Notebooks have become very popular. By 2006, more notebooks were being sold than desktop PCs. A new, high-quality laptop can put a strain on the pocket and most people can not afford it. Thankfully, there is an alternative: a used notebook is often cheaper and powerful enough to deal with daily work. We will give the reader useful tips on how to pick out the appropriate model for you. More information about buying notebooks can be found in our notebook hardware guide or laptop purchase consultation.
The processor is the linchpin of any computer. Its speed directly affects program performance. Nowadays, a cheap, used notebook running on an older Core 2 Duo or Turion X2 CPU (with a clock speed higher than 2 GHz) can surf the web or edit office documents at a decent speed. The modern Intel Celeron, Pentium or Core CPUs and AMD A-series APUs offer more than enough performance for such tasks.
The buyer has to be careful when buying notebooks with special (Ultra-) Low-Voltage CPUs, as their clock speed and performance lies well below normal processors. Some manufacturers install a netbook CPU, like the AMD C-50, in large 15 inch models. The notebook consumes less power and can run longer on a single charge, but the system speed is drastically lower.
An older, used notebook should at least have a dedicated graphics chip, which can work with the most common video codecs and reduce the load on the processor while playing videos. It should also be able to fluidly present the Aero surface of Windows 7/8. Thankfully, only a few really old IGPs have problems with these tasks.
The buyer should be on the safe side if they get an Intel GMA 4500MHD or a GPU from the GeForce 6000 series or Radeon HD 2xxx series (and all successors). Exception: in some cases, mostly with older ATI GPUs, only graphics drivers from the notebook manufacturer can be installed. However, if the manufacturer does not provide an update for the latest operating system, the user will only be able to use the GPU using tricks, like driver mods.
We cannot easily answer if a certain GPU is suited for games or not. The performance will depend on the age and graphics requirements of the game. As a rule of thumb, the buyer should leave Intel graphics chips in favor of ATI/AMD and Nvidia GPUs. These dedicated GPUs offer better performance and driver support. However, the Intel graphics chips are useful, although they do not offer much in the way of gaming performance; they consume less power and are better-suited for office notebooks.
RAM and Storage Device
After the processor and graphics card, we turn to RAM. This is an essential piece of hardware which can strongly affect system performance. It serves as a fast, temporary storage where the processor can store its calculations. Regardless of how fast the CPU is, if the RAM is too little, the laptop can freeze.
A modern OS requires at least 1 GB of RAM, whereas a 64 bit OS will need 2 GB of RAM to deliver halfway acceptable speeds. Most notebooks allow the user to easily upgrade the RAM. As RAM is relatively cheap, the user is well-advised to add more to their model. Multi-tasking without issues should be possible with 4 GB of RAM or more (depending on the program).
Generally, older notebooks use a classic 2.5-inch HDD (Hard Disk Drive), which can be easily swapped out for a larger HDD or a modern SSD. The latter is especially useful when the user does not need to store large amounts of data on the laptop. Small SSDs are now available for less than 50 Euros (~$64) and can drastically decrease start, load and installation times of operating systems and programs.
The most important port would be a USB interface, as this is considered the universal interface for almost every available peripheral device. The fast USB 2.0 standard should be supported by really old models as well. However, the modern 3.0 standard only started gaining popularity after 2010.
The laptop should have a sufficient number of USB interfaces. In addition, an integrated WLAN module, which supports the 802.11 b/g/n standards, would be desirable. Bluetooth or WWAN (UMTS/HSPA/LTE) are not needed by every user, and if they are required, they can be added on using a USB adapter.
Users, who want to connect an external monitor, should look for a digital display out like DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort. The older, analogue VGA interface can cause an unclear or flickering picture at high resolutions, and it should be avoided (if possible).
When buying a used laptop, the buyer should pay close attention to the battery. If the seller does not mention a new or little-used battery, then the buyer may have to swap out the battery as it has been worn out from years of use. This adversely affects the battery life. In the worst case, the user will only be able to run the notebook for a few minutes before it shuts off, or it can only be turned on if it is connected to a power socket. As such, the buyer will have to add the price of a new battery to their budget for a used notebook. The original batteries from manufacturers tend to cost around 100 Euros (~$129). This alone can turn an attractive older laptop into an expensive affair.
There are several things to consider when looking for used notebooks in auction houses. An extensive description and detailed photos are the most important criteria for a good purchase. No matter how much the seller praises his notebook, time will have left its mark on it.
In many cases the display will be damaged because of incorrect handling. Blurry discolorations and color gradations hint to a defective display and are easily recognizable in pictures. Fingerprints or dust on the display can be easily removed from the notebook using a cleaning spray and a microfiber cloth. Pixel errors are not easy to recognize on photos, but they are bearable up to a certain level.
Sometimes, auctioned notebooks are equipped with foreign keyboards. Be careful: putting stickers on the keyboard will not transform it into a fully-fledged keyboard appropriate to your country. In fact these stickers are irritating and make working with the notebook more difficult. We recommend buying a notebook with a keyboard layout that is standard for your region.
Alarm bells should start to ring if the seller writes something like “the hard drive makes a grinding noise” or “the fan is clattering”. The former indicates that the hard drive is about to break down and the latter hints to a damaged fan mount. This will cause some components to get too hot and run well above the manufacturer recommendations for longer periods of time. In general, cooler fans should be cleaned out after purchasing a used notebook. Unfortunately this is not always possible, as some manufacturers do not include an easy-to-access maintenance flap. This leaves the user with only one option: carefully apply air pressure to blow out the dust while holding the fan still.
Finally, the user should pay attention to the OS. Most notebooks are equipped with a pre-installed operating system, but in a few cases the seller will keep the license for themselves. If it is missing, then the buyer has to get their own, or use a free, open source operating system.
Used notebooks with warranty
If a purchase on the internet is too risky for your taste, an alternative would be buying a used notebook from a local computer shop. Advantage: the shop will offer the legally-required warranty for this laptop and will clearly point out the flaws and defects of their models (or at least more so than a private seller). In turn, the price is usually higher than in private auctions. Some shops even offer refurbished notebooks with full manufacturer's warranty. This provides the user with a model which feels little different from an expensive, new model.
Used laptops from the manufacturer IBM, now Lenovo, are especially popular. The ThinkPads have a near legendary reputation and offer great ergonomics, comfort and sturdiness. These qualities are reflected in the high price. So if the buyer wants to invest a little less money, we recommend taking a look at the Latitude models from Dell, or the ProBook and EliteBook series of HP.
The buyer should steer clear of used, low-cost laptops which already have multiple years under the belt buckle. As these notebooks were low-quality to begin with, the user will be faced with severe issues which can occur at any given time (the display hinges break, etc.). Such an issue can effectively spell out the death sentence for an older model and will be a bad investment on the buyer's part.
The purchase of a used notebook can provide the user with a reliable, used laptop if the buyer sticks to a few basic rules. Of course, the buyer should keep in mind that brand-new notebooks made by well-known manufacturers are available for much less than 400 Euros (~$518) in the price comparison lists. Without an OS and with smaller storage space, the price can be dropped by another 100 Euros (~$129). In this case, the user will have to judge for themself if it is a better investment to buy a marginally cheaper, used notebook or a new laptop. If you want peace of mind, look for a model which includes a warranty.