Mobile Computing: Refurbished Notebooks

Feature: Are Refurbished Notebooks Worth the Money?

Several newsletter subscribers have written recently to ask if buying a refurbished notebook is a good idea or a waste of money.

With prices on brand-new notebooks continuing to fall, the question of whether to save a few bucks buying refurbished is a timely one.

Two years ago, I checked out the refurbished notebook offerings from Dell, Gateway, and IBM. I discovered that while you could save money buying refurbished notebooks, the manufacturer's warranties and return policies were much less desirable than those offered for new machines.

This time around, I discovered that a refurbished notebook--depending on where you buy it and what your requirements are--can be even better equipped than a brand-new, similarly priced notebook in the same product line. Also, the warranty options are often equitable to those offered for new machines.

I'll show you what I mean in a minute; but first, here's some background.

Refurbished vs. Used

Several manufacturers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM sell refurbished notebooks online, as opposed to the used portables sold by individuals on EBay.

A refurbished notebook may have been used only a few days. For example, Dell offers a 30-day, money-back return on new computers purchased by phone or online. Inevitably, some computers are returned during that period because the customer didn't like the keyboard, decided the notebook was too heavy to carry, and so on. After testing the portable to make sure it's in proper working order, it may be resold online as a refurbished model.

A used notebook that you'd buy from an individual EBay seller, however, may have been used heavily for months, even years. And it may not have been cleaned up and tested for defects, as Dell and other refurbished PC sellers promise.

Generally speaking, the refurbished notebooks available from Dell and other vendors aren't the latest and hottest models. But you can buy refurbished computers that are still active members of a manufacturer's product line.

For example, as of early April 2004, on Dell's Web site I found no refurbished models of its Inspiron 9100 multimedia notebook, which had been introduced two months earlier. However, the site was offering both brand-new and refurbished models of its Inspiron 8600 multimedia notebook, which came out in August 2003.

More for Less

Continuing with the Inspiron 8600 example, I compared the specs between a refurbished and a brand-new Inspiron 8600 costing almost the same. Dell sells preconfigured computers, but also allows you to custom-build your own. For the best apples-to-apples comparison, I compared a preconfigured refurbished Inspiron 8600 with a preconfigured new model of about the same price.

The refurbished model was selling for $1983, after a $400 promotional discount (the original cost: $2383). The brand-new Inspiron 8600's price was $2109, after a $250 rebate (original price: $2359). Both computers included Windows XP Home Edition, a 1.6-GHz Mobile Pentium M processor, a 4X DVD+RW drive, and Ethernet networking.

Here's where they differed:

Resolution. The refurbished Inspiron 8600's 15.4-inch wide-screen display supported up to 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution. The new model's 15.4-inch wide-screen display supported up to 1280-by-800-pixel resolution. Advantage: Refurbished, because its screen could display more information.

Memory. The refurbished notebook had 512MB of DDR SDRAM, while the new model offered double that: 1GB of DDR SDRAM. Advantage: The new Inspiron.

Storage. Both models offered a 60GB hard drive. But the refurbished model's hard drive ran at 4200 rpm, compared to the new model's 7200 rpm. A faster hard drive means less time waiting for files to open, save, and so forth. Advantage: New.

Graphics System. All things being equal, the refurbished model's 64MB NVidia GeForce FX Go5200 graphics should deliver better performance than the new model's 32MB DDR NVidia GeForce FX Go5200 graphics. Graphics performance is influenced by the amount of graphics RAM, the speed of the graphics processor, and other factors. But generally speaking, the more memory the graphics card has, the better your graphics performance should be. Advantage: Refurbished.

Software. The refurbished model shipped with Microsoft Office 2003 Professional, compared to the new Inspiron 8600's Microsoft Works Suite. Office is by far the more robust suite of applications, including essential business programs such as PowerPoint that Works lacks. Advantage: Refurbished.

Wi-Fi. The refurbished Inspiron 8600 offered built-in networking based on the 802.11g standard, which is faster than but compatible with the older 802.11b Wi-Fi standard. The new Inspiron's built-in networking, however, supported only the 802.11b standard. Advantage: Refurbished.

In some ways, this particular refurbished Inspiron 8600--with higher display resolution, more graphics RAM, a better suite of productivity applications, and support for the latest and faster wireless networking standard--is actually better equipped overall than the new, preconfigured, similarly priced model to which I compared it. The trade-off, in terms of specs, is that the refurbished model is bound to be slower, given it has less RAM and a slower hard drive than the new model.

But the story doesn't end there.

Refurbished Pros and Cons

Pro: Return policies on refurbished models aren't always shorter. Often, you have less time to return a refurbished PC than you do a new model. Dell's policy is 14 days for refurbished returns and IBM's is 7 days, though both offer 30 days for new computers. Hewlett-Packard offers a 30-day return for both new and refurbished computers, however.

Pro: Warranties for refurbished notebooks can be just as good. Usually, the default warranty period for refurbished computers is shorter than for new PCs. IBM and HP generally offer three-month standard warranties on their refurbished notebooks, while refurbished Dell Inspirons come with a one-year limited warranty. New PCs, by comparison, typically come with at least a one-year limited warranty. All three vendors, however, offer warranty upgrades (at an additional cost) for most refurbished notebook models.

Con: Refurbished notebooks can't be customized. Here's the potential deal killer: While many new models (particularly from Dell, HP, and IBM) can be customized, refurbished notebooks cannot. For instance, you can specify the processor, amount of memory, hard drive capacity, and other features of a new Dell notebook. With refurbished models, you can only choose from the available inventory of preconfigured computers.

The Bottom Line

The playing field between refurbished and brand-new notebooks has been leveled in recent years, to some degree. A refurbished notebook may be a good choice if you want to get more features for your money but don't need the fastest performance, the very latest model, or a computer that's customized to your specific needs. If those are priorities, buy a new notebook.

Where to Buy

Did You Buy a Refurbished Notebook?

If so, tell me your experiences--the good and the bad. Which model did you buy? Why did you buy a refurbished notebook? Are you glad you did? Send me e-mail.

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