Buying a used laptop can be a great way to save money, but it is important to know what to look for so you end up with a laptop that is capable of doing everything that you expect it to. Three categories will be used depending on your needs:
These laptops are fully capable of keeping up with their new counterparts found in stores. Look at these specifications when you want to find a used laptop that can do everything (or most everything) a new laptop can. These are the most expensive, but the most versatile. These laptops usually range from $350 to a few thousand.
These laptops may not be the newest, but they can do most things that new laptops can do with a maybe one or two compromises. These laptops usually range from $150 to $300.
Old laptops are not for everyone. Many old laptops can do basic things that people expect from newer laptops, but often with heavy compromises due to its age and limited hardware. Legacy laptops range from $20 to $150.
These laptops are too old to be useful for modern day tasks. Obsolete laptops may have specialized uses or be of value to collectors, but very little use to the average user.
I am not going to cover Netbooks in this guide. A Netbook is a small cheap laptop that is designed to be inexpensive and portable. Usually people don’t buy Netbooks as their primary computer, but rather as a second one they can easily carry around with them in their backpack or handbag. Netbooks range from around $100 to $500 used. I covered shopping for Netbooks in an earlier article.
The processor is one of the most important aspects of the laptop to consider an underpowered processor can seriously limit what you can do on a computer.
- Modern: Try and find a laptop with an Intel Core Duo processor or better. Modern laptops will have dual core processors. The Intel Core 2 Duo, Pentium M, and AMD Athlon X2 processors are very common and very capable processors being used in laptops today. Processor speeds can range from 1.8ghz to 2.8ghz, but pay more attention to the type of processor rather than the clock speed. 3.2ghz Pentium 4 processors exist, but they are not as fast as a 1.8ghz Core 2 Duo.
- Basic: These days any Pentium 4 or Athlon XP 2400+ or better will be more than enough for most uses. Windows 7 will run just fine on a 1.8ghz Pentium 4. Speeds will often vary from 1ghz to 3.2ghz. I recommend getting 1.6ghz or better, 1.24ghz at a minimum.
- Legacy: You can get modern distros of Linux and Windows XP to run on a 450mhz laptop, but it’ll be slow. An 650mhz to 1ghz Pentium III machine should do most things okay, but don’t be surprised if things run a little slow, especially flash. If you want full-screen Hulu you may want to consider a more powerful computer.
- Obsolete: Anything under 650mhz should probably be avoided. You can get Wireless, Linux, and other programs to run on older machines, but it isn’t something recommended for someone without a background in computers. If you pickup a 166mhz Pentium laptop, don’t expect it to do everything you want.
RAM is very important. It is essentially the fast short-term memory of the computer. Running out of RAM requires the computer to use the Hard Drive for short-term use, which can significantly slow down the computer. A general rule is get as much as possible.
- Modern: I recommend 1gb at least. Any less and you’ll feel a slow-down. RAM is cheap these days, so I’d even say max out your RAM to 2gb or more if you can after buying your laptop.
- Basic: Like the modern computer, more is better. 1gb is ideal as many computers five years old or so will not support more. If they do, then upgrade while you can. 512mb as a minimum is recommended.
- Legacy: XP will run on 64mb or 128mb, but the least you’ll want is 256mb. If possible, upgrade higher although with older computers finding RAM can usually only be found on sites such as E-Bay. If you find RAM in the store for older computers, they are usually more expensive since they aren’t being manufactured.
- Obsolete: Don’t buy a laptop with less than 256mb of RAM unless you have a specific reason to get such an old computer or if it’s a newer computer which the previous owner removed the RAM. If you are unsure then don’t buy it.
Your video card renders everything you see on the screen. A powerful video card is not necessary for everyone, but can be essential if you are a gamer, 3D-Modeler, or plan on doing any kind of video production.
- Modern: Intel GMA onboard cards are usually the most basic video cards you’ll find on new computers. These will support Aero in Windows Vista and Windows 7. Anything older will not. If you want to play games or do lots of video editing you’ll need a dedicated video card. Many laptops can be bought with a 8400 or better card for nVidia or 3000-series for ATi. Less powerful ATi and nVidia cards should be more than enough for most people, but they won’t be able to handle modern games very well. If you need a laptop to use design programs such as Solidwords, you’ll want a laptop with an nVidia Quadro mobile if possible.
- Basic: For older generation laptops, a card with 32mb or 64mb is a minimum recommended. A Radeon 7500 will not be able to use Aero or do anything that is very graphics intensive, but will be able to handle Windows’s non-Aero interface, full screen flash, and Compiz (for you Linux users) fine for the most part. Mobile cards such as ATi’s x1600 or nVidia’s 7600 are dated as gaming cards, but can still play most games (at low settings) and can easily handle Aero, flash, Compiz, and most of all other programs you throw at it.
- Vintage / Obsolete: Anything less powerful than a Radeon 7500 or a GeForce 2 could affect productivity or basic performance of the operating system. If you have such an old card in a laptop it’s very likely that you’re just as limited, if not more so, by other components such as the RAM or Processor.
The hard drive stores all your files and acts as a backup for your RAM if you have paging/swap turned on (which it is usually by default.)
When it comes to Hard Drives I won’t break down into categories. There are three things to consider when looking for hard drives in laptops. What you choose in these categories is defined by your personal needs.
This is how much you can store on your laptop. Disk space is measured in Gigabytes. I recommend 80 GB at least. This allows space for your operating system, some music, and applications. If possible, get more. 120 GB would be my next step up recommended. If you need more, look for a laptop with a bigger hard drive, if you don’t think you’ll need as much, you can get less. I do recommend erring on the side of caution and getting a larger hard drive over a small one. Nothing’s as painful as always being low on disk space. If you buy a laptop and in the future decide you need more space you can always buy an external hard disk or replace the one inside your laptop.
Speed of a disk can be usually determined by the rotations per minute (RPM) and the cache size (in megabytes). The faster the disk speed the faster your computer can read and write programs and documents. A slow disk can also slow down a computer very quickly if a computer runs out of RAM and has to use the hard drive for extra memory. Most laptops now come with 5400rpm or 7200rpm drives. Either is fine for most people. Try to avoid 4200rpm if possible on newer machines, but on older machines it’s less avoidable.
New laptops use Serial-ATA (SATA) which has replaced Parallel-ATA (PATA / IDE). This isn’t something you’ll probably have a great deal of control over and probably will not effect you as much as other factors in searching for a laptop. A general piece of knowledge to have is that 3.0gb SATA is faster than 1.5mb SATA which is faster than any PATA drive. SATA drives are also getting cheaper, so a laptop with a SATA drive can upgrade to bigger, faster, and cheaper drives than their PATA counterparts.
WIFI is essential for most people. Most, if not all, laptops now have wireless cards, although some older ones do not.
- Modern: If it was made in the last four or so years, it most likely has come with WIFI. It’s always good to check though. Laptops now will come with either Wireless B/G or B/G/N. G is probably good enough for most, but N will deliver better range and performance.
- Basic/Legacy: Many older computers will not come with a wireless card built in. If not, you’ll need to buy one that will go into the laptops PC-Card slot. When buying a wireless card get one that supports wireless G. A lot of Wireless-B cards exist out there but they are much slower than G cards and some don’t support encryption protocols such as WPA.
- Obsolete: The oldest laptops that will use wireless cards are Pentium 1 laptops running Windows 95 or Linux. If you attempt this make sure you have plenty of RAM. I would recommend 128mb for a smooth experience, many old P1 laptops will only support up to 64mb. Finding a Wireless card that will support older operating systems isn’t easy. I know that some old Netgear and 3COM cards will work.
Getting a used laptop with a good battery isn’t always easy. In many cases you’ll have to buy an old laptop with a dead or nearly-dead battery and buy a new one yourself. Something I would recommend is to go onto E-Bay and see how much a new battery would cost for the laptop you are buying. Usually they cost around $60. If there are no batteries available online and the laptop is older you run the rick of having a laptop that can’t be used without being plugged in. Also try to avoid laptops that use Nickel-Cadium (Ni-Cad) batteries as they tend to have short shelf lives and suffer from ‘memory’ problems.
Tips on Buying:
If you are buying on E-Bay use PayPal. PayPal will give additional protection against scams and problems you might have with sellers. Also check out the seller’s reviews left by other sellers. Be cautious of new sellers selling a laptop for an amazing price.
If you are buying in person or off a place such as Craig’s List then arrange to meet in person to check out the laptop. Bring a tech-knowledgeable friend if you can.
Often stores will sell open-box and refer laptops for cheap. Usually these aren’t too old and they will be backed by some sort of limited warranty.
Those are just a few tips on shopping for a used laptop. Buying used can save you a lot of money, but it’s important to be knowledgeable about what to look for and to try and avoid being ripped off. If you want to buy a laptop for a specific task such as programming or web designing, read my ultimate guide to best laptop for programming and web design. Good luck!