Buying a used laptop.

Posted: May 7, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Features

Dude!  You got a Dell!?

Normally I recommend new parts in my guides but unfortunately it’s difficult to build your own laptop for cheap.  To get a notebook used in the $150-250 range usually requires going to eBay or craigslist.  The problem with both of these outlets is that people will do everything in their power to cheat you.  I’ve recently made a large chunk of my income from repairing and selling laptops, so here’s a guide on everything I’ve learned.


The main things you are looking for is a motherboard and a screen.  The hard drive, RAM, CPU and battery can all be upgraded, but you will be stuck with the motherboard and the screen size.  The key things to look for on the motherboard are what CPU slot it has, what RAM it takes, what hard drive type it takes and what kind of graphics are on-board.  I’ll go into each of these in detail, but first and foremost always check the date of manufacture on the case.  If it’s pre-2006, it’s unlikely to have the features you want.  For example you want an 800Mhz FSB, 4Gb max RAM and SATA hard drive.  People will often try to ‘hussy up’ an older laptop by maxing out the RAM, upgrading the hard drive and installing pirated Windows 7.  I always carry a USB drive with CPU-Z on it to instantly check the full specs of any computer.  As far as the screen goes, keep in mind that bigger and brighter means shorter battery life.  Also higher resolutions can be unnecessary in a laptop as the graphics card may not be capable of gaming at 1680×1050 or playing 1080p videos.

Gaming Laptop

On a budget your best solution is to go for older but more powerful.  No matter what you get, it will be an outdated mobile card.  So banish the thought of running new games at max settings early on.  Rather than trying to get a newer budget laptop with a GPU that sounds good (Intel GMA4500 with Hypermemory!), go for an older but higher clocked card.  The first site to check is for full stats on all mobile GPUs and 3DMark comparison charts.  Since you’ve accepted the reality of not relying on the mobile GPU, the most important thing to consider besides having a GPU of some kind is the processor.  I would say go for a Core2 if possible.  Turion 64s are good too, but a c2d will have at least twice the cache.  For example I recently bought two comparable laptops, one with a Turion 64×2@2.0Ghz with a 1Mb L2 cache, the other with a Core2Duo@2.2Ghz with a 4Mb L2 cache.  Both have the same Radeon HD2300 and the Core2 games circles around the Turion.  L2 cache is huge in gaming as your CPU is almost always caching while running a game.  The c2d notebook listed above handles WoW at medium-high settings, RIFT and Mythos at med-low settings, all at above 30fps.

Media Laptop

If all you want to do is watch movies on your laptop on long journeys, you can probably stay on the low end of this price range.  The screen will probably be 1280×800 or 1440×900, so you only need a graphics solution that can handle 720p.  That is just about anything, even an Intel GMA 950.  If you want to connect it to a 1080p tv, you’ll of course need a dual-core n0tebook that has a “Full HD” capable graphics card.  For example the Intel 4500MHD and above are full HD, all Radeon HD series cards are when paired with dual-cores and an nVidia above the 100m series should work.  Once you’ve found a laptop that can handle HD programming, it’s time to focus on the other nice features.  Screen brightness, hard drive capacity and battery life.  For screens, look for at least WSXGA (gloss truebrite) or LED backlit if you can find one in the price range.  A hard drive above 160gigs is nice to hold enough media for a business trip or summer vacation.  A battery life above 4 hours on medium setting is a must.  Make sure it’s not 4 hours at the lowest settings as nobody wants to watch movies on a dim screen.  Really 6-8 hours is ideal, but getting a cheap laptop with a battery that big and healthy is rare.  If screen size is not a huge factor, you may even want to go with a netbook for the long battery life.

Business Laptop

This is where things get a little different.  For productivity you want 3 things: Low noise/power use, ports/functions and free software pre-installed.  As long as you can get it virus free, there’s a huge benefit in getting a hand-me-down from a more successful young urban professional.  If you’re a graphics designer, it sure is nice to get a legal version of Creative Suite that you don’t have to pay for.  It’s not hard to pirate these and the versions you get may even be pirated, but if you didn’t do it yourself, you aren’t likely to be penalized.  Also, not everyone knows how to do this, so getting a PC pre-loaded with CS5, Office 2006, Corel Draw 5 and FL studios is a huge bonus in the $250 price range.  As far as ports go, think of how many things you connect in your business.  If that list includes a camera, a sound mixer, a digitizer, a fabricator or a motion capture array, you’re going to want things like firewire ports and extra USBs on dedicated circuits.  Another thing to keep in mind in this case is that a 4:3 screen is fine or preferable.  For reading documents, most people sit closer and would rather read farther before having to scroll.

Buyer Beware

Always remember that if someone mentions something as a problem at all, it’s a huge effing problem and they don’t want to get sued.  “Power cord a little iffy” means you need to replace the power supply more than likely.  Any kind of defect on a laptop screen almost always means full replacement, never trust anyone that says otherwise.  Hard drives that make loud noises and load slow are dead and walking.  Any weird graphics blemishes probably mean the GPU has been overclocked and damaged (ie: black textures, flickering or weird artifacts).  Any port or plug that doesn’t feel solid is a red flag as it can mean board replacement or tricky soldering.

The final most important words of advice are paraphrased from Ben Kenobi: Be patient and trust your instincts.  Unless your instincts are always wrong in which case you should print this out and take it with you.  At the minimum, when the dishonest craigslist merchants see it and realize I exist, they will begin to fear.

  1. Arsalan Siddiqui says:

    Excellent Post! Refurbished are the best choice if you want to save money. Everyone cant afford the prices of new laptops. so all want a good laptop like new in a cheaper rates.Cheap refurbished laptops does not mean that you buy a laptop that can not work very well but in general is kind of cheap refurbished laptop computers that have been repaired or replaced parts that were damaged so that the laptop could work similar to other new laptops, but sold at a cheaper price. I also bought a refurbished laptop from online store Electro Computer Warehouse it was “Dell Latitude D630” Product ID is “dell_latitude_d630_holiday_specials” its awesome so cheap and working well like a new one. I really like it and satisfied with it. Best Customer Care and Fast Shipping. They also have attractive deal on Christmas.

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