the HOWTO for buying a used laptop

What to look for when buying a used laptop.

This is part one of a several part series. There will be more parts added a I find time to write them down.

I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but I buy a lot of used computers.  A LOT

Not only is it my day job for my real job but it’s a hobby that I can’t get enough of.  So I thought that I’d share a few things that I learned about buying used computers

First things first, you need to establish a budget.  Figure out how much money you can afford to spend and maybe look around the house to see if you can sell anything to get some extra cash for your purchase

A good number to start with is around $300 – regardless of currency.  I find that number is a good balance of where laptops separates from crappy to decent.

Now think about your needs.  Do you need a laptop that will be a real laptop, one that will sit on your lap while you sit on the couch or will it be sitting in the same place on a desk or a table all the time?  That dictates if you need a lightweight machine or if you can afford to live with a few more pounds.  Usually the thicker the laptop, the cheaper it is.   

While you are thinking about weight, consider the screen size and resolution.   There are typically 3 different screen sizes on laptops.  12”, 14”-15” and 17”  The 12” are typically meant for travel and usage on the go.  14” to 15” are the most common and still a good mobile size.  17” are desktop replacements, they dont’ move very often.

The screen is probably the most expensive part of any laptop to replace.  If you don’t plan on moving your laptop much, consider getting an external display where you can plug it into a port on the computer.  They are pretty cheap and can give you a real difference in eye comfort while working.

While we are talking about screens, consider the resolution.  I will assume that you know what resolution is but most used computers will be 1366×768 or 1920×1080.   There will be some oddballs that are 1440 or 1050.  Typically the lower the resolution, the bigger the font.  So if you are an older person and don’t need a high resolution gaming computer then consider the 1366×768 screen.  Your eyes will thank you for it.  I personally find that the 1080 screen that I’m typing this on to be a bit too small for my old eyes.  

Now we get into the nitty gritty.  Processors and ram and battery life and the details.  This is where you have to start reading the details on the listings.

Before we get into that, let’s look at where you can buy from.  My recommendation is always your local computer shop, buying a used computer is a lot like buying a used car.   Go with a reputable dealer so you don’t have any hassles later on.

I also like Facebook marketplace and eBay to purchase.   Facebook marketplace is probably the best place to goto though since you can see the feedback system of the seller and they are probably local so you can see the hardware before laying down the cash.  Or ask your friends on Facebook or in real life if they have any suggestions.  Most people will know a guy who knows a guy.  I am typically that guy.

Okay, lets dive into the processors.  There are several choices here but you need to know the details when asking about machines.  A lot of listings will say “i5 with Windows 10 $200” and you think to yourself that it’s a decent price but the problem is that the listing isn’t being specific.  

Intel is currently in it’s 10th generation of processor.  They make four different models, the i3, i5, i7 and now the i9.    So when you see that listing, “i5 with Windows 10 $200”, you need to ask which generation processor that is.   It could be 10 years old which is on it’s last legs as a production machine.   So if you see the details and it states “i5-2400” or “i7-m540” then the i5-2400 is a 2nd generation i5 and the i7-m540 is a first generation i7.  

I3 is a low power processor great for word processing and office work, it uses less battery 

I5 is a nice mixture of power and battery life

I7 is a power hungry beast that can process the most in the shortest amount of time

I9 you can’t afford this yet and it’s really only on desktops

One thing to keep in mind is that after the core number, such as i3 or i5 or i7, you’ll find hte generation number 2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 etc and then the next three numbers represent the performance.  An i5-5200 is a mediocre machine but an i5-5600 is slightly faster

First and 2nd generation processors are almost outdated as of today (June 2020).  I wouldn’t touch a first generation processor now personally but I still sell 2nd generations to inlaws or people that don’t plan on gaming.  Your sweet spot is the 4th to 5th generation machines

The newer the processor, the more money it will cost.  Also keep in mind that not all processors are built equal.  Sometimes you will notice a letter behind a processor number and that can mean that it’s a quad core (Q) , if you see a “K” at the end, then it’s a high performance chip.

“G” means that it has a built in graphics processor.  You will see a lot of “U” which typically means mobile devices like tablets or laptops.  Those chips run a bit slower and stay a bit cooler.  

You will find that thicker laptops tend to have stronger processors.  They are thick because they need better cooling.  It really all depends on what you need for a machine

That should be everything you need to know about processors.  Let’s jump into hard drives

Hard Drives are cheap.  This is where you store your data and it’s the heart of your computer.  If you plan on keeping the machine for a few years, I would buy a brand new hard drive and install it.   You don’t want your used computer to have an even more used hard drive then find that the hard drive fails and you lose all of your photos and data.  Spend the $100 and buy a new Hard drive and re-install the operating system.

There are two kinds of hard drives basically.  A spindle vs. a SSD.  The spindle hard drive is a bit like a stack of records with a record player needle.  The data is stored magnetically onto these spinning disks and a arm moves the data head back and forth at amazing speeds to write and read the data.  These drives have a risk of failing if you drop the machine and they are teh bottleneck for speed.

SSD stands for Solid State Device and nothing moves.  The SSD drive might be a bit more expensive but it’s more stable and considerably faster.  The downside is that a SSD has a limited number of times that you can read/write data onto it.  But even if you are using your computer daily for 5 years, I doubt if you’ll ever wear it out.

The SSD also comes in several different models and sizes so be sure to do some research on your computer before you replace the drive.  It might take a 2.5” drive or a m.sata or a NVM size.  

The size of the drive can vary.  Keep in mind that a 1TB drive is larger than 128GB drive.    Some programs will take up a lot of room on the hard drive, Windows itself can take up 30GB of data and then if you add some games, you can fill up a 128GB hard drive in minutes.  There are a few sweet spots for size, I prefer a 512GB SSD or if you can afford it, a 1TB SSD.  But I find that a 256GB to a 512GB SSD should work just find.  I keep a few larger USB sticks handy for my important data and a few larger external drives for backups. 


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