Advice on Purchasing a Pre-Owned Laptop


Have you ever purchased a used item only to discover, once you got it home, that it had a significant flaw that would likely bother you until you sold it, gave it away, or threw it away? If you’re looking to buy a used laptop, maybe this post can help you avoid making that mistake.

New technologies have allowed for the production of cheaper yet significantly more powerful laptops. The proliferation of new types of computers has caused a revolution in the used laptop industry. In the past, if you wanted to save money on a laptop, you had to settle for one whose processor was too slow to run today’s most demanding applications. To keep up with the “high-overhead” requirements of modern software, an upgrade became necessary, giving rise to a new market for powerful, previously-owned laptop computers.

Due to financial constraints, many students now buy a secondhand laptop rather than a brand-new one. These days, a student or consumer can find a used system that does the same amount of computation as a new machine, and often for less than half the price.

Some laptops hold up better to “normal wear and tear” than others, but there are always trade-offs when purchasing a secondhand electronic device. Models that have earned the reputation of being bulletproof typically sell for a premium, while machines with a high degree of proprietary complexity tend to be cheaper.

There are a few things that each potential used laptop buyer should know, regardless of the machine’s age or condition.

Early in their careers, electronic and electrical repair technicians learn that the parts of a device that are given the most attention to user comfort are also the ones most likely to fail. When investigating the cause of an error, the first thing to check is what is touched, moved, manipulated, twisted, or slid.

However, there are a few things to bear in mind while shopping for a used laptop, the first of which is whether or not you will be buying the computer in its current condition. At least you have the option of inspecting the equipment in the comfort of your own home if you buy it from a reputable retailer that allows returns or provides a warranty. Buyer beware if the machine is being purchased from a private party or a business with an “as is” return policy.

Checking the display’s physical condition is the first order of business. Examine the screen from an angle with the machine turned off and the screen in the dark to look for scratches or other flaws; then, give the display a thorough once-over with the device turned on and the screen illuminated. Worst case scenario: you bring it home and notice a flaw, like a scratch on the screen, and you buy it “as is,” meaning you’re stuck looking at the spot for the rest of your life. So, double-check the display.

The ports where the mouse, Ethernet, USB, and power cables enter the machine are the next things to check for. In contrast to their stationary desktop counterparts, laptops can be easily transported. This means they will be picked up, put away, stuffed, unstuffed again, dropped, kicked, and slammed.

If the device was used for navigation—perhaps with MapQuest(TM), Randy McNally(TM), or another popular GPS application—it’s likely that it rode shotgun in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle and was subject to sudden stops, which could have sent it flying. I realize this is an extreme instance, but I’d like you to consider the rules of probability, notably the one with the three circles and the hundred marbles. Murphy’s Law guarantees that the marble will eventually roll out of the third circle.

If the machine was in motion and had some or all of the necessary equipment plugged into it when the user suddenly applied the brakes, it’s safe to presume that everything inside went flying. When machines are accidentally launched into the air, they typically land on their side and perhaps the side with connectors protruding from them. These couplings were not designed to function as landing gear. So in the end, you’ll have a female connector that seems OK at first glance, but the intricacies are where it becomes tricky. And unless you have a bright light, a magnifying lens, and an excellent eye, you won’t be able to tell without extreme measures.

Once a USB or Ethernet connector has been broken, the only practical solution is to buy a PCMCIA card that replicates the device that has been broken; and this will take up a PCMCIA slot that could be used for something else.

My advice is to bring a set of connections with you when you go out in search of a secondhand laptop. You should get a mouse so that you can test the mouse connector, a USB connector so that you can test the “feel” of the connector where the USB connectors go in, an RJ-11 jack so that you can try the telephone line receptacle, and essentially any other connectors, that would be related to any other devices that you plan to plug into that particular machine. You’ll be on the lookout for two specific items. Can you shove the connector in and have it stay there? Is there a recognizable “click” sound? Check to see whether it comes out too quickly by gently tugging on it or if it stays put as it should. You’re hoping it’ll stay put. Does the plug into the socket easily and securely? If not, move on to the next apartment.

If the machine’s power cord is within reach, try plugging it into a different outlet to see if the connection feels secure. If it feels like it wants to fall out as soon as you plug it in, that’s going to be an issue while you’re using the computer on the go. Do you get it? You need to ensure that the connectors will remain securely seated in their designated sockets. Not having them close properly might be a source of frustration while you’re trying to get things done.

If you’re concerned about the data you’ll have access to once you own the computer, reinstalling the OS is a good idea. You should first invest in software that “wipes” the disk or files rather than merely deleting them. When you wipe a drive or a file, the wiping process writes and rewrites over the designated area on the industry, making any previously deleted information permanently unrecoverable.

You should also see if you can acquire two disks as part of the bargain. The first disk would be the operating system’s installation media; this will allow you to reinstall the OS and begin with a fresh slate; the second disk would be the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) disk for the specific machine’s brand, make, and model; this disk would include drivers for the machine’s proprietary peripherals (such as its sound card, modem, display adapter, drives, and so on).

If you follow this straightforward method and conduct a few semantic checks before making a purchase, you should be able to avoid the hassle of dealing with the same issue repeatedly.

Since 1972, the author has worked as an electrical and electronics professional. He enjoys doing research, constructing things, and reading about technology.

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