Should I buy a refurbished laptop this Black Friday?

Dell XPS 13
(Image credit: Dell)

The average price of new laptops has come downin recent years, with cheap tablets and affordable Chromebooks helping the drop. Ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we've spotted a surge of interest in such products, so wanted to create a helpful guide for anyone debating a purchase. 

Refurbished laptops (and that term applies to Chromebooks and MacBooks too) have followed the same trend, meaning real bargains can be found if you know where yo look, and that even includes the odd mobile workstation powerhouse. 

Other than saving you money, there's another good reason for buying a refurbished laptop and that's down to sustainability and being eco-friendly. This article will guide you through the various things you need to consider when considering buying a refurbished laptop.

What is a refurbished laptop?

Make sure you understand what a refurbished laptop means. For example, eBay uses the terms seller refurbished and certified refurbished to differentiate between non-professional and professional refurbishing processes. Manufacturer refurbished, reboxed, and renewed are often also used interchangeably.

Refurbished laptops can be anything from a brand new device that has been returned because it was an unwanted gift to a thoroughly used one that has been in service for years before being professionally refurbished by one of the many companies that recycle business laptops once they are returned after the lease period ends. 

So if you want a brand new laptop that smells like it's just come off the factory line, complete with shrink wrap packaging, then refurbished laptops are probably not for you. 

On the other hand, while a refurbished laptop is defacto a second hand product, it comes with a number of strings attached that make them safer to use than second hand devices. The typical boilerplate that applies to most refurbished laptops is that they:

  • Usually come with some warranty (typically 30-days, often up to a year, sometimes up to three years) but not on the battery life.
  • Usually come with a flexible returns policy (at the buyer's cost).
  • Have been professionally restored to working order by a vendor. That means that the item has been inspected, cleaned, possibly repaired and restored to factory settings.
  • May not come in original packaging or with original accessories.
  • May or may not show signs of use; refurbishers usually have grades for their products going from like new to used; make sure you know which one yours is. Sadly, there's no universal grading system.
  • Should come with an operating system.
  • May have some minor scruffs, pressure marks, chips or cracks (refer to the aforementioned grades). Certified refurbishers always put a detailed description of the state of the product on sale, often with photos.

Where to buy refurbished laptops?

The best part of the process is to check the vendors' stocks since you might find, through serendipity, one hidden gem. Popular sources include eBay, vendors' outlets, retailers and certified refurbishers.  Just make sure you're quick as stocks, by definition, fluctuate a lot and will almost always be low.

How much does a refurbished laptop cost?

Refurbished laptops usually cost a fraction of their brand new price and - based on experience - between $100/£100 and $300/£300 is the sweet spot. Below that, the products are likely to be barely usable and above that you'd probably pay a bit extra and get something new and more up to date.

As a trick of the trade, decide how much money you want to spend on your refurbished laptop; go for your absolute limit and add an additional 10% margin (that will make sure you don't miss out on bargains that are just outside your limit). 

Do consider extended warranties which can sometimes be bought at the same time as the laptop; they offer additional protection should the laptop suddenly fail. Bear in mind that buying from a trusted source means that said extended warranty is more likely to be applied when things to wrong.

What features do you want?

That applies to all laptop purchases regardless of whether they are new or not. Make a list of what you need and what you want. Start with the bits you won't be able to upgrade like the screen size, the screen resolution, the processor and the graphics card. Then follow on with system memory and the hard disk drive (or SSD) since these can probably be upgraded. Do you have any brand preferences? Or specific features you need to have (optical drive, wired connectivity etc)?

It is always worth double checking existing reviews to make sure that you've covered all grounds. Check out whether the laptop comes with a new battery or a removable one at least, otherwise you may be left with one that have to be permanently tethered in order to work.

After having compiled a list of potential buys, buy the one you think is the best for you at the time of the evaluation. In the UK, do so using a credit card because the credit card provider will be jointly responsible if something goes wrong, making it easier to claim your cash should there be any issues.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.