Tips to buy an used laptops

In certain situations, buying used equipment may be a better option than buying new. Some possible scenarios: Your requirements aren’t that high–it’s for use by grandma for emailing her grandkids. Or, the computer is expected to be used in not-so-friendly situations–it will be used by your preschool-aged kids for games and practice activities. Or, perhaps you intend it to be just your backup laptop (for some reason that you need one).

You can even go cheaper if you opt for last year’s models or even those older than that. Some laptops are, after all, built tough, and still have decent capabilities a few years down the line. You won’t probably need a Core 2 Duo laptop if all you do is send five emails a day and visit your favorite news sites and blogs a couple of hours coming home after work.

What’s great is that you can usually even purchase old models from the manufacturers or dealers themselves–whether these are refurbished units, unsold stock, or leased units already returned, you can still get good deals. If you do decide to purchase or bid online, be sure to ask for photos and specifications from the seller (or the dealer). Of course, with used units, I would prefer to be able to manually inspect the computer myself.
All right, what do I need to know?

* Chassis - The condition of the chassis–meaning the laptop’s frame and body–would tell you about how well the laptop has aged. There will be indications if the computer has been maintained well, or if it had been misused. If you’re lucky, you’ll even chance upon a laptop that’s rarely been used. The Dude advises to look for irregularities outside of usual wear and tear, such as loose hinges, warping, lid alignment, and even missing parts like screws, port lids (where applicable) and the like.
* Screen - The LCD screen is one of the most expensive parts of the laptop. When buying a used unit, you probably won’t enjoy the warranty that comes with brand new. And if something goes wrong with the LCD, you’ll have to spend quite an amount on a replacement. Make sure the screen is still properly aligned and that the lid sits well on the hinge, opened or closed. Also, it’s best if you can have the laptop turned on to see if the screen has dead or damaged pixels.
* Input devices - These are the most abused parts of any computer, and with laptops, you’ll have to watch out for irregular wear and tear on the keyboard and touchpad (or trackpoint). It’s not as easy to replace them as on a desktop computer, after all. Again, it would be best if you can turn the computer on to test, so you can see if all the keys are working and if the pointing device is functioning smoothly.

These are mostly things to look for at first-glance. Usually, when checking out used machines, the first thing I look for is wear and tear. If a computer seems older than it’s supposed to be, then that means the original user might have not taken care of it properly. Or, it could mean that that particular model (or even brand) was poorly built by the manufacturer, and should be avoided.
What’s next?

Let me add to The Dude’s suggestions in determining whether a laptop still has a few years of serviceability life. After inspecting the build quality and physical characteristics, do look under the hood. Here are things I would look for.

* Processor - While old computers still do work, I won’t go with any technology older than five years. For this reason, I would probably not go below anything lower than a Pentium III or the more modern PowerPC G3s. These can still run today’s modern OSes (such as Windows XP service pack 2, Mac OS X Tiger, or your choice of Linux flavor) pretty well. Do consider what you plan to do with the laptop. A P-III should be able to handle wireless Internet and the usual Web surfing, email, IM and VoIP pretty well. Movie playing and MP3s are also handled decently. Don’t plan on playing around with multimedia manipulation, though. You’ll need raw processing power for that.

Also, I would personally advise against buying a Pentium-4 based laptop, as the P-4 chip (even the mobile version) isn’t designed to be truly portable. These often get really hot and tend to come in bulky packages. P-4 machines are good for gaming, though, since they offer sheer processing power and usually come with large screens.
* Memory - RAM is usually cheap these days. Whether it’s SDRAM or DDR SDRAM, you’re sure to find laptop memory selling for cheap. Do check how much RAM the laptop already has, and whether it can upgraded easily. Most laptops have slots at the bottom or underneath the keyboard that are easily accessible and user-upgradeable. Some laptops, however, have only one slot for RAM, while most have two. I would suggest putting in at least 512 megabytes of RAM, regardless of your OS. Having more RAM would speed up operations, regardless of your processor’s speed.
* Storage - New laptops come with at least 40 GB of hard disc space, and this is the barest minimum today. The standard is in the 60 to 80 GB range. Older laptops, though, might come with 20, 10, or even 6 GB drives. These are easily upgradeable, but you might have to spend about $100 for a decent 80 to 100 GB drive for storing all your MP3s, photos and videos. Regardless of capacity, though, do check the drive for strange sounds like clicking or abnormal screeching sounds. These are signs that the drive is bound to fail soon. Also, try to check the hard disc’s model (usually under the OS’s device manager) for the speed. Standard is 5200 RPM. You can usually enhance performance by going for drives with higher speeds rather than the lower ones (like the 4200 RPM drives that come with low-end laptops today). This is especially so for OSes that are fond of swapping to virtual memory constantly, such as OS X and Windows XP.
* Battery - Used laptops almost always come with dead or weak batteries. This is because Li-Ion cells have a life of about three years, whether it’s on the shelf or in constant use. Thus, you should consider whether you’ll be needing a good battery for your used equipment or not. A new battery will cost you–OEM batteries can cost up to 1/3 the price of a new laptop. Aftermarket solutions would cost about $100 to $150, depending on the model. You can also have your battery set repacked for a fraction of the cost of buying a new one (you can even have higher-capacity cells installed for longer operating life). Just make sure you buy or get services from reputable dealers or service centers. After all, batteries do burn and can cause explosions if improperly used or installed. If the used laptop will mostly spend its life on a desk at granny’s home as a desktop replacement, then you probably won’t be needing a good battery.
* Feel - Lastly, ask yourself how you feel about the laptop. Is it the right choice? Should you buy a new, more expensive, unit? Does it look like it will still last a couple of years? A while back, I wrote about things to consider when buying a new laptop. These are still very much applicable when buying a used unit. Again, a laptop is as personal as a computer can get, and even with used devices, I think you should have the power to choose what fits you well.