The frenzy over new and awfully pricey technology may be bewildering to you. (Stand in line at the crack of dawn? Really?) But you recognize the need for fast, quality devices that do what you like to do — and it's high time for an upgrade. You can join the frenzy for something new. Or you can buy secondhand. No one will be gushing over your particular smartphone or laptop or tablet, but often it'll do the job just fine and will save you major money. Wondering if this is the way to go? We tapped a variety of tech experts to help you make sense of the process.
Learn the lingo: "Refurbished" or "certified pre-owned" products are repaired and restored to "like new" condition by the manufacturer or a third party and include a warranty. They've been tested and inspected. "Used" items are sold "as is," usually with no warranty and no return. Favor refurbished over used. It's your call, but experts generally favor devices that have been thoroughly checked out. A refurbished product is "as good as new and typically includes the manufacturer's original warranty," says Donald Bell, senior editor at the electronics megasite CNET.com. Arguably, since they've been inspected twice, you're less likely to have a dud with a refurbished product than with a new one.
Purchase from a reputable seller: "Look for a trusted source," says Matt Wiles, Sprint's manager of reverse logistics (the process of recycling used devices). "Look for transparency." You may find something else if you answer an ad on Craigslist or a newspaper's classified section — you never know who's at the other end. All the experts agree you're least likely to get bamboozled if you purchase directly from the manufacturer (e.g. Sprint, AT&T, Dell, Apple).
Look for buyback programs and trade-in incentives: Don't rule out online market places such as Amazon or eBay, where you can check feedback on sellers and get intervention should you have a problem. But if you can, buy in a store, says Sarah Silbert, reviews editor at Engadget.com. "This way, you know exactly what you're getting and can inspect for defects. Make sure you have detailed information on the product's condition — along with factory certification and a warranty — before purchasing."
Choose wisely: As much as you love your dying laptop of six years, don't hunt down the same model. It could be difficult to find accessories and parts if it's obsolete. For mobile devices especially, Bell says, older-model batteries may be hard to replace, and if found, won't hold their charge as long as new ones. Generally speaking, gurus suggest you choose a comparatively recent product, one that is no more than 2 years old. "Picking a relatively new laptop, phone or tablet will also make it easier to get tech support, as retailers are more likely to be familiar with the product," Silbert says.
Be picky on price: Use a price comparison site such as Pricegrabber.com to research the going rate for the product you're considering, Bell suggests. "On eBay, you can also use the advanced search tool to view recently completed sales of the product so that you can accurately gauge the value of a used item." It wouldn't hurt to also compare the prices of refurbished and comparable new models. Silbert advises buying a refurbished phone only if you're getting a deal compared to the subsidized cost. Carriers subsidize phones on contract, she points out, so you'll typically spend no more than $300 to $400 on a brand-new device.
Understand the return/refund policy: There can be tricky language in these documents. Figure it out before you buy. Be happy with your decision. Overall, the best values are from older products that run the latest software, says Bell. The practical differences between a new laptop and one from a year ago are difficult to distinguish. "Unless you're a graphics or digital video professional," he says, "it's always a good idea to try to find a deal on a refurbished laptop or an older model.
Stacy Julien is a writer and editor for AARP Media.
Chances are, you may be tempted to buy a used electronic device from a private seller. You may even luck out with a winner. But in this age of identity theft, here's a list of to-dos from Robert Siciliano, McAfee online security expert, so that you don't buy any unforeseen problems with your equipment:
1. Make sure it's wiped clean. Erase all previous data with software tools that are designed to do that effectively. "These tools overwrite the system with goop that makes it unreadable," Siciliano says. To find the right software, search the name of the device's operating system, and the terms "erase data" or "wipe data." Such software may be free or may cost up to about $80.
2. Check for viruses. Intentionally or not, someone could sell you a device with a virus just waiting to do damage. Purchase an antivirus program for the device's operating system immediately. "You're always better buying factory refurbished. They have protocols, and they have systems in place. The last thing they want to do is spread a virus."
3. Create a password and protect it. If you lose your device and it's not password-protected, any clever thief could tamper with your private information. Consider special software that helps you store and protect the passwords. Don't go downloading a random security app, which could be a virus itself. Instead, search for reputable software specifically designed for your device. Read reviews or ask a professional for a recommendation. Some apps allow you to remotely lock and erase your device if you lose it.