The first steps in successfully obtaining an inexpensive computer that you will be happy with are: 1) knowing what you need, 2) knowing what you're buying, and 3) knowing quality when you see it. This article takes the process from there to show you where to shop or how to otherwise legally acquire a cheap laptop.
As I see it, there are only a few ways of legally getting your hands on a useful Laptop. These are:
Since I am a cheapskate, my personal preference is to never buy new if I can avoid it. However, for those of you who want the latest technology badly enough to pay for it, I have some suggestions about how to get a good deal. The first is not to buy at a "big box" store, unless you see a really great deal. Even then, I would recommend going home first and hopping onto the internet to see if it's as great a deal as you think. I've often found it wasn't. My next bit of advice is to wait, if you can, until the best buying time of the year--the July to August time frame. That's the back-to-school season. Some years you can find really great deals at this time (2018 was one such year), and other years you see nothing much to jump up and down about. If you happen to be looking in a year when some new technology is coming out, when a new version of Windows is being introduced (although that probably won't happen again any time soon), and when some other stars align to make the deals really good, jump on that, because it may be a while before these things happen again all at once. The best place to buy a new computer that I know of is Amazon, because you have some protections against being taken advantage of by unscrupulous sellers, and because you can sometimes find prices better than those in the big-box stores. My opinion is that it isn't worth going to ebay for new computers, because the deals there are no better than on Amazon, and you don't have as many protections.
Refurbished computers can be a good value for someone who is squeamish about buying used but doesn't want to pay for a new computer either. They generally look brand new and come with a 30-to-90 day warranty and a certificate of authenticity for the operating system. They've been checked over thoroughly and repaired if necessary, so you have no more reason to worry about them biting the dust than you would with a new computer. You can get refurbished computers at the same places you can get new computers--Amazon, Tiger Direct, New Egg, ebay, and others. I would avoid the manufacturer's websites for refurbished computers, because I have just never been very impressed with their deals. I bought a refurbished Dell Latitude E6220 in April of 2015. Aside from two minuscule dents on the top of the case and a slightly stripped screw underneath, I couldn't tell it had been used. I paid $270 for it on Amazon, which was only $20 to $30 more than the used ones I was seeing. It managed to survive as my work laptop for 31 months before it died--which was my fault, I think, because I kept zapping it with static electricity.
Now for a few tips on buying a used computer. The number one thing I look for is a complete description of what I'm thinking about buying. Make sure nothing is left out. How much RAM does it have? What size hard drive? What is the exact CPU model--"core i5" isn't good enough. What is the exact model of the computer. Don't accept anything nebulous like simply the words "Dell laptop" and one or two accompanying pictures. Are the battery and power cord included? Make sure there are good pictures of all six surfaces of the computer (except for the bottom of a desktop). The reason is that some people will try to sell you something that is damaged on one surface and only show you the good surfaces--think buying a house, if that helps. Also, my belief is that the more honest a seller is, the more complete his description will be. Honest sellers want you to be happy with your purchase. Dishonest ones don't care.
The next thing I look for is a computer with a reasonable amount of wear. If it looks like someone used it as a door stop, you know the seller doesn't take care of his things. Why? Because he probably doesn't care. And if he doesn't care about his things, he probably doesn't care much about himself. So why should he care about you?
After this, I look for an organization willing to stand behind the transaction--at least to some extent. When you buy something used through Amazon from a third-party seller, Amazon will refund your money if the thing you bought doesn't match the seller's description or if the seller doesn't deliver at all. My understanding is that ebay gives some guarantees, but not as many a Amazon. So, shopping on ebay is a bit riskier. However, ebay also has better deals, especially if you get lucky on an auctioned computer. Also, if you use the "buy it now" method (meaning not in an auction), ebay lets you buy as a "guest"--which means you don't have to give them your birth date, social security number, etc. My disgust over this practice could be the topic of a whole article, but I will refrain here. I have never bought a computer on Craig's list, so I have no idea what to expect there. However, obviously, if you can see the computer with your own eyes and check it out with your own hands, you'll have a better chance of getting something that you'll find acceptable--assuming you know what you're doing, of course.
Just a few words on thrift stores. I have bought a few computers from thrift stores. Generally, you get zero guarantees there. And I've noticed that the prices on computers at thrift stores vary greatly--mostly depending on the particular thrift store you're visiting. Prices can be rock, rock bottom at some and simply not worth the hassle at others. Prices are generally lowest at thrift stores where things are piled everywhere in a wild disarray and highest at stores that look neat like retail stores. So, you can kind of get an idea of what to expect as soon as you walk in the door. My recommendation would be not to buy a computer at a thrift store unless the price is so low that you're nearly talking pocket change--I mean in the $5 to $15 range. Anything more than that, and you're better off on ebay.
When I buy a computer at a thrift store, it's generally not because I'm looking for a working computer. If it works, that's a bonus, but what I'm really looking for is particular parts. Let's face it for $5 to $15, if the computer works, it's not going to be very useful anyway. So, for example, I may have decided to build another desktop computer and I don't want to spend the money for a new case and power supply. So, I go to a thrift store and get a used computer for $5 to $10, salvage the case and power supply, and discard most of the rest. I may get lucky and get a working DVD drive as a bonus and maybe some cables or other minor parts. What I'm saying here is that you shouldn't go into a thrift store looking for a computer you can really use every day as your main computer. You'll be looking mostly for parts. Or perhaps you'll be looking for something for a particularly strange situation--like you want to turn it into a modern art project, or you don't like the idea of having your main laptop rifled through when you cross the border, so you need a really cheap "burner" laptop.
If you have a large circle of friends and family, you probably already know that people hand down computers now the way they used to hand down clothes. Often, if people know you are interested in computers, and you have helped them with theirs in the past, they will volunteer to give you their old computers when they buy new ones. My thought is that you might even be a bit preemptive by finding out who is about to buy a new computer and asking if you can have his old one when he no longer needs it. Also, I've found that people often can be even more eager to part with computers that no longer work. Sometimes, if you have even minor skills, you can get those computers fully functional again. For example, two years ago my brother gave me two laptops that wouldn't boot up. I found that both had corrupted operating systems, so it was relatively easy for me to fix them. I offered to give back the one he preferred, and as it turned out, he got the one he preferred in a perfectly functional condition, and I got the one I preferred for free.
If you aren't squeamish around other people's trash, another source of computers that some people take advantage of is dumpster diving. I admit that I have never intentionally found a computer this way. However, there have been two times when I was taking my trash to the dumpster in my apartment complex and noticed a computer in the dumpster. Both times I took them home more out of a sense of curiosity than anything else. As it turned out, the first computer was a gaming computer that looked practically brand new. The CPU was dead, so my guess was that the owner had just chunked it into the dumpster in disgust. From that computer, I got a nice looking case (without power supply), a medium sized hard drive, and a DVD player (with a Windows XP disk inside it). So, I would guess that, if you have the time and inclination, you could probably find some decent used computers this way, or at least parts of them.
I have never traded anything, including my computer repair skills, for a used computer, but I imagine that this might be one approach. I give my computer repair skills away for free, because I enjoy working on computers--frustrating as it can often be--and I learn at the same time. But if you have the skills and the inclination, you might try trading computer repairs for older, used computers.
I hope this article has given you some ideas about how to get a laptop, or any other type of computer, for less-to-no money. I think the key to really good deals is to not be distracted by the latest shiny gadget--so to speak--and concentrate on only what you really need for the task at hand. As I've said in a past article, I think buying a computer for things you haven't thought of yet (i.e. trying to stave off obsolescence) is not the way to go.
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