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Pssst...Wanna buy a used PC?

And why not, according to CNET's Joe Wilcox, who offers a handy guide for the perplexed.

Over the weekend, I picked up an almost-new computer for my daughter--and saved a hundred bucks in the process.

She had already decided on a Flower Power iMac, and we found one returned but unused that the local CompUSA discounted to $1,399.

This wasn't my first "refurbished" computer purchase. In fact, only on rare occasions have I forked over full price for a totally new PC. Why? Prices are discounted typically 20 percent or more, and "refurbs"--also known as reconditions--are often more reliable than new computers.

But shopping for one of these systems takes a little skill and an understanding of what the manufacturer will and won't deliver in a reconditioned computer. Buy the right system from the right company, and you'll be humming the words to "There's a Sucker Born Every Minute" for weeks. You get a deeply discounted PC, but with full warranty and support. The wrong company and type of purchase will have you humming the same song, but the meaning--well, you get the drift.

In the case of the Apple Computer refurb, some hubby carted home the Flower Power iMac to his sweetie, who loathed the pastel and 1960s motif. The original buyer returned the box unopened, on which CompUSA broke the seal before making sure the system worked fine. But once returned--even unused--the store could no longer sell the system as new or for full price.

Frankly, I tried to negotiate a lower price, prompting the saleslady to ask, "What else were you planning to buy?" I'm sure that if I had agreed to an extended warranty or had some accessory in mind, the store would have knocked another $50 off the price. Best of all, because the iMac technically had not been used, I walked out with my full warranty.

Cheap returns
Most returned computers are of this sort. Joe consumer buys a new PC, then goes home and finds his natural-gas bill doubled from the previous month. Cursing the oil cartels, he returns the unused system for a refund. In the case of direct PC makers, such as Dell Computer or Gateway, some PCs don't even get out the door before this month's credit card statement has the purchaser canceling the order. Typically, those systems--built but not sold--find their way to the reconditioned sales heap.

Other systems are returned slightly used. Someone opens the box, sets up the shiny, new PC, and decides he or she doesn't like it. Because most retailers offer at least a 14-day return policy and some direct PC makers as many as 30 days, consumers have lots of time to change their minds--and many do, much to the chagrin of the sellers.

Some systems do go back for legitimate problems, putting these in a less common category of return. Because PC makers lose money on any return, they typically send out replacement parts--new hard drive, monitor, keyboard, and so on--before agreeing to a return or exchange.

Better than new?
All these systems are checked, fixed if needed and double-checked to make sure they work just right before going to refurbished sales. Once a system is returned, regardless of the reason, the seller loses money on the sale. The last thing he wants is to see a loss again. So in some respects, refurbs are more reliable than new systems.

But not in all respects. The seller and the warranty offered can make all the difference in buying reconditions. I have bought refurbs from Apple, Dell and Gateway, with nary a sign of trouble. Both Dell and Gateway have extensive reconditioned sales Web sites, as do Compaq Computer and Hewlett-Packard. Dell and Gateway offer full warranty--that's three years--on refurbished systems. Apple on Tuesday unexpectedly and quietly changed its refurbished warranty to one year from 90 days. Customers can now buy an extended warranty as well.

Some of the more reputable catalog and online dealers, such as MicroWarehouse and PC Connection, move a lot of reconditioned systems. Unfortunately, most systems carry only a 90-day warranty. I normally don't believe in buying service contracts, but they can make sense for refurbs. But you have to gauge your savings against the cost of the extended warranty, which could negate the difference over a new system.

Used or bruised?
If you buy from a brand-name manufacturer either directly or through a reputable dealer, the used system should be indistinguishable from a new one. But these types of refurbs should not be confused with "open box" and "scratch and dent" sales. When buying an open-box system, you need to find out as much about its history as possible. Companies will know, even if they are reluctant to say.

If, for example, the open-box system was a display--or floor--model, you should expect a deep discount and probably little warranty. This system should not really be considered a refurb; it is used and should be priced to reflect that. The day I picked up the Flower Power iMac, my local CompUSA had a customer looking at a used Power Mac. The floor model from technical support was discounted $700 to $800.

Scratch-and-dent models may have an even less lustrous history. Some systems suffer damage during shipping or are returned with nicks or other problems. In both cases--open-box and dented PCs--accessories or manuals may be missing. The amount of the discount should reflect this.

Tip: Many PC companies will replace for free things like missing keys on notebook keyboards or missing manuals. An open-box notebook with a few missing keys might be discounted by hundreds of dollars, but otherwise work fine. One call could get replacement parts--and for free.

Reputable retailers and PC makers don't sell open-box or scratch-and-dent systems through normal refurbished sales operations. But they commonly dispose of them through their online auction sites.

So, buyers beware. It is important to make sure exactly what the system comes with--or is missing--and what kind of warranty, if any, comes along with the sale. Auctions can offer the best deals of all, but it also is easy to overbid on an incomplete, scratched or even damaged PC.

People worry that reconditions are in some way flawed. But I have yet to buy a bad reconditioned system. Strangely, I've had more trouble with new computers.