If you're trying to squeeze the most value out of every dollar of your next laptop purchase, consider buying a refurbished unit. While you won't usually find the latest and greatest products being sold as refurbished, you will often be able to save money and get slightly more functionality by considering a product that's not fresh off the factory line.
As you might expect, there are some caveats and risks involved with getting a refurbished laptop. To help you decide whether and how to buy a refurbished laptop, we've gathered some tips below.
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Lower cost, but worse battery life and performance
Buying a refurbished laptop can save you several hundred dollars depending on the make and model and where you shop. However, you're unlikely to find the latest-generation laptops available as refurbs, unless the model in question has been on the market for six months or more.
Perhaps, because it doesn't refresh its laptops that often, Apple sells refurbished units of its MacBooks. For example, a new 12-inch MacBook 1.1GHz Dual-core Intel Core m3 (from April 2016) costs $1,299 new. A refurbished model sells for $1,099 on Apple's website, covered by a one-year limited warranty. At Amazon, the same unit sells for $899.99 with a 90-day warranty.
However, if you're looking for a refurbished Dell XPS 13, you may have to settle for an older model. When we first checked, Dell Outlet was selling an XPS 13 from two generations ago, which was equipped with a Core i5-5200U CPU, 128GB SSD and 8GB of RAM, for $739 with a one-year warranty. A brand-new XPS 13 with the current-gen Core i5-7200U CPU and similar specs goes for $999, over $250 more. A few days later, the stock had changed and some newer units were available.
The model year is important, though, because both performance, battery life and Wi-Fi connectivity improved significantly in the current-generation XPS 13. That performance delta may not matter as much to you today as it will two or three years from now, when you're using a computer that's really four of five years old and much less capable of running new software.
Also, keep in mind that laptop batteries lose their ability to hold a full charge over time. So, if the refurbed model you buy was in active use for a year or two, it could have much shorter battery life than a brand-new unit.
However, if your budget is limited and you want a higher-quality laptop, like a Dell XPS 13, getting a refurbed model might be your best choice. There's no doubt you can find a good brand-new laptop at any price, even under $200, but you can likely afford a better class of system ― a superthin ultraportable or a powerful business laptop ― if you consider refurbished models.
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Where do refurbished laptops come from?
Refurbished laptops come from a number of different sources, including businesses that trade in their old laptops, and consumers returning systems either because they decided they didn't want them or because there was a serious defect.
Failures and defects account for a certain percentage of refurbs. According to a Consumer Reports Reliability Survey of 58,000 subscribers between 2010 and 2015, new Apple laptops fail at a rate of 7 to 9 percent per year, while Windows machine-failure rates hovered around the 15 percent range.
"Microsoft refurbishers mostly work with enterprise equipment, but even though the laptop started out as enterprise, you get it at the consumer price," said Willie Cade, founder and CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR). "If it's for work, shopping, email and other basic tech uses, refurbished is absolutely the way to go."
But that's not the only route: According to Jim Lynch, TechSoup Global's electronics recycling/reuse director, buying refurbished from name-brand computing companies is also a good way to go.
"The big OEMs are quite good in this area. Since Apple, Dell and HP put their names behind their refurbished equipment, they generally make sure that the IT Asset Management companies that do the refurbishment and reconditioning do good work," he said. Thus, either the laptop manufacturer or authorized refurbishers are the best sources for obtaining your purchase.
The difference between used and refurbished
Regardless of its route to the laptop spa, manufacturers or third-party authorized refurbishers typically sanitize, sort and grade the units based on physical look and functionality. They disassemble each one, checking for damaged components, battery function, screen quality, power supply, loose connections, hard drive and optical drive. If a seller does not follow a process like this, the product isn't really refurbished; it's used.
Missing or defective components — RAM, graphic cards, capacitors, ICs, hard disks — are replaced and the machine undergoes a complete data wipe. The laptop is then tested, cosmetic defects repaired, and a new OS is installed before being packaged for its new home.
That last software bit is critical, Cade said, as sometimes people buy refurbished without the OS installed — and that is a no-no. Some sellers may try to install the original OS and pass it on to buyers, but that would not be a legal license. MARs have agreements with Microsoft to copy properly licensed operating systems (primarily Windows 10) onto refurbished units.
After a refurbisher inspects, cleans, repairs and restores a used or returned laptop to factory settings, the unit is certified to be in good working order and returned to the retailer or manufacturer for sale at a discount.
Quick tips for buying a refurbished laptop
- Look for a one-year warranty.
- Examine your refurbished laptop.
- Note the difference between refurbished and certified.
- Buying a refurbished gift doesn't have to scream "cheapskate."
Tip 1: Get a one-year warranty if possible
Your refurbished laptop purchase should come with an assurance that the seller guarantees the product. It's not like you bought it out of the trunk of a car downtown (where I once purchased an excellent used Apple notebook). Make sure the equipment has a solid warranty — a year is considered standard these days, but it is not universal.
Some refurbished laptop warranties may be shorter than for new products and typically do not cover battery life, but each vendor is different, so read the fine print before adding the item to your shopping cart. You should get 30 days at least, and Microsoft requires a minimum 90-day warranty. Apple and refurbishers such as PCRR warranty their laptops for a year.
Also, look for a generous return policy so you get to test the machine and otherwise make sure the unit suits you. Rechargeable batteries are considered consumables and have a natural lifespan, so you'll want to make sure your refurbished laptop can hold a charge. Amazon states that new, used and refurbished products purchased from Marketplace vendors are subject to the returns' policy of the individual vendor. Some 14-day money-back return policies involve a restocking fee, so watch out.
Tip 2: Examine your laptop right away
When you or a loved one opens the box containing a refurbished laptop, you hope to see a gleaming, undamaged exterior free of scratches and dings. The keyboard should have that new keyboard look as opposed to specific keys looking shiny or worn. The screen should be clear and bright. Anything less could be a letdown.
Buyers should always look for a condition statement on the refurbished product page. The retailer usually discloses cosmetic flaws in the product description, but not always. Apple's site contains a general statement of standards linked to each refurbished product on sale, but otherwise does not have a condition report on each product page. Amazon includes a general condition linked to a pop-up page of general condition guidelines.
Microsoft refurbisher Cade said, "We try to make the product look good — especially keyboards, cases, palm rests — those things have to be in Grade A shape. If you get a laptop that doesn't look nice, or there's scratches, or the keyboard is wonky, it may be an indication that they didn't do a good job of making the computer run."
Nonetheless, cosmetic standards vary. The case could have some dings and imperfections that do not affect the unit's computing power, and buyers of refurbished laptops should be prepared for a product that does not look factory-fresh. Nonetheless, buyers should be sure to check for telltale signs that the new unit may not be up to standard: details like dead pixels on the screen, noisy hard drives, loose or squeaky hinges, or obvious signs of wear.
Tip 3: Know the difference between refurbished and certified
Online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist do not check the condition of laptops offered for sale on their sites; they just connect buyers and sellers and both are on their own. While online trade-in services like Gadget Salvation, Gazelle.com (opens in new tab) and others offer varying degrees of certification, their standards vary and are not always transparent.
Cesar Navarro, Gadget Salvation’s operations manager, says its items go through the company's certification process, which includes hardware testing, cosmetic inspection and a software check, to make sure the gadgets are fully functional, reset to factory defaults with genuine operating systems and free of malware.
"We do not refurbish gadgets. We do not replace any components or parts," Navarro said. "Electronics that do not meet our certification standards are wiped clean of stored data and re-sold in bulk to various refurbishing companies. Gadgets that cannot be salvaged are sent to local recycling facilities."
Some outlets are even more vague. At Gazelle, which sells pre-owned MacBooks, "light refurbishment" involves a 30-point functional and cosmetic inspection ensuring that the devices are in good cosmetic condition and working order and reset to factory settings.
The Best Buy Outlet trades in refurbished, open-box and pre-owned electronics that are verified to work properly. These carry warranties from 90 days to a year with extended holiday return and exchange dates and are covered by Best Buy's Return & Exchange Promise. Best Buy says its refurbished products are repaired and restored to a like-new state and include all parts and accessories (original or comparable substitutes).
Microsoft maintains an extensive network of authorized refurbishers for individuals and businesses to link you up with a refurbished laptop.
Amazon's Certified Refurbished (opens in new tab) laptops are tested by qualified manufacturers or third-party refurbishers like PCRR so they look and work like new. They come with a minimum 90-day limited warranty. On the Amazon site, you can search via a large number of criteria from the number of cores to hard-drive size, RAM and more to get the best model for your needs.
Amazon also sells refurbished, used and open-box laptops from its Amazon Warehouse Deals site. Though the company tests the functional and physical condition of products sold there, and grades them before putting them out for sale, there are no warranties for such used items, except for optional extended warranties you can purchase.
If you're shopping for an Apple notebook, be sure to visit Apple's refurbishing site (opens in new tab). All of Apple's refurbished laptops come with a year's warranty, free shipping and free returns. Refurb Tracker offers email alerts and RSS feeds to keep you updated on new refurbished products from Apple Store websites.
Tip 4: You can give a refurbished laptop as a gift
Sure it's the thought that counts, but the gift of a previously owned piece of equipment may still conjure up "cheapskate" for some, regardless of its superlative quality and guaranteed functionality. If you are concerned that a loved one may secretly scorn a refurbished laptop, consider your recipient and what matters to them. If you or a loved one craves the very latest, cutting-edge notebook in flawless cosmetic condition and packaged to artistic perfection — and associate refurbished with icky, old and used — a pre-owned unit is going to be a tough sell.
For them, the lure of a shiny new $200 Chromebook will undoubtedly be the best way to say "I love you," but the Lynch household saw it differently: "I can only say that last year I got my wife a refurbished MacBook Air — and she was thrilled."
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