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A DIY expert explains why he only buys refurbs

By Julio Franco ยท 24 replies
Nov 9, 2015
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  1. Part tech maven, part tech maverick, Kyle Wiens of iFixit is to DIY electronics repair what Mr. Wrigley is to chewing gum. And believe us, if anyone could figure out how to fix an iPhone 6s with a wad of Juicy Fruit, Wiens is the guy.

    Wiens isn't afraid to speak his mind on any gadget issue — and he made waves in late October when he told Patrick Austin of Consumer Reports that "Every computer I've ever bought has been a refurb." Wow. You could just see those shiny new iMacs coming off the assembly line turning green-screen with envy.

    While the shopping ins and outs of refurbs get plenty of coverage, the electronic advantages don't get nearly as much media love. So Wiens took time from his busy schedule to walk us through what makes refurbished products rock.

    Hard Drives Are Fully-Tested During the Refurb Process

    Many shoppers know how to pick computers for hard-drive size — but as they say, size isn't everything. Wiens shared this little-known trick of the trade that applies to refurbished computers: the burn in. This is a period akin to how new cars get broken in during the first 1,000 miles.

    With refurbs, "a lot of manufacturers run the computer through all of their tests again, which is actually good for consumers," he says. "With hard drives, the failure rate is such that it's either going to happen in the first few months, or after five years. So if it's a product with a hard drive, they're running it for a while during the refurbishment; they're going through that burn-in process and you're actually going to be better off."

    The Smartphones Refurb Market is Hot

    Used cars go through a pre-certification process, but it's not quite the same as how recycled cell phones get gussied up for resale. "If you look at the average life of a smartphone and checked how many owners it had, it's usually three," Wiens points out. "Yet resellers are paying top dollar for those phones, cleaning them up, and selling them — and it's a huge market."

    In fact, research firm IBISWorld reports that as of April, the cell phone recycling market, dominated by the likes of Gazelle, has reached $742 million, with 13% annual growth. "With Gazelle, they get their products in by mail, and then they bring them back to a state that's like new."

    The Quality Control is Twice as High

    Wiens also cites the rigor that established computer companies put into refurbished gear. "When the products come back to the manufacturer, they go through all the same quality control processes — in fact, it's twice the quality control because it's their second trip through." That means that for many consumers, refurbished can be way, way better than new: "There are many places in the world where if it's between a used Dell or used Apple versus a new Chinese product, people will take the used product."

    No Two 'Furbs Are Alike

    While iFixit performs product teardowns on all types of electronics, it's a little harder to apply uniform scrutiny to refurbished goods because each case is unique. Some go back to the factory because Joe Fashion Plate didn't like the color, while other items might have suffered a crack in the shipping process.

    Asked if he could in theory do a teardown series dedicated to refurbs of a particular model, Wiens replies, "We could. But the way you'd really tell is to buy 10 of the same thing and power them up for a while, or look inside to see if they've been cleaned properly. It's a consistency thing as well as quality."

    If the original manufacturer isn't doing the refurb, it's being farmed out to an outside company — and that's where you'll want to do some homework.

    Refurbishing an Image

    If the refurbished market offers so many advantages in terms of efficient function at a low cost, why do some shoppers stay away? "I'm wondering if that's because refurbished goods are sold separately from new products, and that makes people think of them differently. Or maybe it has something to do with the car 'lemon laws,' where there's a negative perception that gets passed on to refurbished products."

    While Wiens is a smooth operator under a laptop shell, he doesn't probe under the human skull. "I haven't done psychological research on it," he says, laughing. "I just always go for refurbished."

    Refurb Words of Praise, and Pause

    While he's dissected gadgets right down to the smallest screw and scrappiest chip, Wiens' personal experience makes for compelling evidence to go refurbished with confidence in reliable performance. He magnifies his Consumer Reports statement to say that he's bought refurbished laptops "from my second computer at least, and I think I've gone through seven MacBook Pro equivalents over the years."

    Still, there are some caveats to consider operations-wise. If the original manufacturer isn't doing the refurb, it's being farmed out to an outside company — and that's where you'll want to do some homework. "Every one has different standards. With PCRR (PC Rebuilders & Recyclers), they do data wipes on the computer, put a new copy of Windows on it, and resell through a lot of reputable brand channels. The job they do is as good as the reputation they have: and in their case, they do a pretty good job."

    In the end, Wiens says more buyers should go the refurbished route because there's much to gain in purchasing a product rebuilt to last. Some warranties might not run as long as for new, but that's not the case with big brands such as Apple. (It offers one-year warranties on new and refurbished computers, with prices roughly 15% cheaper for the latter).

    But there's one case where he says not to take the plunge. "Don't buy a refurbished camera in Brooklyn," he warns. "There are a lot of well-known scams there. They'll sell the camera but leave out the power adapter. Anywhere in the world but Brooklyn."

    Readers, what do you think about refurbished electronics? Are there any items you always — or never — buy refurbished?

    Lou Carlozo is a contributing writer at dealnews. Republished with permission. Top image by Shutterstock.

    Permalink to story.

  2. Skidmarksdeluxe

    Skidmarksdeluxe TS Evangelist Posts: 8,647   +3,286

    Although I've never bought anything refurbished or 2nd hand, he and his logic makes a lot of sense to me.
  3. FF222

    FF222 TS Addict Posts: 161   +106

    All the premises laid out are wrong. For ex. I've had hard drives die on me at practically every point of the 3 months to 10 year scale. And I'm not even running devices professionally, all my experiences are from personal use. Also, I had several refurb drives that died on me a few months after getting them, and they were generally in far worse condition than the new drives I originally bought.

    With refurb laptops, monitors and such I don't have a personal experience, but I would imagine they're even worse than hard drives. Why? Because they all contain even more parts that are known to change their key properties with time - and not for the better. For ex. plastics will easily break, capacitors dry out, etc.

    So this guy might have been lucky with refurb devices, but I generally don't think they'd be even just as good as original ones, on average.
    Aaron Rogers likes this.
  4. psycros

    psycros TS Evangelist Posts: 2,619   +2,353

    I've never seen the logic in going refurb because the prices are usually only a few bucks less. I might be looking in the wrong places but typical end-user refurb hardware from big-name resellers like Newegg or Amazon is usually no more than 10% lower priced. Really costly business-class stuff never seems to be more than $50 lower - at least that's been my experience so far. However, I've gotten enough DOA or defective new gear to think that maybe refurb could be a plus simply because its been re-tested.
    Aaron Rogers likes this.
  5. Cycloid Torus

    Cycloid Torus Stone age computing - click on the rock below.. Posts: 3,919   +1,156

    I like the idea of buying refurbs but I would limit that to recent vintage, high end product (WD Black, etc) - refurbished by the factory and with a decent warranty - I can see that working for hard drives & SSDs, PC systems, printers, modems, routers and video cards.

    However, for CPUs, memory, flash drives, SDHC cards, etc - I would buy used if tested by reputable seller or stick with new. Phenom 4-core sells as low as $15 on Ebay. Great way to rejuvenate an older system (upgrade bios first - check CPU list second - shop third - test CPU on receipt).

    I also like "new old stock" - 18-24 months since introduction - on discount - full warranty.
  6. TomSEA

    TomSEA TechSpot Chancellor Posts: 3,093   +1,544

    I've bought numerous refurbished items - everything from laptops to hard drives to monitors. And have yet to experience a problem with them. I think it's a good call and if it saves you only 20%, well, that's 20% worth of savings to spend on something else.
    cliffordcooley likes this.
  7. madboyv1

    madboyv1 TechSpot Paladin Posts: 1,530   +420

    I've bought a couple refurb items, as well as recieved refurb items from manufacturers (as a warranty replacement) and so far I have not had issues. In fact I bought my refurb Dell XPS12 for $250 less than the going retail price, with a longer warranty than new, and I used the money saved to upgrade the SSD and buy a decent carrying case for it. I've had it for a year and a half now and I am pleased with my decision.
  8. bea108

    bea108 TS Enthusiast Posts: 36   +10

    I've bought all my graphic cards used with no problem and recently bought a asus ASUS RT-AC87U refurb for $148 that lists for $220 on Newegg now and so far no problems.
  9. robb213

    robb213 TS Evangelist Posts: 345   +113

    I normally stay away of refurbished things due to the shorter warranty; I'll admit I never really looked into all of them throughly, but when I have it's a reduced date. I tend to have horrible luck with stuff going bad near the end or soon after the warranty expires.

    The logic though that these items passing a 2nd quality control test over again being super good isn't really so. They are not the same parts throughout 100% anymore, so that new/repaired part has as much a chance to fail as the one that already did. 'Tis the joy of life and randomness...
    Aaron Rogers likes this.
  10. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,208   +4,877

    Looking at it from that perspective, so would the new item. The new item has the same parts as the refurb.

    I've worked a few factories before. I can't speak for all of them, but the ones I have worked don't test everything the first round. They have a tendency to skip testing if the first few of a batch passes inspection. This second round of testing is quite possibly the first test run on the device. Which means your refurb purchase has passed testing where as the possibility a new purchase never was tested.
    Reehahs likes this.
  11. robb213

    robb213 TS Evangelist Posts: 345   +113

    Ah. Makes sense then why that was a huge focus point. Just assumed the first round of testing was rigorous, as it was for the 2nd time around.
  12. poohbear

    poohbear TS Maniac Posts: 267   +174

    Lol "anywhere in the world except Brooklyn"??? You mean the crack dealers selling refurbished cameras on the side aren't reputable?!?
    Aaron Rogers likes this.
  13. jrmarsh

    jrmarsh TS Rookie

    I bought a refurbished Canon Rebel XTi. The camera lost its ability to communicate with lenses a couple of months after the warranty had expired. First the stock lens went, then the expensive zoom went, finally it got to the point where it cannot take any pictures at all.
    Aaron Rogers likes this.
  14. Godel

    Godel TS Addict Posts: 166   +86

    A lot of refurbs may never have left the factory.

    They get to the end of the production line and QC testing finds they have a fault, so they are immediately sent for rework and repair. The repaired product is then fully tested and sold as "refurbished", but you're getting an essentially new product with an original warranty but with the benefit of extra testing.
    Reehahs and cliffordcooley like this.
  15. Aaron Rogers

    Aaron Rogers TS Rookie

    This article is complete crap. Refurbs are used and sold as new. They had crappy workmanship or defective parts. If one thing went wrong earlier, something else or the the same thing may go wrong again. This guy probably gets kick backs from the industry. He probably will tell you that he buys used fruit too. What an *****.
  16. cliffordcooley

    cliffordcooley TS Guardian Fighter Posts: 11,208   +4,877

    You must think new items don't have the same components as refurbs. You must also think that all refurbs actually had something wrong with them, instead of returned because of user error. Just because it is labeled a refurb doesn't mean it is less capable than a new potentially untested product. The fact that refurbs have been tested makes them just as capable as new products. The idea that you can't get passed the concept of buying a possibly used product is irrelevant to the capabilities of the product.
  17. trgz

    trgz TS Addict Posts: 259   +68

    I bought a refurb Panasonic PVR and an Olympus EP-1 - I saved quite a bit on both and they're both still going strong - can't recall buying any refurb PC bits, yet.
  18. Reehahs

    Reehahs TS Guru Posts: 724   +462

    There is a distinction here between used and refurbished. I have almost always bought used GPU because someone upgraded to a new one. Price does give away if the refurbishment was due to a fault or just a user error in ordering when it comes to retailers. Manufacturers though are more likely to test the product before test.
  19. theruck

    theruck TS Booster Posts: 143   +39

    I would never buy a refurb hard drive. the manufacturers used to upgrade firmwares of drives to have larger bad block tollerance. at least IBM did it this way. when you sent them a drive which was faulty in your server they refurbished it by firmware then sold it to someone else.
    the problem of refurb is that it is another point a human can make a mistake on so there is really nothing better on refurb. items. Laptop is even more risky and it is not worth the little price drop and in EU even the warranty.
  20. PanicX

    PanicX TechSpot Ambassador Posts: 648

    The only trouble I've seen with refurbished items, is that there's a good chance not all the peripherals or accessories will be there. Sometimes its something minor, like a power cable for a PSU (everyones got an extra, right?) verses something like a missing remote for your surround system (time to go universal anyway). Otherwise, its just the shortened warranty period that's a concern, and usually if its factory refurbished, the warranty is the same as new anyway.
    cliffordcooley likes this.
  21. mailpup

    mailpup TS Special Forces Posts: 7,362   +606

    I know open box is like that but is refurbished like that too?
  22. QuaZulu

    QuaZulu TS Enthusiast Posts: 65   +10

    Got a Razer Keyboard refurb for 50% off ($60) 5 months ago. I am delighted with the buy!
  23. TBC Guy

    TBC Guy TS Rookie

    Kyle is exactly right. For all the reasons he outlines I have been buying refurb items for years (desktops, laptops, monitors, iPad, etc.). The warranty from the sellers where I buy is always the same as new-product warranties, and the savings is at least 20% to 30%, sometimes more. It only takes a little research to find good deals from reputable dealers (ever heard of Google search?). But more than the savings my reason for buying refurb is the extra step in the testing process (whether from nothing to the first time through, or from a cursory test to a more rigorous testing).

    Refurb is a good way to go.

    And Aaron Rogers needs to stick to football. He is clearly more at home there than talking electronics.
    cliffordcooley likes this.
  24. nestorius

    nestorius TS Enthusiast Posts: 39   +6

    I have bought 2 Lexus certified preowned cars and more electronics than I care to talk about. I always suggest refurbished to my friends and have only had one item that wasn't satisfactory after a couple months. It was a router and I was refunded my entire purchase price. Refurbished lets me keep more bucks in my jeans!
  25. lazer

    lazer TS Addict Posts: 230   +53

    Interesting article. I have bought refurbished items and had them work great. I bought a new Asus laptop for my daughter and had it repaired and re-repaired and finally sold it cheap to get rid of it. I bought myself a Toshiba and the HD crashed and died. Had to replace it. I bought other new laptops and they worked fine, just two bummers.

    I bought several refurbished laptops and never had a problem. Bought two small Acer netbooks and they were fine. Once bought a refurbished Samsung phone and it was also fine.

    I noted that many complain that they had problems with refurbished stuff, but then I think it has to do much with luck too.

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