A closer look at refurbished PCs: Are they a good buy?

We've all had the experience of buying something expensive, getting it home, taking it out of the box, and finding that something just isn't right. Maybe it's scratched or dented. Maybe it lacks a feature you desperately wanted. Maybe the product in question just doesn't work properly. And in all of these cases, the natural thing to do is return it.

So what happens to it then?

When it comes to technology products like desktop and laptop PCs – even printers, phones, and more – unless they are beyond repair, the chances are that what you send back will ultimately end up going back on the shelves. And, it's likely you'll see it at a much better price.

That's not to say these for-sale-again products are in bad shape. Most manufacturers go out of their way to make sure they work like new, even if they're not. Of course, you need to be careful. After all, there's no agreed-upon definition for refurbished, remanufactured, reconditioned, pre-owned, or even used when it comes to computer equipment. But with some common sense shopping, you can probably find a powerful system in "like new" condition that will save you a considerable amount of cash.

Reconditioning a PC

When you sell a car, it's pretty much "what you see is what you get." Sure, you can change the tires and swap out some parts, but essentially, the wear and tear is there to stay. That's why you can't turn back the odometer. The same is true for a PC (minus the odometer… and wouldn't that be convenient)?

If you return a car or PC within a month of purchase, it would likely be difficult to find out what's gone on with either. Thankfully, the PC is a lot easier to get back to a state of “almost-new.” After all, who knows what's gone on physically and where it's gone on the Internet?

Vendors will put it through tests to make sure that whatever the returnee didn't like is the only problem, and then they'll do what they must to fix the system. Hard drives are wiped clean and the operating system is freshly installed. If it's a desktop, it'll probably get a new mouse and a keyboard. Then the system gets tested and verified again, just like it did before it went out in the first place. It goes into a fresh box and is put out for sale. Legally, it can't be called brand-new, and that means it typically sells at a lower price, even though, for all intents and purposes, it is new. Some refurbished PCs are actually new because they never came out of the box (maybe the order was cancelled, for example). Such "open box" deals may be the best deals you'll find.

This is nothing like buying direct from a previous owner – the kind of scenario you'd get with eBay. Generally, this is a bargain you can trust. Why? If it comes from the manufacturer, it'll once again have a guarantee – at least, for a while. So if something goes wrong – and that usually happens early – you're covered.

If it doesn't come with a warranty, skip it – and indeed, if it comes with a very short warranty, you might want to think carefully. Dell, for example, offers the same warranty on its refurbs as with new PCs, which is definitely a good sign.

We suggest getting a refurb directly from the manufacturer if you can. That way, the components replaced during reconditioning should be the same – and as we just mentioned, the warranty may well be superior. A third-party refurbisher may use something different in terms of components.

In the end, go with someone you trust. Make sure you triple-check the return policy either way, so you don't get stuck with someone else's lemon just because you had some blind faith.

Downsides to refurbs

The reasons not to get a refurbished PC can be both practical and psychological.

Let's start with the latter. If you want a computer more for style than substance, or if you can't bear not being seen with the latest and greatest (no, we're not going to call you a snob), you might want to avoid refurbs. Let's be honest, though: Every computer is out of date the moment you take it out of the box, so maybe you shouldn't be so quick to write off a refurb.

If you're the type to harbour suspicions about what might have been wrong with the product in the first place, or can't stand other people touching your stuff – even before it was yours – then a refurb might not be the way to go.

Practicality leads to the biggest downside of all: You cannot customise your order if it's a refurb. In an age where configuration options exist on just about every website when ordering PCs, not being able to specify exactly what you want might be disheartening for you. Then again, millions do it with off-the-shelf retail PC purchases every day. If you really need to specify every component, consider the trade-off: Buy the refurb on the cheap and put those savings toward upgrading to new components like a bigger hard drive, more memory, or a better graphics card.

Also, if your refurb is a desktop PC, be sure to check that it comes with the external necessities: A keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. If you already own these, make sure the connectors are there. You can't use your ancient PS/2 keyboard if your brand-new PC only has USB ports.

In fact, a refurbished PC may not come with the software you wanted installed. It may not even come on separate discs. Be sure to ask about that.

Where to find refurbished PCs

The major online PC retailers almost always have a part of their online store devoted to selling reconditioned systems at a discount. Here are a few to check out:

This PC powerhouse has a site full of refurbished systems. The refurbs come with a "Same as New Warranty and Support" which is certainly a comfort. The types of PCs offered fall into three categories: Certified Refurbs that are all tested, but may have some blemishes; Previously Ordered New, which are returns that were never opened; and Scratched and Dent items that perform great but don't look as good as the other two.

Look for the "Special Deals" area of the Apple Store to find refurbished Macs, iPods, and iPads, plus clearance items. Apple promises it tests and certifies all refurbished products and includes a one year warranty. You can also purchase an AppleCare protection plan, of course. Unlike the Dell store, the listing for refurbs by Apple is more limited, so you probably don't want to hang around if you see a good deal.

The laptop maker has four kinds of refurbs: New items that were cancelled orders, redistributed items that were returned unopened or unused, refurbished items that may or may not have been used and were then tested and spruced up as necessary, and scratched/dented items that have gone through the full process to get back to usability. There are a lot of ThinkPads available here, and each is clearly labelled with one of those four categories. All refurbs have a limited warranty of one year and can be returned within 21 days of invoicing.

Also, it’s worth checking out HP’s Renew program, and you can find refurbished deals on Amazon – although tread carefully there.