Feature: How to Buy a Used Laptop

With the way things are going in the economy today, you may find yourself looking for ways to pinch those pennies. Instead of splurging on a brand new notebook, you may feel more inclined to look into the used laptop market. There are naturally both pros and cons to this approach, but if you do choose to meet up with someone to buy a used notebook (buying used on eBay may not be the best idea), you will want to make sure that you’re getting what you’re paying with.

Just like when you go shopping for a used car, you don’t want to end up with a lemon of a laptop. While the following ten tips will point you in the right direction, they are by no means exhaustive. With that out of the way, let’s see what you should look for and what you should do when buying a used laptop.

1. Meet at a Coffee Shop

When you meeting up with someone to buy a college textbook, there’s not very much testing involved. You flip open the book, make sure all the pages are there and the book is in reasonable condition. You give him the money and you continue on with your day.

When it comes to buying something a little more substantial, particularly of the electronic variety, you’ll want to be more careful. Since you’ll be dropping a few hundred dollars on something like this, you want to make sure that you’re not being taken for a ride.

Meet up at a place, like a coffee shop, where you can sit down for a few minutes and give the laptop a quick whirl. A seller who doesn’t understand why you’d need to do this is a seller you better off avoiding.

2. Bring a Generic USB Device

When I was in Las Vegas last month for the Consumer Electronics Show, one of my buddies ran into a rather notable problem on his new Apple Macbook: the USB ports stopped working. He tried using a flash drive, a wireless mouse, and an external hard drive, all to no avail. Just because it’s new(-ish) doesn’t mean it’s problem-free.

Bring along something small, like a flash drive, to test out the USB ports. Naturally, you won’t want to bring anything that requires new drivers, so webcams and that kind of thing may be better off left at home. Test the ports and make sure they’re good to go.

3. Check for Sticky Keys

No, I don’t mean you should check for sticky substances on the keys (get your head out of the gutter… though it probably is a good idea to check for “stuff”). Instead, you just want to make sure that all the keys work the way they’re supposed to work. Open up a simple text editor and fire through all the keys. Do any of them stick? Do all of them work? Do you run into problems when you press and hold two keys at once (like CTRL+C)?

4. Test the Optical Drive

If the laptop is equipped with an optical drive, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that’s working too. This will depend on you (and the seller), but it’s unlikely they want to sit around as you test the “burner” side of things. If the seller is fine with it, go ahead and do it. Otherwise, just make sure it reads.

5. Unplug from the Wall Outlet

One of the biggest issues that you may encounter with a used laptop is the battery life. I remember I used to have a Compaq Presario that could only last about five minutes before it had to be plugged into the wall again. Replacing the battery can be a very heavy ($100+) expense, so don’t plug it into the wall while running through your tests. You won’t have time to drain the battery, but checking the life remaining will give you a sense of what to expect.

6. Confirm the System Properties

Does it really have the hard drive, RAM, and processor that the seller advertised? Run a quick check of the system properties to make sure the laptop you’re buying is actually the laptop you thought you were buying.

7. Look for Dead Pixels and Other Screen Problems

You don’t want to go through the headache of replacing the screen. Run a couple of videos and surf a few web pages to see if there are any dead pixels, any fading, or any flickering.

8. Run HD Tune or Other HD Tests

This may take up too much time, but running a simple benchmark on the hard drive wouldn’t be a bad idea either. You don’t want to find out a few days later than the drive is corrupted or otherwise “broken” in some way.

9. Try Out the Hinge and Other Mechanical Parts

We get caught up in the technical side of things pretty easily, but the mechanical side of things is just as important. Is the hinge still reasonably robust and stiff? You don’t want a laptop that keeps shutting the lid on itself. If it’s got secondary accessories like an internal card reader, you’ll want to make sure those are working too.

10. Use Your Gut

In the end, you need to trust your instincts. If the seller feels like a shady fellow who shouldn’t be trusted, there’s no harm in walking away from the deal. If he seems like he’s on the up and up, willing to follow up should anything go awry, then you may be able to go through with the deal with a little less stress.

Good luck!


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