September 14, 2006


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Laptops for less
Saving money when a relationship is at stake
By John “jaQ” Andrews

I’m helping a certain significant other shop for a laptop this weekend.

The budget is “under $500” or so, and while new entry-level laptops can be had at that price these days, it’s more fun and ecologically sound to look at the pre-owned market.

As you can well imagine, this excursion will put my reputation on the line far more than any weekly column could, so I’m being extra careful to say things that sound smart this week.

First off, consider the term describing the laptop’s condition.

• Used: The most risky designation, especially if you’re not buying from an actual retailer or dealer. There are probably some cosmetic blemishes, maybe screen scratches, and you’ll be lucky to get the original AC adapter. The battery is probably almost useless. Try the laptop out for yourself if even remotely possible. If you’’re not guaranteed at least a 30-day warranty or return period, walk away.

• Refurbished: Most trustworthy if preceded by the word “Factory,” refurbished laptops can be a pretty good deal. Some vendors sell perfectly good customer returns as refurbished, testing the items a second time to confirm that, yup, the buyer just didn’t know what he’d bought. The battery should be pretty good and all accessories, including the AC adapter and manuals, should be included, but make sure to ask. A 90-day warranty is pretty standard.

• Open box: Some retailers interchange this term and the previous one, but at least in my little world, an open box laptop should be in the best shape of all. It was probably on display somewhere, always plugged in, with most accessories never unpacked.

You should also check, or at least ask about, a few components that are likely to be less-than-mint.

• Battery: Over time, battery life goes down. That’s inevitable, but a reputable dealer will be honest about it. Odds are, you’ll spend most of your laptop time plugged in anyway, but you can always get a replacement battery from the manufacturer or a third-party external battery.

• CD or DVD drive: Lasers die and motors fade away. Bring along a disc you know works and test the optical drive.

• Screen: Look at it with the display off in good light to catch any scratches or persistent smudges. Turn it on to see if there are any “dead pixels” that stay one color or don’t light up at all. Open and close the screen a few times with the display on to see if it flickers or dies; there are cables inside that can be pinched and eventually broken.

• Keyboard and pointing device: Where does coffee go when spilled over a laptop? Yeah.

• Fan: Plug the laptop in and run it as hard as you can — optical drive whirring, some video and audio playing — and the thing’s fan should come on, preventing the processor and memory from cooking themselves.

• Software: Your new-to-you laptop should be restored to its factory settings — operating system and pre-installed software only, maybe with current updates. No experimental shareware, no outdated games and definitely no bloated accounting software with the previous owner’s info in it. You’ll get better performance and at least start off with no viruses or spyware.

Finally, make sure you have accurate contact information from your seller. If you have to return your new toy for any reason, it’d be a shame if the address turned out to be a demolished church on a Superfund site.

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