How to bag a refurbished bargain

A computer being refurbished

The idea of buying second hand computer equipment makes many of us understandably nervous – especially if it’s for business use. Yes, you can save a lot of money, but you’re normally foregoing a warranty and taking a chance when it comes to the condition and longevity of your purchase.

There’s a smarter alternative, though: refurbished kit, which comes with a lot more reassurances, backed up by an established company rather than a random individual on the internet. Here’s what you need to know about buying cheaper technology without the risk.

A safer purchase

A lot of the refurbished kit you’ll see for sale will never have been used, or may have been used only for a matter of hours. Typically, these are items that were ordered by accident, or found not to meet the original purchaser’s requirements once received, and returned to the retailer. Items like this can’t be sold on as new – but they can be offered as “open box” deals, often at a significant saving, backed up by a warranty from the manufacturer or retailer.

Then there are items that were originally returned because they were dead on arrival. You might baulk at buying a device that’s already failed once, but it’s important to understand the context. The majority of high-tech equipment in use worldwide is built in the Far East, often in surroundings that are significantly hotter and more humid than the UK. They are then transported to Europe by air freight, in temperatures that can get very cool indeed, before being transported for sale in heated environments. These temperature changes, combined with the bumps, knocks and twists involved in shipping the product from the factory to the consumer, can be enough to dislodge a component.

When such a broken item is received by a buyer, it will be returned for an exchange under warranty. But repairing the original device is often trivially easy: it can be done by the original manufacturer in a local facility, or by a specialist refurbishing operation. Repaired machines will, of course, be thoroughly tested before being offered for resale, and they won’t need to undergo the rigours of international transport again – so when you buy a refurbished computer or smartphone, you actually have a better chance of getting a device that’s in perfect working order than if you were to buy brand new.

A smarter purchase

Some manufacturers, such as Dell and Apple, offer refurbished devices on their own sites. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, however, there are also plenty of resellers who specialise in refurbished kit.

Some of what’s on offer will have seen significant use, so if you’re looking for a pristine device, it’s worth checking the description carefully. But even if you’re buying a machine that’s a few years old, going to a refurbishment specialist can still be a much smarter bet than buying secondhand from an unknown seller.

One reason for that is, as we’ve mentioned, you can expect to get a warranty from the retailer, not to mention the statutory rights and consumer protections that apply, especially if you pay by credit card.

Moreover, refurbishment specialists are set up to process computers being disposed of by large companies, so security is taken very seriously and hard disks will be securely erased. This means that you’ll get your machine in a factory-fresh state, so you can be sure you won’t run into any issues with unlicensed apps, pirated software or even malware.

Older operating systems

There’s another scenario in which buying a refurbished system might be your best option – and that’s if you need an older operating system, perhaps for development and testing, or for standards compliance. Very few people will sell you a brand-new computer running Windows 7 today, and if you try to install the ageing OS on a modern laptop you might run into driver difficulties. But you can buy a refurbished Dell laptop with the older OS preinstalled – along with all the appropriate drivers and so forth – for £229. With a 2GHz Core i5 processor and 4GB of memory under the hood, it’s not a world-beating spec, but it will be perfect for daily office productivity. Spend an extra £40 and you can get twice the memory and Windows 8.1 Professional.

Incidentally, it’s always worth keeping an eye out for vouchers and codes. This tip doesn’t apply solely to refurbished systems, of course, but if you’re shopping for a refurbished computer, that suggests you might be open-minded about the specifics of what you buy, and happy to go where the discounts are. Indeed, sometimes the savings are steep enough to make it worth buying new instead. Sticking with Dell, a Latitude E5470 with a quad-core i5 processor, 256GB SSD and 64-bit Windows 10 is normally priced at £799, but at the time of writing there’s a 54% discount on offer, reducing it to just £367 – a pretty remarkable price for the spec.

Condition grading

As we’ve noted, not all refurbished devices are offered in “as new” condition. It’s not only high-street resellers that grade products and set prices accordingly: this is fairly standard practice across the refurb market, to give you an idea of what you’re getting for your money – which is particularly helpful if you’re buying online and have no opportunity to see the item for yourself before paying.

Unfortunately, there’s no universal standard for what the grades actually represent. Refurb specialist Tier 1 has three grades, A to C, plus “good as new” products that have seen little or no use.

Dell, on the other hand, only grades its refurbished products A or B – but warns that “some Grade A units will be cosmetically pristine, while others might have light scratches or other minor blemishes”. Grade B units will all have some visible cosmetic blemishes, such as scratches or other surface imperfections. These gradings only apply to the visible exterior of the product: they don’t take into account the state of the internals, or factors such as dust that may have been sucked in through fan openings.

Some manufacturers don’t include a grade at all. Check the terms of sale to see what condition you can expect a refurbished system to be in. If there’s no explicit disclaimer, it’s fair to assume that the product is A-grade and, if it falls short of your expectations upon arrival, dispute any blemishes the way you would with a brand-new product.

Your rights

Whenever you buy an item, whether it’s brand new or pre-owned, you have a right to expect that it will arrive as described and be fit for purpose. Even if you just decide you don’t like it, you’re entitled to return it – as long as you have bought it outright from an online retailer. In the words of consumer advice specialist Which?, the Consumer Contracts Regulations give you the right to “change your mind for any reason and cancel the order – starting from the moment you order and ending 14 days from the day you receive the laptop”. Be aware, though, that this doesn’t apply if you buy by bidding on eBay.

Also note that these regulations don’t apply if you buy from a bricks and mortar store. In that scenario, however, you will still be covered by the Consumer Rights Act, which entitles you to a refund if the product develops a fault within the first 30 days. After that, you have the legal right to return the product up to six months after purchase for repair or replacement.

Warranty? What warranty?

The law gives you reasonable protection when it comes to buying refurbished, but what happens if a machine won’t boot after, say, nine months? Most refurbished machines come with a warranty in addition to your statutory rights, but the terms vary depending on the retailer. Buy a refurbished phone from O2’s Like New store and it comes with a 12-month warranty. So do products sold through Amazon Renewed. CeX offers twice that on everything other than consumables, which are covered for 30 days. Dell is less generous, offering a 180-day repair-only warranty on refurbished hardware – in other words, going no further than the statutory six months.

Apple meanwhile offers its standard one-year warranty, and lets you extend this by buying into the company’s AppleCare scheme, just as you can with new purchases: computer warranties can be extended to a maximum of three years, while iPads, iPhones and watches can be extended for two years.

Naturally, a warranty is only valid for as long as the company offering it remains in business – another reason why we recommend buying from known names. We have mentioned several established suppliers in this article; another one worth checking is Scan UK, which offers a selection of returned, open-box items.

The compromise of choice

Buying refurbished kit certainly saves you money, but it gives you a narrower range of products to pick from, which will rarely include the latest models. However, from time to time you’ll see products appear in refurb stores that haven’t previously been on sale anywhere else.

This is down to a bit of sleight of hand on the part of the manufacturers, who give refurbished items a different product code (strictly an EAN, or European Article Number) to brand-new stock, and possibly a new name. This way, they can track the flow of refurbished hardware, and sell effectively the same product at two different prices without confusing customers. Or, to put it another way, manufacturers can avoid the appearance of discounted, refurbished items competing directly with unopened stock.

One notable example of switching product code is when the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was resold as the Galaxy Note FE. Scan’s Keith Williams explained to us how the latter was effectively no more than a refurbished version of the Note 7: after the original phone was recalled as a fire risk, Samsung swapped out the batteries with updated models, carried out various safety checks, then put the handsets back on sale with a new name and a lower price. It might not have been Samsung’s proudest hour, but it gave savvy shoppers an opportunity to get top-quality hardware at a bargain price – a classic refurb deal.

Questions you should be asking

It’s not just computers and smartphones that you can buy refurbished, though – there’s a huge range of open-box and pre-used items on offer. Not all hardware is created equal, however, and some kit degrades more quickly than others. Old displays may look small and blocky compared to the latest screens, but more to the point they may also be prone to failing backlights as they age. Mechanical hard drives become ever more likely to fail as they age, while SSDs that have previously seen heavy use will be closer to their maximum write endurance, after which it should remain readable, but you may lose the ability to write new data and update files.

Printers come with their own caveats: there are some great deals on refurbished lasers out there, but you may find that you quickly need to replace not just the toner cartridge but also the drum and belt, and components for handling waste toner and fuser oil, if applicable, which can drive the price up enormously. As for inkjets, some models get a new print head every time you replace the ink cartridge, but the same can’t be said for all of them; you might end up having to pay for a repair, or putting up with smudgy, stripy prints.

Finally, when buying a laptop or smartphone, it’s very tempting to focus on the core technical specs – namely, the processor, memory and storage capacity. However, there’s one more crucial component that could let you down and that’s the battery. Over time, all batteries lose their capacity, so you should ask the reseller for a battery test, showing both the design capacity and maximum available charge. The former will show what the device’s theoretical maximum charge was at the point it left the factory, while the latter tells you how much charge it will store today when fully topped up. Weigh up whether that’s acceptable to you, and remember that this figure will continue to deteriorate throughout your ownership. It may be possible to buy a new battery, but otherwise you could soon find yourself afraid to stray too far from a power outlet.

Nik Rawlinson is a journalist with over 20 years of experience writing for and editing some of the UK’s biggest technology magazines. He spent seven years as editor of MacUser magazine and has written for titles as diverse as Good Housekeeping, Men's Fitness, and PC Pro.

Over the years Nik has written numerous reviews and guides for ITPro, particularly on Linux distros, Windows, and other operating systems. His expertise also includes best practices for cloud apps, communications systems, and migrating between software and services.