Reducing the Cost of a Laptop, Part 2

"It's not about what you earn," some wise soul has probably said to you. "It's about what you keep." In that spirit of fiscal frugality, let's continue with a topic near and dear to our hearts these days: How to buy a laptop and keep some of your hard-earned money, too. Last week, I offered tips on how to save money on a new laptop's productivity software. This week I'll look at buying refurbished laptops.

New vs. Refurbished

Buying a refurbished laptop can save you several hundred dollars, compared to a similar new model. I've bought refurbished laptops from Dell in the past and was happy with the experience.

Laptops get returned for lots of reasons. Maybe the person who bought it didn't like the feel of the keyboard or the glare on the glossy screen. Perhaps the buyer simply had second thoughts. Or, in a worst-case scenario, the customer experienced hardware problems.

Whatever the reason, a returned laptop is often reconditioned to like-new quality, tested, and resold at a price that's lower than a similarly configured new model.

Dell continues to have the largest inventory of refurbished laptops I've seen, at prices that can be hundreds of dollars less than a fairly similar new model. You can shop for refurbished home/home office and business/education laptops at Dell's online outlet.

Case Study: Dell Inspiron 1525

Recently I shopped for a Dell Inspiron 1525, a low-cost laptop that earned a PCW Rating of 81 (very good). I compared the specs of a refurbished Inspiron 1525 to a new unit that I configured as closely as possible to the refurbished model. The refurbished model came with Microsoft Works 9.0 office productivity software. The closest comparable software on the new Inspiron 1525 was Microsoft Works Plus 2008, a $79 add-on. Otherwise, the two systems I chose were identical. The refurbished unit was $589, compared to $848 for the new Inspiron 1525--a $259 savings.

Keep in mind that options and add-ons can quickly cut into your savings. For example, when configuring a new Inspiron 1525 at Dell's site, you can upgrade from the standard six-cell battery to a longer lasting nine-cell battery for $70. The refurbished Inspiron 1525 I chose came with a six-cell battery. When you buy a refurbished laptop, you can't configure it as you would a new one. After all, you're buying a prebuilt system. So I couldn't upgrade the refurbished Inspiron's six-cell battery for a nine-cell. But I could add a nine-cell battery to my purchase--at a cost of $300.

The bottom line: If I were determined to have an Inspiron 1525 with a nine-cell battery, I'd have paid $918 for a new model with that battery vs. $889 for a refurbished model with both a six-cell and nine-cell battery. In that scenario, the refurbished laptop's total cost was only $29 less than what I would have paid for a new model. True, I would have received two batteries with the refurbished laptop instead of one--but most people don't need two laptop batteries.

Other computer makers sell refurbished laptops online, among them Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Sony.

The Wrap-Up

If you want to configure your laptop extensively, buying a refurbished model probably isn't for you. Otherwise, it's worth investigating refurbished laptop options before you buy. You could save hundreds of dollars, without having to make a lot of compromises.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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