Review: Refurbished-Notebooks - A true classic, or simply past its "sell by date"?

By: Sebastian Jentsch, 04.11.2010

A second chance. Reconditioned ThinkPads and Dell Latitudes are sometimes significantly cheaper than their new counterparts. It may be yesterdays technology, but matt, high resolution displays, business (heavy usage) keyboards,  or SmartCard readers will be provided at bargain prices.

We check the quality of a refurbished ThinkPad and Dell Latitude.
We check the quality of a refurbished ThinkPad and Dell Latitude.

Why buy a used laptop?

Whether for professional or private use, those who want high quality hardware often have to have deep pockets in order to finance a new product. Laptops for office use are available from 350 Euros and up, but these often suffer from poor connectivity, display and input devices as well as a level of finish that would only be worthy of a “budget” item.

In other words we need a professional piece of hardware so that marathon typing sessions don’t turn into actual workout, and one isn’t constantly distracted by the load keys and ever present fan running in the background.  Customers will easily have to shell out 1000 Euros for a new ThinkPad T410i or Dell Latitude. When considering the T410i this investment will only get you an Intel Core i3-370M (2 x 2.4 GHz) and 6 cell battery. A high resolution display or integrated SmartCard wouldn’t be on the cards at that price.

But does it really have to be a new machine? You can get retired leasing or demo laptops as “refurbished” units for anywhere between 250 and 500 Euro online. The used laptops are generally 2-3 years old (not demo units), and are clearly marked as „refurbished“ or „demo“ items.

We checked the quality of a refurbished ThinkPad and Dell Latitude. In addition, we will be clarifying some of the questions you have been asking: Where did the laptops come from? Which brands are being offered? What type of warranty will I get with my purchase?

The refurbished laptops that we ordered for this random selection were provided by the online shop “notebooksbilliger.de”. What was the packaging like? In what condition was the laptop from a technical, and optical point of view.  Our test units consist of an 14.1” Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (Core 2 Duo T8100, 463 Euros), and a 15.4” Dell Latitude D830 (Core 2 Duo T7300, 332 Euros). These are end-user prices that include VAT.

A used ThinkPad will still do its job.
A used ThinkPad will still do its job.
Reconditioned laptops are now available at regular retailers.
Reconditioned laptops are now available at regular retailers.
Thanks to this, classic business laptops get a second chance.
Thanks to this, classic business laptops get a second chance.

What are refurbished laptops?

Refurbished means reconditioned. A two year old laptop is prepared for sale after a thorough overhaul (remarketing). In the automotive industry, this practice has been around for quite some time for components such as an alternator or gearbox, as well as IT and office products. This applies especially to high end photo copiers and professional printing units.

The used laptop is checked, fixed and cleaned by the manufacturer, shop, or service technician. This includes the cleaning of the fan and replacement of any worn input devices. Expensive repairs such as a new display are not usually performed.

The units do not receive any performance upgrades. The two year old ThinkPad will remain as it did the year it was bought. Parts which are subject to wear and tear are generally not replaced either. This includes the hinges, hard drive, DVD player and battery. An exception is made for the input devices if they show signs of heavy use

No original packaging
No original packaging
Worn corners and
Worn corners and
keys are to be expected.
keys are to be expected.

Where did the used laptops come from?

Large and medium sized companies that have many laptops in circulation generally don’t use them for many years. As soon as the leasing period is up (e.g. two years), or they have been written off (taxes), they either go back to the manufacturer/supplier or a re-sale agent.

Refurbishing usually applies to business laptops from Dell, Fujitsu, Lenovo or HP. Consumer laptops aren’t usually considered. There are two reasons for this. Firstly business units have a sturdier construction. It is because of this, that they are still functional after 2-3 years of use. In addition there are also more sales routes and higher volumes from large customers and leasing companies. A company simply won’t buy 150 identical Acer Aspire or MSI-Laptops. The large numbers make it possible for retailers to purchase used laptops in bulk.

Demo units are not refurbished. They are significantly newer and are up to date from a technological point of view. These laptops are usually from the demo pool of the manufacturer and were only in circulation for a few months while being used for demonstration and training purposes.

Is there a warranty?

We have to make a distinction between guaranties and warranties. New units have a manufacturer’s guaranty of 12 or 24 months (depending on the manufacturer with bring-in, pick-up, next business day). Used units will only have a 12 month warranty from the retailer.  If there is a manufacturer’s guaranty, it will only be valid until its original expiration date.  The warranty is a necessity which occurs due to the official proof of sale with the private individual who is purchasing the product. In this instance it does not matter whether the items are new or used.

If the product is not delivered as advertised, (e.g. keyboard is worn even though „new keyboard“ was indicated), the customer can get a refund as this is considered a defect. If one is not satisfied, one can return any online purchase within 14 days.

Two used unites under review.

We ordered our refurbished units from the online retailer “notebooksbilliger.de”. The  14.1“ Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (made in 05/2008), costs around 463 Euro and the 15.4” Dell Latitude D830 (made in 12/2007), was 332 Euro (incl. VAT). The units have new Windows XP Professional licenses (new sticker underneath) and include a recovery CD.

Lenovo ThinkPad T61 – 14.1", Core 2 Duo T8100

We were interested in the ThinkPad T61 as it comes with a matt display with a resolution of 1440 x 900 Pixels. It also comes with a lot of interfaces (docking port, modem, FireWire, ExpressCard54) and an integrated SmartCard reader. The price of 463 Euro (incl. VAT), is roughly one third of its original value.

The T61 appeared to be in very good shape. The only areas that showed some wear were the corners (rubber coating worn down), the lid (small scratches), and the battery (scratches). The keyboard and touchpad had been replaced with new items.

During the idle test, the 56 Watt 6 cell battery managed 164 minutes (2:44 hours). When we did same test when the laptop was new, it managed 3:55 hours. Admittedly, with its Core 2 Duo T8100 (2 x 2.0 GHz) it is no longer on the cutting edge of technology. Even the Core i3-330M (smallest Arrandale processor), is faster than this. But the temperatures are stable and the T61 and it rarely gets loud. During the stress test (Prime95 and Furmark), which lasts for several hours, the process reached a maximum of 82 degrees and the fan runs smoothly. Temperatures normalize within seconds of ending the test.

Our T61 even had some of its original manufacturers guaranty left. (on-site guaranty until 05/2011). This is quite rare however and one should not assume that this is usually not the case.

Dell Latitude D830 – 15.4", Core 2 Duo T7300

The D830 caught our attention because of its low price 332 Euro (incl. VAT). For those who place an emphasis on mobility, this 3 kg heavy weight might not be ideal. But it is ideal if you are looking for something that is very solid, will mostly stay at home and has all the interfaces you could might. Interfaces such as the serial Port, S-Video, Firewire, PC-Card Type I/II and the ExpressCard have become pretty hard to find these days. In addition, the D830 has a docking option.

This solidly built unit is almost 3 years old (12/2007). The Dell Service Tag provides us with the details concerning the status of the guaranty. It has 3 years Next Business Day (from 9.12.2007), which means we still have 40 days left.

This 15.4“ laptop had more noticeable signs of use. It had signs of wear on the keyboard and corners of the casing. The keyboard obviously wasn’t replaced, but we think that is acceptable.  The touchpad looked like new, but apparently this was not changed either. There was a noticeable level of play in the hinges however. The display would move by roughly 5 degrees no matter which position it was in.  Other than the movement, it is held firmly in position. The overall impression was very good however. There was only one scratch on the lid and the underside looked like new.

Despite its age, the battery lasted for 4:44 hours during the idle test. We can assume that the battery was replaced at some point. There is no proof to support this however. In the product description, the retailer mentioned that it would last for "at least 60% of its original value". We consider this promis as kept.  Just like the ThinkPad, the fan works perfectly.  During the stress test that lasted for several hours (Prime95 and Furmark), the fan ran smoothly and the temperature of the Core 2 Duo T7300 did not exceed 77 degrees.

Refurbished selection consisting of a Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (5/2008)
Refurbished selection consisting of a Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (5/2008)
and Dell Latitude D830 (12/2007).
and Dell Latitude D830 (12/2007).
With new Windows XP Professional license (sticker underneath)
With new Windows XP Professional license (sticker underneath)

Conclusion: Getting a ThinkPad on the cheap

Used business favorites such as the Dell Latitude D830 and Lenovo ThinkPad T61 are suitable for buyers who are not looking for the latest technology. Instead they are looking for timeless attributes such as durability, good input devices, matt displays, with a high level of resolution or specific types of interfaces (e.g. Docking port, serial, PCMCIA).

Our spot check using the online retailer notebooksbilliger.de fulfilled our expectations concerning used business laptops. The “refurbished” units where technologically sound, showed few, or acceptable signs of wear and tear (ThinkPad and Dell respectively). We were impressed with the battery life considering the laptops were between 2.5 and 3 years old: Idle test T61 2:44, D830 4:44 hours. Our random check can of course not be used to predict the outcome of purchases from other retailers or other laptops.

Carefully reading the description posted by the retailer is an absolute must. As retailers are only legally obliged to provide a warranty of 12 months for private use, it is important to contact them as soon as possible if there is a fault. If the description states things like “small scratches and cracks which do not impede on daily use” one should adjust ones expectations accordingly.  Avoid units which have defective pixels or cracked casings.  Generally one should have low expectations concerning the battery life of refurbished laptops. A replacement battery will cost between 30 and 70 Euro.

Random sample: Lenovo ThinkPad T61 & Dell Latitude D830
Random sample: Lenovo ThinkPad T61 & Dell Latitude D830
> Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News > Reviews > Archive of our own reviews > Review: Refurbished-Notebooks - A true classic, or simply past its "sell by date"?
Author: Sebastian Jentsch, 2010-11-24 (Update: 2012-05-26)