Used Laptops — Why to Buy Them and How to Buy Them

by Reads (76,732)

by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada

It is tough being a geek. We’re faced with a never-ending stream of interesting new technologies that we would like to try out. But the reality is that unless you are an uber-geek, chances are you do not make enough money to purchase and enjoy all of these new technologies. The good news is that you do not have to forsake food and shelter in order to be able to purchase those interesting new gadgets that you so desire.  There is an easier way. This article will expose you to the seedy underbelly of used laptop buying and selling (it isn’t really all that seedy actually).

Beware! Once you have gained access to a plentiful supply of cheap used laptops there may be no going back. People in serious relationships should seek the permission of their significant others before embarking on this adventure.

What’s my motivation?

Like we were saying, you are a geek. Don’t worry, it’s 2004 — we took over the planet years ago when no one was looking. As a geek, you like to try out interesting new technologies — and they don’t always have to be cutting-edge new. Or maybe you want a fancy new laptop but you have only got cash for cheap basic entry-level model. Being a geek, purchasing a standard entry-level machine is simply out of the question. Those units are fine and dandy for your mom and dad but they simply are not for you.  Your problem is that you want the $3,000.00 computer for the price of a $999.00 computer (or less – actually mostly less).  So what can you do?

The answer is; you turn to the used market.  Because of the rapid pace of technology individuals and corporations are faced with an upgrade cycle every three years. The value of computers spirals downward as soon as the till receipt is finished printing. This is something that we as computer users are familiar with or have been affected by, so why not make it work for us? Certain people and companies need the latest technology in order to do business (or they think they do). When they out-grow a given technology they sell the items either directly or through a broker. If you know what to look for you can find some real gems among these cast-offs. The fact that an entire industry devoted to buying used equipment and selling it for profit has sprouted from this fertile ground should give us all a sense of the opportunity here.
 
For most people a three-year-old machine is still a very useful item.  Unless you are playing a lot of games or doing demanding work like photo or video editing you do not need the latest technology to enjoy your computer. 

Will that void my warranty?

Many people shy away from used equipment because they would feel more comfortable with something that comes with a warranty. I submit to you that used equipment is attractive because of the fact that it comes without a warranty. This means two things. 

First, the item will be less expensive. Everyone has heard jokes about how quickly computers depreciate in value. This is true. It is not uncommon to see laptops that once sold for $3,000.00 selling on the used market for $500.00 after a period of about three years.  This can be pretty frustrating for people who like to purchase the latest technology as soon as it comes to market.  But why not make this depreciation work for you? The top of the line of laptop from three years ago probably came with things like 802.11b or Bluetooth. These are still very new and attractive technologies.

The second benefit of buying used merchandise is that you will be free to open up and explore your new purchase without ever having to worry about the consequences of violating the terms of your warranty. Hardware geeks have to start somewhere.  Starting with secondhand equipment is the prudent choice. If you make a smart choice in selecting your used laptop it will likely come with user upgradeable components. This means that you almost certainly will be able to upgrade the RAM and hard drive, possibly the optical drive and maybe even the processor. Upgrading these components yourself has the added benefit of teaching you a little bit about how a computer works.

Not all used equipment is sold because there’s something wrong with it. In fact the vast majority of good quality technology these days is over engineered. This is particularly true with good laptops. Corporations, in particular, have IT departments that select equipment based on how durable and easy to support they are. And most employees tend to take good care of the equipment that is loaned to them by their employer. So, in short you have equipment that is built to last and owners that take good care of this same equipment. Sounds good to me.

I have never bought used equipment before, what should I look for?

The first thing you need to do is determine the minimum specifications that you will accept. It is a good rule of thumb to use the system requirements for the application that you will use most often on this particular device as a guideline.  Some common scenarios follow. 

For basic web surfing, e-mail and office tasks, a 700MHz laptop will be sufficient. A device for this purpose does not need large storage capacity; a 10 or 20GB hard drive will suffice. Unless you plan on using this laptop as a stationary terminal, look for laptops that have lithium ion batteries (for longevity away from a power source) and wireless networking capabilities.

Another common use for old laptops is as Linux terminals. In this case look for devices that use commonly supported components. In particular, if you’re looking for a device that has wireless networking capabilities make sure that you select a system that uses the Orinoco wireless chip, or plan on adding a Cardbus based adapter. Other wireless chips are supported under Linux but it seems as though the Orinoco chip in particular works with most distributions. Most laptops using older video chips will not have OpenGL functionality in Linux. And you can forget about using a software-based modem in Linux.

You probably won’t be purchasing a used laptop for playing the latest games, but many classic games are still enjoyable and worth playing. A used laptop is a great way of getting around to those old adventure games and RPGs that you haven’t finished yet. Look for laptops that use the old ATI Rage Pro or Rage 128 video chip, and try to get at least 8 or 16MB.

How do I make sure that I don’t buy a lemon?

Now that you have some idea of the specifications that you’re searching for the next step is to figure out how to evaluate the condition of any laptop that you find matching your needs. 

Start by examining the case and chassis. Carefully look at all corners of the laptop — what you’re looking for here is signs of impact. The most common injury sustained by laptops is being dropped.  Sometimes dropping a laptop does not do any permanent or serious damage. But in some cases the resulting mess ends up being held together by epoxy and duct tape and the damage is done to areas that you would prefer remain intact. Laptops are built in much the same way as modern cars, parts attach directly onto the chassis. And the chassis is what gives the unit structure. Cracks in the case will at a minimum result in a squeaky computing experience and can potentially result in a laptop that disintegrates on you.  It has been known to happen (may my poor TiBook 400 R.I.P).

The next step is to evaluate the condition of the screen. This is the key element of the human-computer interface. You may be able to live with a few stuck or dead pixels, but you should walk away from any laptop and has a flickering screen or uneven brightness. This can be indicative of loose connections that may or may not be repairable or a faulty backlight. In either case the amount of work required in order to rectify the problem will probably not justify the purchase. That is unless you are a computer tech by trade. Another part of evaluating the screen is examining the hinges for damage or play. As you open and close the display examine the back of the unit for any stress marks or hidden cracks. Also make sure that when open the screen remains in a comfortable viewing position and that it is not too loose. Hinge tension can often be adjusted easily so loose is better than over tightened with resulting cracks.

Now that you have determined that the unit is structurally sound and that the screen is easy on the eyes your next step is to evaluate the power system. This includes both the battery and the interface between the AC adapter and the laptop itself.  Testing the battery life can be very tricky.  A good rule of thumb is to ask for the seller to show you the battery with a full charge and run the unit on battery power for as long as the seller will let you. Watch how the battery runs down. Let the power configuration utility figure out how much life is left – this can take five minutes. Many times when batteries die, or are close to death, they show a full charge and shortly after unplugging the AC power give-out. The other power issue that you should be aware of is the fact that because laptops often travel they are plugged-in and unplugged frequently. This puts stress on both the laptop’s power jack and the AC adapter’s connector. Test the interface between the two by wiggling the connection to see if power is intermittently lost. If the power or charge light goes on and off as you wiggle the connection, this is probably a laptop you should walk away from.

A laptop’s cooling system is very important. To make sure it is operating properly test the unit for heat and fan noise while it is plugged in. A laptop that is too hot may have a problem with its cooling system, or may have been subject to excessive heat during its life. Heat is an enemy of computer components, too much of it can drastically shorten the lifespan of a computer’s components. 

Your evaluation should also include testing as many of the keyboard keys as possible, listening for strange hard drive sounds, playing a CD or DVD in the optical drive, and confirming that the various networking and wireless interfaces work properly by using them to connect to a network or the web.

Items that add value to a used laptop include the following; MS Certificate of Authenticity (this is the little operating system sticker commonly placed on the bottom of laptops), restore and recovery disks, original peripherals, and other items that you would otherwise purchase if they were not included.

Now that I know what to look for what brands and models are worth investigating? 

Among laptop cognoscenti there are a few brands that standout. IBM has a well-earned reputation for building incredibly durable and sexy laptops under the ThinkPad brand. There is an active user community that will provide support if you run into problems, and most models use well-supported components giving you the greatest choice when looking for parts or selecting an operating system (driver support). Toshiba, Panasonic, and Fujitsu also have excellent reputations for building solid business-class laptops.

The other brand that is worth investigating is Apple. Apple has been making good quality laptops for as long as IBM. You can run Linux on most Powerbooks, or choose from Apple’s Classic or Unix based offerings. Apple’s highly vertical approach to computers results in very well integrated and elegant laptops.  They also tend to come right out of the box with most of the software you will need (iLife being a good example).

You may be asking why I have not included Dell or Sony Vaio laptops in the above list. Dell computers, quite frankly, can be purchased brand new for only slightly more than what an interesting used laptop would be worth on the market. They can be had very cheap if you decide you want one. Sony laptops have always been targeted at the consumer. In general they are slightly less durable than business class laptops. They are however very attractive and often come bundled with some very nice software.

What kind of laptop can expect to find, and how much will it cost?

As someone that trades laptops quite frequently I’m always looking for new and interesting items to purchase or trade for. The good news is that in general, I find that there are too many good deals out there on interesting laptops. By interesting I mean items that do not resemble today’s commodity laptops in any way. In other words we don’t want anything big, heavy, slow and unconnected. For sure, you can find a plethora of basic laptops from a couple of years ago but a $999.00 Dell easily eclipses their capabilities.

The sweet spot for what I would term interesting laptops lies in the $500.00 to $700.00 price range.  Here we’re looking for executive class machines; items from two or three years ago that were outside the means of the average computer user then. A good example is the Toshiba Portege 4000 — a specimen of which I was able to obtain recently. Three years ago when this laptop was released it retailed for over $3,000.00. Now this laptop can be purchased from eBay within our target price range.

Toshiba Portege 4000 Front-side view (view larger image)

Toshiba Portege 4000 Right-side view (view larger image)

Toshiba Portege 4000 Left-side view (view larger image)

Side by side (Portege 4000 in the middle / Toshiba M200 on the right) (view larger image)

What kind of features can we expect? In this case we get a laptop with the 750MHz Intel Pentium IIIM ultra low voltage processor. It won’t win any speed awards but it will be very conservative when consuming battery power. The Lithium Ion battery pack that comes standard with this laptop should last 3.5 to four hours on a charge if it that has been well maintained. A common accessory that many people purchased along with this laptop was the extended battery (to boost battery life to seven hours) which fits into the modular drive bay. The modular drive bay means that whatever optical drive this unit comes standard with; we have the option to upgrade it. In this case it came with a DVD ROM/ CDRW commonly referred to as a combo drive. Give preference to the combo drive, as accessories for laptops (even old laptops) are expensive. The 4000 I was able to find came with 512MB of SD RAM — the PC 100 version — and a 30GB hard drive. Not bad even by today’s standards. The 12″ active TFT runs at a native resolution of 1024*768. The 4000 also came with 802.11b and Bluetooth. Wireless networking is pretty standard now, but Bluetooth is still rare. The specifications of this laptop were very impressive three years ago and it is still the case today that this is a very desirable machine.

Toshiba spec’ed the 4000 with a magnesium case. When examining the case for its structural integrity this is a key factor.  Everything else being equal, always give preference to a laptop that uses metal in its casing and chassis. The case is small enough for this to be considered a thin and light laptop, although its metal construction gives the 4000 a surprisingly robust field and weight. Toshiba utilized a common design theme across all of their laptops for a period of time. This design involved the use of a single central hinge giving their laptops a clamshell look. It was/is a good design – at once distinctive and functional. It is a very durable joint. 

The Pentium IIIM ultra low voltage in the 4000 uses Intel’s speed step technology to conserve energy, which in turn reduces heat. The 4000 operates very cool. Remember, heat is the enemy. You will not want to encode DVDs with this CPU. 

As was common for a short period of time in 2001, this Toshiba came with a license for both Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP Professional. If you’re able to obtain the XP Professional recovery disks you will be able to run the latest OS and download the newest versions of Toshiba’s excellent configuration utilities.

System performance in everyday tasks does not betray the 4000′s age. When surfing the Internet flash animations and media files played without incident. I suspect that if you attempt to watch media encoded with one of the more processor intensive codecs, such as DivX, that you may have some problems obtaining smooth frame rates or synchronized audio. This can sometimes be remedied by finding more efficiently written media players.

Speaking of frame rates, this machine uses an integrated video chipset that shares system memory. Attempting to play any 3D game, even an older one such as Quake 3, would probably be asking too much from this laptop. But something like Baldur’s Gate should run fine.

For doing those tasks that occupy most of the world’s computers 90% of the time (that being surfing the Internet and reading and responding to e-mail) this machine is more than adequate.

Because of the nature of corporate leasing, laptops like this appear on the market about three years after they were released. And because they were fully depreciated by the company that bought them, they can be had for relatively low price.

Comparing the 4000 to an entry-level Dell (the Inspiron 1000 is a good comparison), we see that they will probably provide the user with a similar experience doing the common tasks that we mentioned earlier. Neither will fare well at playing the latest games. Neither will offer enough screen real estate to do serious photo or video work. Both will give the user some degree of wireless mobility, but in reality the 4000 will last longer away from the plug. That it also trumps the Dell in terms of connectivity by including Bluetooth. And if you look hard enough you should be able to find a 4000 for approximately half the price of the dell.

So you get a device that offers similar usability, for less money, and which looks infinitely better then an entry-level laptop. Not a bad adventure!

Conclusion

In summary purchasing a used laptop can be lots of fun.  You get a chance to explore exotic hardware from only a couple of years ago that you might not otherwise have been able to afford. You also get the opportunity to recycle technology that at best could be described as not environmentally friendly. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from finding something unique and rare. If you choose wisely you may get your hands on a piece of technology that has features that are still not common in the contemporary average computer. The Toshiba Portege 4000 that I used to illustrate this article is a good example of a laptop that is still appealing today.

And remember, that an old laptop has completed most of its depreciation by the time you purchase it. This means that if you decide you don’t like the unit you find, you should be able to sell it without having to lose too much money — and when you’re really good at this you’ll be able to make money (no, you won’t get rich).

Remember that if a laptop was able to do video editing three years ago for a professional film studio, like the titanium PowerBook for example, then it will still be capable of doing those things now. It will simply do them slower than a new computer can, but for a lot less.

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