Listeners of our Real Deal podcast often ask for advice on buying cheap laptop computers. Often they're asking about machines for family members, or for leave-around-the-house computers. Netbooks can be good for these applications. They're cheap and small. But they're also quite basic and often underpowered; some don't even run a full version of Windows.
There's another solution for the penny-pinching laptop buyer: the manufacturer-reconditioned laptop, or "refurb." These are often gently used machines that have been returned to the manufacturer because they were unwanted. Sometimes they're warranty returns that are repaired, shined up, and then re-sold--with new warranties. I like these machines because I know that a technician has actually looked at the hardware, run tests on it, and certified it, instead of just the cursory quality-control check that many machines get when they come off the line.
Sometimes refurbs are brand-spanking-new, never-used computers that were built to order for corporate contracts but never delivered, or standard consumer units that were just never sold and that have become obsolete in stores due to the release of newer models or upgraded specs. These are generally sold as "outlet store" laptops and are my favorites. You don't get to configure them to suit, but you can save some good money, and you might even get a current-spec machine with zero use hours on it. Just beware the price comparisons given in outlet stores; they often compare the price of the refurbed unit to its list price when it was a current spec. Refurbs can be good deals even if their configurations are no longer current, but this price comparison is misleading.
Occasionally refurbs are basket cases. If the price seems too good, look for the "scratch and dent" marker on the sales page. I'd avoid these. If they've been abused on the outside, who knows what stress fractures are ready to pop on on the motherboard on the inside? Many of these misfit toys end up being shipped overseas. They should just be scrapped.
What you get, what you don't
For the most part, you don't get the latest and greatest specs on a refurb, even a good one, but you might get a machine only a few weeks into its market cycle, depending on how the machine made it into the refurb store. You're also not likely to get all the fancy as-new packaging, and sometimes you don't get manuals (that's what the Internet is for).
If you're someone who has to have the latest, or the ability to customize your build before you order it, buy new. Also, I do want to be clear on the fact that many consumer-grade laptops are incredibly good values even when bought at full retail. A $600 off-the-shelf laptop from a big-box store will do almost everything most people need, with power to spare. With a good refurb, you'll be able to save money or get a higher-spec machine for the same budget. But while refurb shopping rewards careful research, it can punish the lazy.
My co-workers, including our editor-in-chief, speak highly of going the refurb route, but not all refurb buys work out. I have bought two refurbed products: an out-of-production ThinkPad T42 that was so carefully reconditioned that it felt brand-new. It even came with a new battery, which is a big deal. I also bought a refurbed TiVo HD, which I had to send back for repair due to a configuration error.
That's one of the issues with refurbs. You might get a great deal, but you might also buy a headache if the device is not as advertised. At least you can take comfort in the fact that manufacturer refurbs are sold with warranties, so if there's a problem with it, you will eventually get a working unit. You'll be out some time, but you'll save money.
And sometimes refurbs can be superior to new items. After sending a new Seagate hard drive with a vibration problem back to the store, only to get another wobbler, I sent the drive directly to the manufacturer. Seagate sent me a refurb, which was quiet, fast, and has been working like a champ in my MacBook for a year. As I said, I like the personal touch I know I get from refurbs.
I recommend buying refurbs from manufacturers, not resellers. Although many retailers deal in refurbished products, when you're buying a product that has likely has been used and returned, you want to be sure that the last person who touched it was the manufacturer who stands behind it, not a packing clerk at the store. Of the users I talked with about refurbs, those who bought from manufacturers told me overwhelmingly about positive experiences. People who bought refurbs or used equipment from retailers had mixed reports.
For a dissenting opinion see Brooke Crothers' tale of woe from last year.