I’ve never had much money, but I love computers, so I’ve gotten a bit of practice shopping for used computers online.

The purpose of this guide

When I started to create DigitalSkills.Info, the idea was to creating all the guides one would need to start learning digital skills to begin creating a living online.

Once I started talking to some friends about this idea, I immediately encountered the issue that most people don’t own a computer.

Almost everyone has a phone nowadays, but computers not-so. While plenty of people around the world are developing skills, pursuing personal growth, creating a brand, and growing a businesses with only a smart-phone; your capabilities will be greatly expanded with even an older laptop.

This guide is made to help people who want a computer to learn and grow as a human being, and have a greater impact on the issues they care about, but can’t afford a top-end machine, and don’t know how to begin shopping for a used computer online.

With a computer, wi-fi and time, you can create a new life for yourself, your potential is nearly limitless.

Even if you already have a computer, if you begin relying on it every day for work, recreation and education, it will be worth your while to have a backup. You may also want something for your kids to use that’s not expensive or easy to break. :D

Why buy used?

You can get a lot more bang for your buck, buying used. Especially if you don’t want to spend a lot of money, but need a reliable machine. New computers that cost around $200 have cheap parts. Don’t let the specs fool you, the computer wont do you much good if the cheap plastic hinges break and you can’t open it anymore.

A cheap new computer will have cheap parts, but an older top-of-line laptop is more affordable, durable and reliable.

One reason why these older machines last so long is that processing capabilities have not improved that much over that time. Newer machines may manage their processors better and hae higher quality peripherals, but the processing power itself hasn’t improved much for a while.

General Price Ranges

For around $100 you can get a computer that works. It won’t be the fastest computer in the world, but will work fine as a learning base. You can create and consume content, learn about anything that interests you, and begin creating and marketing your own products \ services online.

For around $200 you can get an HP ProBook\Elitebook released in 2012, that will be much more powerful and last longer and buying a new computer for the same price. Machines in this price range can be quite competitive with a brand-new computer costing double or triple the price.

Between $400-500 you can get a decent used Macbook. Macs are really nice to work with and quite reliable. A Macbook will especially come in handy if you are into design, music or video, and they’re great for programming or just about anything else. Mac or otherwise, you can definitely find some powerful machines in this price range.

How to shop for a used or refurbished laptop online

Before you buy

I typically search reddit for product reviews and buying guides for many products new or used. It’s my first stop before I really start shopping, and also can be searched for product reviews on specific items I’m looking at.

Check out these sub-reddits to get a feel for the market.

  • r/SuggestALaptop - Custom laptop suggestions
  • r/homelab - People who build home networks with second-hand rack servers, and other affordable\innovative implementations.
  • r/LaptopDeals - Not second-hand, just good deals.

Where to Buy

I buy computers on Ebay. There’s a great selection, and the best deals on almost anything. Ebay also provides customer support, and makes it easy to return items if the seller doesn’t take care of you.

I only shop for ‘Buy It Now’ listings. Just a personal preference, since I don’t have the attention span for auctions.

I created a few custom search urls for a couple sites, so you can get some ideas with a single click.

  • Ebay (HP Elitebook $100-$300)
  • Backmarket (Lenovo $100-$300)
  • New Egg (Macbook $300-$500&Order=1)
  • Amazon - I don’t really find good deals on used laptops here, the same model is commonly more expensive than elsewhere.
  • Craigslist - Deals are harder to come by since it’s picked over and full of overpriced refurbished models, without a rating system. It’s just more hassle than clicking through search results and clicking “Buy It Now”.

What to Look for

At the very core, as long as you can see the BIOS screen, or the computer is running, you can feel pretty confident the computer works. The BIOS provides core instructions so your computer can run an operating system like Windows or Linux.

Make sure it’s not BIOS Locked. That means there’s a boot password. However, there might be some good deals here if you do some research, since bios lock brings down the buy price and may not be too difficult to bypass.

Beyond that, you’ll need to judge the listing by its merits.

The more thorough a listing is, the more high quality pictures it has, the higher ratings the seller has, these are signs to look for and weigh against each other.

I avoid those listings that lure you with a price range but it’s actually a listing for many computers, and you only get a real price after you select options.

Refurbished

Ultimately, refurbished computers are going to be more reliable than buying directly from previous owner. Having a professional go over the machine is a definite plus factor, but of course they’re usually a bit more expensive. Refurbished laptops are commonly rated on a scale from A-C. The sellers also commonly offer a 90-day warranty.

Warranties

Warranties are good, but most repairs can be done at home. If you are relying on it for workthough if not is when the warranty is nice. That will depend on your budget, but if you shop right, and don’t leave tall beverages immediately next to your computer, the warranty shouldn’t even come into play.

Ultimately, it depends on your comfort with learning self-repair, and troubleshooting any problems that crop up.

If you buy on EBay or Amazon, you can get a warranty. Backpages has warranties. You can even buy one straight from companies like Square Trage if you bought it from someone who didn’t provide that connection.

However, Consumer Reports suggests these extended warranties might not be worth it:

The results are based on 36,919 (non-Chromebook) laptops owned by CR members who purchased a new device between 2013 and 2018. Among the PC owners who sprang for the extra coverage, only 15 percent used it to pay for repairs.

For the PC laptop owners, the median cost of a repair paid for completely out of pocket was $118. That’s only $3 more than the median cost of the extended coverage.

For Apple laptop owners […] median cost for an out-of-pocket repair was $165, which is less than the $177 median cost for an AppleCare plan.

Specs

Search by serial number is the best way to learn about a machine you have your eyes on. You can also find specs by product name, model, but specs may vary among computers with the same name or model number.

If the BIOS screen is showing, you can look for a serial number there, and often sellers include this in their listing. What the listing says is not always 100% accurate, so serial number is a higher level of assurance.

For my own personal use, I would look for something no older than 2012\2013. There are plenty of affordable computers starting from those years. You could go older than that, but results may vary.

Hard Drive

This is the most important part in getting the most out of any computer new or old. You absolutely want a solid state drive (SSD). That doesn’t mean you have to purchase with one installed, since you can often find better deals on computers sold with old fashioned mechanical hard drives, or even without a hard drive.

Both new and used computers often ship with the old fashioned mechanical drive (HDD). These are very slow, and prone to failure. You can bring new life into an old computer, just by getting an SSD.

128 gig is really the smallest that are worth buying, if you’re really on a budget but still plan to download some music and video. It’s easy to buy more storage later, so you don’t have to splurge for a terabyte straightaway.

Ram \ Memory

Obviously, more is better. You don’t have to immediately max out your ram, but it’s nice if you can add at least 16g total. If you max 8 ram, that’s ok, you can still get plenty of work done with 8gigs of ram. Even with only 4 gigs of ram, you can survive. People even buy rasberry pi with only 2 gigs of ram and get lots use out of it, but 4 is really the minimum for a personal computer.

Processor

Ideally you want 4th-gen or newer Intel Core processor i3, i5, or i7. The generation can be determined by the number immediately after its i number. Fourth gen would be i3-4000 i5-4000 i7-4000 and up.

Battery \ Power

You want to be sure it has a replaceable battery. Some Macbooks, for instance have batteries glued into the casing. Professionals often replace these when refurbishing, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Some batteries are really expensive.

It’s good to look up ahead of time how much a battery costs, since they are usually completely toast by the time they get to you second-hand. Some computer batteries are expensive, some are not. For some models the power adapter is also expensive (for Mac that’s $100).

Of course you want to be aware of the battery life. This is a good place where reddit reviews come in handy.

Battery life may not be the most important factor on this list, but it’s worth knowing what you are getting into, ahead of time.

Size \ Weight

It’s nice to have a lightweight compact computer, but these aren’t always the easiest to repair. Larger \ heavier machines might also be more durable.

Screen

To me this is not the most important factor, but something I use to weigh the options after I’ve searched by other specs.

High resolution can make the most out of smaller screens. While large screens with lower resolution don’t perform as well as the smaller screen with higher res.

At least 1920×1080 resolution (1080p or Full HD) is ideal.

Ports

It’s good to consider how many USB ports, and whether any of them support USB 3.0 (which is much faster and important for certain peripherals). Some models will have a slot for SD cards so you can easily add images from your camera, or move files to\from your phone. HDMI is nice if you want to plug into a tv, or other external screen.

Upgrades and Repairs

This section is about figuring out how to upgrade your computer, once purchased, and what other purchases I usually make after buying a computer.

Manuals and guides

Once you buy your laptop, you’ll want to have the manuals, since they can give you exact specs, manuals and repair guides.

Of course, Youtube is full of videos showing step by step how an upgrade or repair is done for most any model on the market.

All you usually need for most upgrades is a phillips head screwdriver with a smaller tip. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where all the screws are, but there should be around a dozen of them on the bottom. Some might be under the rubber “feet” of the laptop, and some might be under your battery.

After you’ve found all the screws Sometimes you pull the bottom case off, sometimes you pull out the keyboard.

Hardrives are and ram are usually easy to replace, they can be found on the side of the machine, behind the battery, or underneath.

Shopping list

I commonly spending another $100-200 over the following months after a purchase.

Usually you need to buy a new battery, often a new power adapter.

Unless your purchase comes with SSD, add that to your list. $70 for 240 gig. Make sure you get the right size!

Its easy to cut corners on memory and get more when you need it. Be sure to figure out exactly which type, they come in different shapes and sizes.

I’ve upgraded wifi a few times, not really sure if it made a difference. Besides that, a wireless mouse and keyboard can be good if you work a lot and need to be able to change your work station and posture.

If you buy a machine without a hard-drive or operating system, or you plan to upgrade the hard-drive yourself, you’ll need to get an operating system. I recommend Ubuntu, because it’s free and not designed to spy on you. You can also find a pre-activated Windows 10 torrent, which should run on most machines.

I’ll cover more details on installing an operating system and a beginners guide to Ubuntu in some future posts.

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