Buying a computer system/used laptop

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QUESTION: Hi Bobbert, thanks for being available.  I just got laid off from my job & am now getting online at the library.  I would like to buy a used laptop on craigslist so I don't have to come here on limited time.  I'll be using it to search for jobs, & need some sort of Excel & Word.  And also to check email & surf the web in the evenings.  That's about it, as I'm not a techie or a gamer.  What should I be looking for as far as brand, version of Windows, price & any other details?

ANSWER: This is a tough question to answer, primarily because of the volatility of used markets and the unknown condition of many used devices. This is doubly true of buying used laptops, as they are often listed for far more than their component hardware (and therefore performance) is worth, and are often in very poor condition (generally people do not treat laptops with the greatest respect, and they tend to develop "problems" after repeated drops, spills, etc). This makes finding a quality used computer very challenging for even expert users. Desktops generally suffer less abuse, but are generally less likely to be "held onto" for resale, because they do not command the same cachet as laptops (on the other hand, desktops are generally comprised of more standardized (and therefore upgradeable) hardware, which often means advantages from a technical perspective).

Conventionally I would refer you to Computer Geeks (www.geeks.com) to purchase an off-lease refurbished machine for around $100, but they have recently discontinued operations (as their website will indicate), which removes that option.

So we'll have to get a more creative with addressing your needs. Thankfully, at least from a computational perspective, your needs are not very demanding (which means older hardware is unlikely to be a problem, as long as it is new enough to run a reasonably recent operating system). Roughly how much of a budget do you have? Do you have any pre-existing hardware? (E.g. do you have an old computer that you can borrow a monitor from?). Are you averse to ordering online? Are you averse to building your own computer?

A brand new computer is relatively inexpensive, especially if you go with a desktop:
http://www.dell.com/us/p/inspiron-660s/pd?oc=fdcwst14b&model_id=inspiron-660s (keep in mind this machine does not include a monitor, and does not include a full office suite (we'll get to that))

Going much lower than that, even if you build the machine yourself, will be fairly challenging (at least with new hardware). Regarding Craigslist or similar, I'd really have to review machines on a case-by-case basis to give any meaningful feedback. My best advice would be, if you can afford the new machine, buy the new machine, otherwise finding a used machine will likely take some time (and don't be surprised if you have to do quite a bit of troubleshooting to get it working perfectly). If the new Dell (and Dell isn't the only option - HP will almost certainly have a competitive offering) is out of your price range, I'll need more specifics about which Craigslist location you're using, so I can help you browse for a machine (eBay will probably be too much hassle if you don't have a consistent Internet connection).

As far as specific information about Windows and similar - assuming you can find a machine with Windows already installed (and even if it is advertised as such, care should be taken - there's a better than average change it may need to have the operating system reloaded to be fully functional, and if the seller does not have install media and a legitimate product key, you'll be stuck buying a new copy of Windows), Windows XP or higher is the only reasonable suggestion (anything older is insecure, and likely denotes near-historic hardware). The only caution with Windows XP itself is that we are rapidly approaching the April 2014 end-of-life, after which point Microsoft will discontinue support and security releases (which means that XP will become much less appropriate for Internet-connected hardware); you can read more about that here:
http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/lifecycle

I would also exercise caution with Windows Vista, as it tends to be the least stable of the recent Microsoft releases (from Vista through Windows 8). That said, it has much better support prospects (Microsoft has stated support until at least 2017), and is a much more modern operating system than Windows XP. Generally Windows 7 is the "best bet" - but finding a machine with Windows 7 is unlikely.

Again, everything should really be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Finally, do keep in mind that Internet access generally requires a monthly fee, especially if you're intending to have a so-called "high speed" connection (e.g. DSL or DOCSIS (cable)). There are a variety of cost-saving approaches to this problem. Firstly, "high speed" ISPs often offer a discounted or "entry level" package that provides basic Internet connectivity for a relatively low price (Comcast is a noteworthy example). Secondly, dial-up ISPs still do exist, and in some cases offer free connectivity on a limited basis (NetZero is a noteworthy example). Dial-up will present its own set of issues, namely that it requires an active telephone connection, and that it will be on the "very slow" side when attempting to browse media-rich websites (anything that uses Flash or Silverlight will load very slowly).


As far as an office suite, this is something that can be happily had for free (this is a legal download as well):
http://www.openoffice.org/

It will offer read/write compatibility with Microsoft Office and Oracle StarWriter, and is just as functional as Microsoft Word and Excel (meaning that there's no reason to not use it overall, it isn't just a "stop gap"). The project itself is open-source in nature, which is how they are able to provide the software for free. I mention this primarily because a full-licence version of Microsoft Office for a home user runs over $100, and I see no reason to spend (potentially) more than the price of a complete new computer just for a word processor and spreadsheet application.

If you have further questions or need clarification, feel free to post a follow-up.

-bob



---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Bob, thanks for the detailed reply.  I can be more specific now, if you prefer.  Plan A is to try to find a decent laptop on Craigslist.  I prefer a laptop just because of the convenience factor.

I had a Dell D610 used from a shop that lasted 2 yrs.  I had occasional blue screens of death that I got rid of with a simple reboot, but that was annoying.  Then the hard drive crashed.  It had Windows XP, which I thought was terrible & heard the same.  I just want to buy 1 ready to go, as I am not confident to build 1.

I'm currently in Tulsa, OK, but will be trans to TX next month.  Here are the laptops $100-$250 right now:
Toshiba A105 w Vista
Toshiba Satellite w Windows 7
HP G62 - unknown

I am planning on getting a smartphone & tethering it to get online.  A friend of mine did it with his Galaxy3 on Straighttalk.  Or maybe picking up wifi while on the go.

The Dell I had also had OpenOffice, so I would have no problem with that.

Or maybe I could get a new laptop for under $300?  Would that be enough for my limited use (emails, surf the web, etc)?

Answer
I'd like to make a comment in the defense of Windows XP, before continuing on with other machines (just because I feel like XP has a tendency to develop a "bad rap" due to the kind of experience you're describing). Overall, there is nothing "bad" or "terrible" about Windows XP (and I have yet to meet a technology professional, including Microsoft developers, who would out-and-out pan Windows XP) - however, Windows XP (and all versions of Windows previous to it) tend to have a bad reputation when paired with "used" or "rebuilt" machines due to various idiosyncrasies of the operating system. In other words, the "occasional blue screen" phenomenon should never happen on a properly configured and managed machine (and I can personally attest to this; I can also tell you story upon story that will closely mirror your experience and about users who swear off Windows XP as a result). Ultimately I'm not trying to be a cheerleader for XP (especially as April 2014 approaches), but I wouldn't write it off because of a single bad example (I'd also wager that your Dell could've been made to work flawlessly, assuming the hardware was in good order (we'll get to that in a minute)). I'll also add that Windows Vista probably has a larger collection of "issues" related to third-party software and diverse hardware environments (there's a reason Microsoft's ad campaign for Windows 7 was essentially "its not Windows Vista"), but that following Service Pack 2 (which is a free upgrade to any legitimate copy of Vista), it is a very competent OS (just as Windows XP SP3 and Windows 7 SP1 are).

Regarding the convenience of a portable computer - I completely understand that approach, and there's nothing wrong with it (in effect, you're buying a laptop for the right reason).

Regarding the models you've found, I really can't offer any comment on them, as I really don't have much information about them. In general I'm not a fan of Toshiba products, as my experience dictates they tend to be (on average) less reliable and less robustly built than competitive products, but this isn't to say that all of their products are bad (especially in the context of a used machine - if your options are a beat-to-death Dell or a pristine Toshiba, I would vote for the Toshiba every time). In order to make a good choice regarding which machine to buy, you need to know about the condition of the specific machine you're buying, what upgrades (if any) it has had (and how they were performed), and what kind of software and media you're getting with the machine (it's never a safe assumption that the pre-existing installation of Windows is "clean" or "safe" - if you have no way to re-install the operating system without purchasing a new licence, that's a less attractive deal).

Regarding the tethering solution - be careful with this solution. Many wireless carriers will attach additional charges to provide this feature (or require you to purchase a business-level service), and the month-to-month cost for using data on your smartphone may be more expensive than a basic DSL or DOCSIS connection. Having said that, the mobility advantage of a tethered machine is undeniable, and with 3G and 4G connectivity, the performance is very respectable (assuming the I/O used for the tethering is robust enough; you will also need to ensure that there is a common I/O between the smartphone and the laptop (for example Bluetooth - not only would both devices have to support it, but they would have to support a more recent iteration to prevent substantial bottlenecks)). I'm not specifically opposed to tethering, just pointing out that you should clarify with your service provider that this feature will be supported and not incur substantial additional charges. Free WiFi is a great option overall, just ensure that you make safe choices when using such a service (e.g. don't do your online banking using the unsecured free wifi at a local coffee shop).

Overall, if your goal is to have a machine that is turn-key out of the box, I'd suggest a new machine over used hardware. $300 is slightly below the "starting price" for a new laptop, but not by much:
http://www.dell.com/us/p/inspiron-15-3521/pd?oc=dndoc16b&model_id=inspiron-15-35
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834231075
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834312826
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834256309

(Keep in mind that some of these do not include optical drives, but that external drives can be had relatively inexpensively).

On a somewhat unrelated note: if you still have your Dell, depending upon the rest of the hardware (I'd like to know more about the rest of the hardware in the machine before we actually go down this road, but read on nonetheless) you could simply replace the hard-drive and re-install Windows, and be good to go. This should cost less than $200 (including a new licence of Windows, to upgrade the machine to Windows 7 or Windows 8, depending on the hardware capabilities), however if the rest of the hardware is in bad condition, or the machine is deficient in multiple areas, this may not be the best way to spend your money. Overall the "hard drive crashed - buy a new system" line is unfortunately something I've seen far too many users pressured into by "repair shops" - hard-drives are relatively inexpensive components, and installing Windows is a very simple task (it will take no more than an hour or two, and most of that time is waiting on the computer to complete operations - you could easily perform this task while watching television or doing some other task). However this kind of labor usually has a lower mark-up than selling another machine. Of course if the machine itself is in bad shape, I'd just recycle it and replace it (and given your budget, a new machine is not entirely out of your reach).

As far as your usage scenario - yes, the basic models I linked to will be capable of those tasks with ease. Ensure that you keep an anti-virus application installed and up to do (Windows Defender/Microsoft Security Essentials (it changes names depending on which version of Windows you use) is perfectly suitable, and is free with Windows, it can also be managed by Windows and Windows Update, to ensure that it is always current and appropriate for your machine). Beyond that they should be good to go.

If you have any further questions, feel free to ask.

-bob

Buying a computer system

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Bobbert

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner.

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I have been an enthusiast of PC's for many years, and can answer questions about the purchase/use of a new computer or the purchase, installation, and use of upgrades for existing computers. There probably isn't a whole lot related to the home computer that I haven't seen over the years.

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15+ years of experience

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