar.

Check out the store’s return policy. Most big box stores will charge a restocking fee for non-defective returns if you’ve removed the computer or handheld from its packaging. It can run anywhere from 15 – 20% of the purchase price. If you're exchanging for an item of equal or greater value, the fee might be waived if the item is in good condition.

Also, be aware of your return window. For computers, it's generally small (around two weeks). Some stores extend or modify their return policy for the holidays or allow exchanges for similar products, so read the guidelines carefully.

All major retailers list their policies online:  Best BuyCircuit CityRadio ShackStaplesOffice


When you get a new notebook as a gift, take a few days to make sure it's right for you. Don't do anything that would void the warranty, though, like taking the back cover off. And don't be in a rush to put all of your programs and files on right away. Though loading new programs onto the laptop won't negatively impact the notebook's returnability, you want to hold off on loading programs that have limited activations just in case. If you end up returning it, uninstall programs with activation keys to keep the next owner from registering the software without your knowledge.


When notebooks are returned, the stores won't make sure that there is no trace of your data left. They'll look to see that it's still working, but any programs, temp files, and incompletely deleted data will still be on the hard drive and available to the next person who buys it. There are a few ways you can protect yourself.

Until you're sure you're going to keep your notebook, don't move or save any files to the hard drive. This includes documents, temporary files, browser history, cache, cookies, stored passwords/form data, and emails. Use an external hard drive or a thumb drive to store files and necessary programs to use while testing your new laptop.

Run your browser from the thumb/external drive to keep all activity and stored data secure. Both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome have portable versions that are easy to set up. If you can access your email via the web, do so. For those who need to download, Mozilla Thunderbird can also work from a thumb drive. Just make sure you leave a copy of the emails on the server so that you can download them all when you move to your permanent email program. There's even a portable version of OpenOffice you can use if you don't want to waste an activation of Microsoft Office on a computer you might not keep.

If you don't have a thumb or external drive, you can clean up a hard drive before taking it back to the store. Programs like SecureClean specifically target temporary files, deleted data and other at-risk information littered around the hard drive and ensures that it is overwritten and inaccessible.

Handheld Devices

The advice for handheld devices is similar to notebooks. But it's harder to keep personal data off of a PDA, Blackberry or Smartphone while you're trying it out.

If you need to sync, determine the bare minimum you can work with -- address book but not email, calendar but not notes or documents -- then encrypt it. If the device has a memory card slot, configure it to store data there.

Before you return the device, remove all data, documents and passwords to your computer. Then reset the device to factory preset to erase all data. Though some traces of it may remain, they'll be encrypted, making it much harder to restore.

The process for resetting is different for each model. ReCellular, a cell phone recycling service, keeps a database of instructions; just choose the phone's manufacturer and model number to find them. For a non-phone PDA, check the documentation.

Remember that the post-holiday season is the busiest time of year for returns. Do what you can to make the process smoother for yourself and the customer service rep and avoid nasty surprises down the line.

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