A couple of weeks ago, I came across a Gateway KAV60 (LT2016u) laptop for sale in a local thrift store for $9. It turned out to be such a waste of $9 that I decided to make it a case study of what not to buy.
The Gateway KAV60 is a netbook from 2009. It sports an Atom N270 CPU. This is the same CPU that is in the ASUS EEE PC and many other netbooks of that era. In those days, there were so many underpowered N270 CPU's in netbooks that I eventually reached the point where I cringed whenever I saw one listed listed as the CPU in a laptop advertisement or review. Unfortunately, I bought an ASUS EEE PC in 2010 for $170, thinking it was a great deal. But, it was so slow that after a while it just became annoying to use. Several times I considered adding a bigger SSD, but every time I decided against it, due to the glacial slowness of the Atom N270. Needless to say, I have not bought another laptop with an Atom in it--until this Gatway KAV60. But, in my defense ... well, I have none, because it has an Atom sticker just below the keyboard. I guess the $9 price is what did me in.
It can be difficult while you're in a thrift store to give a potential computer purchase the scrutiny required to determine whether it's worth buying. You miss things. Important things. I wish I could walk into a thrift store with a screw driver and take all the doors off the back off any laptop I'm considering to see if it has RAM and a hard drive, but that probably wouldn't go over well.
When I picked this laptop up in the store, I noticed some problems with it. One corner of the palm rest was broken. The RAM door was missing, so I could see it had no RAM. I couldn't tell if it had a hard drive. That's where the screwdriver would have come in handy.
When I brought the laptop home and opened it up, I found more problems. One very important clue that I had not noticed in the store was the missing power connector. I should carry a penlight with me just for that. A missing power connector definitely means the laptop has been scavanged for parts. I also saw that the ribbons connecting the keyboard and touchpad to the motherboard had been disconnected. This most likely means the monitor or motherboard are dead. This laptop is also fairly dirty on the inside. My guess, based on online reviews mentioning the KAV60's heating problem, is that the motherboard is dead. Another clue is the amount of dirt in the fan. What may have happened was that the fan died. The owner didn't notice. Then, the CPU overheated and died or shut down a few seconds after booting. Given that likelihood, the slow CPU, and the generally poor condition of the laptop, it's not worth putting any more effort into. At this point, it is only good for its screws, wifi card, and perhaps a couple of other parts. Maybe I can scavange the speakers. Since they're small, I may come across a laptop some day that they fit in.
As I mentioned in an article I wrote last year, most thrift store computers are only useful for parts. Occassionally, you may get lucky, but try not to pay more than about $5 to $15 dollars for a thrift store computer unless you have a compelling reason. The moral of this story is that there are some laptops that are not worth even $9. But, you never really know until you get them home and open them up. Still, there are clues that you may notice in the store.
Back in the late 1980's I owned a classic VW book that gave some good advice about VW's: "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot". The book has a section in it on buying used VW's. The author says the last step in the process of deciding whether to buy a VW is to sit in it for 20 or 30 minutes just soaking in the feel of it. Visualize yourself owning the car and listen to what your gut tells you.
I think this advice should also apply to thrift store computers. It's probably a good idea to locate a comfortable chair in the store to sit in while you spend a few minutes just contemplating a potential computer purchase. When you spend time scrutanizing a thing, you often see aspects of it that you would otherwise miss in a quick once-over. Maybe you will decide you just don't like the looks of the computer and can't see yourself wanting to own it. Ideally, if you aren't just looking for a parts computer, you'll be spending time bringing it back to working condition again. That may entail 5-10 hours of effort. Think about that as you're contemplating that $9 laptop purchase.
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