Laptops are expensive, and with the ongoing pandemic and millions of people working and going to school online, they are also becoming very difficult to find. So if your options for choosing a laptop or budget (or both) are limited, should you consider buying a used one for your next purchase?
We are big fans of buying used: It is economically savvy, it is environmentally friendly and it usually does the job as well as a new purchase. But there are complications and risks involved in buying a used computer, and they are magnified when you talk about a machine designed to travel.
Still, with a little planning and a few careful choices, you can find an offer on a laptop that you will be using for several years. Let̵7;s break it down.
Used versus “Renovated”
Before we move on, let’s talk about used and refurbished laptops. “Used” means that a laptop has been handled by another end user – someone like you, who bought the laptop and then either returned it or sold it. “Refurbished” means that a previously used laptop has been repaired or otherwise rejuvenated and resold by a reseller.
Simple, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. You see, the term “refurbished” used to mean that a computer had gone back to the original manufacturer, who had then made all the necessary repairs and certified it as functional or as new. This generally meant that a refurbished laptop was more or less inseparable from a new laptop, possibly with more basic packaging and a 90-day warranty instead of one year.
Now that is not always the case. With a consideration of dealers, the term “seller renovated” has become commonplace. “Seller renovated” means that it is a used device that has been verified that the person selling it is working – it can mean that it has been repaired, or that it has been started up and verified as working.
The degree to which you trust the refurbished unit depends on who sells it. Large box retailers are usually okay, while retailers in secondary markets such as eBay and Amazon are a little more suspicious. The seller of refurbished laptops generally has a short warranty (90 days) and a description of anything that may be cosmetically defective with the device such as worn keys or a scratched top.
The warranty for a refurbished device tends to make it more valuable than a straight-up used laptop, if only for peace of mind. If a used laptop cuts the bed a week after you bought it, tough luck, buyers are warned, And all this jazz. A refurbished laptop lets you trust your purchase … at least as much as you trust the seller.
What to look for
There are lots and tons of laptops out there, for lots and lots of market segments. So what you’re looking for depends on what you need – someone who just wants something for word processing and email needs less than a player who needs less than a 3D modeler.
In general, we recommend at least 8 GB of RAM if you want a Windows or Mac laptop. Chromebooks can do with 4 GB. The minimum for a modern operating system is about 128 GB, where Chromebooks are okay with much less again. Touch screen? Long battery life? Foldable 2-in-1 design? Discreet graphics card? You get to decide.
One thing we would recommend, if you are shopping for a used device: Find one that has a good reputation for durability. This can be difficult to measure from one model to another, but in general, laptops designed for business can take more rejection than cheaper models, and can thus be trusted to last longer from owner to owner. Lenovo’s ThinkPad series, Dell’s Latitude series and HP’s Pro / Elite series are good examples.
A good bonus for these patterns: They are often more user-friendly than some thinner lighter patterns. This means that you may be able to upgrade your memory or storage space to suit your needs.
Do a Google search on the model you are considering to see if it is possible to replace the RAM-SO-DIMMs or the hard disk / SSD for a cheap performance enhancement. Laptops with a replaceable battery are also good, as the battery is usually the first part to wear out.
There are some indications that you should look in the opposite direction: signs that a laptop model in general, or a single laptop sold in particular, is probably not a good used buy.
Start with conventional media reviews. You want a laptop to be good, or at least decent, when it’s new. It will not get better when it’s old, right? Apple’s ultra-thin keyboard on the MacBook and MacBook Pro models 2015-2019 is a good example. A single terrible element in an otherwise excellent design means that these laptops are often visible on the secondary market. You may want to think twice before picking one up.
Other red flags on a list for a used laptop include:
- A laptop with a product history recalls – you may be buying an unrepaired device.
- A new seller without feedback.
- No images on the list or generic images that do not show the individual laptop being sold.
- An extremely low price – a used laptop sold at 10% of the retail value is probably a scam.
- A laptop lacks parts, such as a storage device or RAM. You may be replacing the parts only to find that something more crucial is broken.
If any of these issues are present, it is probably best to move on to another used laptop.
Where to shop?
Used laptops are available in many different places. Let’s take a look at your options, from the most reliable to the least.
Old-fashioned bricks, such as Walmart and Best Buy, tend to offer refurbished units rather than used ones. This is because they are almost always laptops that were used for a week or two at most and then returned to the store. They are not the best when it comes to deals – you are lucky to find one for a 15% discount.
But if you want to buy from a reliable source, and you also want to research your laptop before you buy, old-fashioned retailers are a good choice. Do not expect to save a lot of money.
Amazon, Newegg, B&H Photo and similar large online retailers often sell both refurbished and used laptops. These tend to come from third-party resellers who use these large resellers as a kind of boss.
But the advantage of buying from the big sellers is that they have a lot of support: If something is wrong with the product or not as described, you have a great company to call. These companies usually want you to have a smooth shopping experience and will offer easy returns or exchanges as part of the fulfillment. Check the “More Purchase Options” link for new items to see if used or refurbished models are offered.
Sometimes manufacturers will sell refurbished devices directly from their online store – even Apple sometimes sells refurbished laptops. Since these laptops have been inspected by the original manufacturers, they sometimes come with a one year warranty, but again, it is usually not a huge discount compared to a new laptop.
Secondary online markets
We’re starting to get into the weeds here. Secondary online markets are those that allow individual sellers to list items directly, such as eBay, Swappa and Bonanza. (It’s in the United States – you may have different options based on where you live.) These sites tend to be safe to buy from in the sense that you definitely get something … but in what condition you get the item and that condition compared to what it is presented as, are open to interpretation.
Buying from eBay and similar sites requires some care. When it comes to used laptops (or anything else), you usually want to buy from someone in your own country, buy from someone with lots of positive feedback (all new seller accounts are a red flag) and carefully review the pictures and descriptions. Paying with a verified system, such as PayPal, is a must.
By the way, these tips can also apply to pawnshops. They do not usually sell online, but the same “no warranties” method usually applies to electronics they sell.
The most risky way to buy a used laptop is to use a service that connects people to personal meetings such as Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, LetGo or Nextdoor. These are risky in both a business and personal sense: Someone may try to sell you a dud laptop or simply steal from you by listing a valuable item that is paid for in cash.
These markets are usually also the place to find the best deals, as they are used by people who want to get rid of something fast. You can find some great discounts sometimes (and even stubborn people who barely beat any of the sticker price). This is especially true during major holidays, as people are selling new gift items they do not need.
Related: The best apps for buying and selling used items
If you meet someone in person, follow some common sense tips:
- Meet in a public place, never their home or yours. Starbucks or similar stores are good for this.
- Meet during the day during opening hours.
- Bring a friend for safety if you can.
- If it’s an option, make sure the seller has a real social media profile with friends and posts.
- Bring cash in small bills – so you can bargain if the laptop is not as described.
- Check the laptop carefully and make sure that it starts and can be charged from the AC adapter. Check that the “If” page makes sure that the specifications are as promised and check that the keyboard works properly.
- Do not withdraw your money until your laptop inspection is complete.
Friends and family
One last place to look for used laptops is your friends and family. You never know, some of them may have an old one that lays out that they can sell for a song (or if it’s a REALLY good friend, just let yourself have it).
When buying used, your budget is not the only thing that is limited. Your choice will also be because you choose from laptops that someone no longer wants. You may not be able to find the exact model you are looking for or get that model within your price range.
If you have problems, you may want to consider expanding your search. Can you find the same model with less RAM or storage and upgrade it yourself? Can you find last year’s (or older) model from the same brand? Can you find a laptop from a competing brand that has some or all of the same features?
In general, use caution, use patience, and use common sense. You will be able to find a reliable laptop that fits your budget.