Which used parts should you buy and which should you avoid?
Although refurbished systems are worth looking at when you’re buying a new PC, not everyone wants to replace their entire computer when the time comes to spend a bit of money. If you’re the type of person who prefers to upgrade rather than replace, it’s still worth looking out for a bargain – and refurbished or other open-box components might just provide the biggest bargain of all.
But are they a false economy? In many cases, probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to learn where the risks are concentrated when you’re buying hardware that has been handled before, whether it’s refurbished or not. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to second-hand components and the things you have to look out for when you’re buying them. When it comes to PC components, hard drives are by some distance the most likely to fail through wear and tear. Not only do they contain moving parts, but they’re subject to constant use and especially vulnerable to dirt that could be introduced through normal use. The problem for anyone trying to refurbish a hard drive is that they’re not really serviceable, regardless of who you are. The extreme conditions required to repair a hard drive mean it’s cheaper to buy a new one than fix a broken one. If anyone cracks one open after it’s left the factory, they need to do so in a specifically dust-free environment. This is why data recovery has a literally forensic quality. Expose a drive’s inner workings in anything other than a specialist facility and you can only make it worse than it currently is. What this means is that most hard drive refurbishments are simply drives that have been wiped and tested for bad sectors. Theoretically, it’s as good as new. In practice, it’ll have a much shorter lifespan than a new drive would. Bad sectors can even appear on new hard drives in a virtually spontaneous manner, and the more a hard drive has been used, the more likely they are to appear. The upshot is that if you’re buying a refurb system of any kind, we’d strongly advise looking at a new hard drive even if the existing one is fully tested and considered in full working order. If you’re looking to buy a stand-alone refurb drive, we’d suggest that you simply don’t. Hard drives are so cheap that there’s not a lot to gain financially and a lot to lose in terms of the precious, irreplaceable data you store on them. Compared to hard drives, SSDs are still a very expensive way to buy storage, so refurbished SSDs can represent a significant saving. Although SSDs don’t have any moving parts, which makes them less prone to the kind of failure that afflicts mechanical drives, that doesn’t mean they’re completely safe to buy either. Refurbishing an SSD involves much the same process as refurbishing a mechanical drive: the storage will be wiped and tested for errors, and the firmware may be flashed with a newer version to bring it fully up to date. It’s possible you’ll see the case get replaced too. But the actual storage area – in this instance, the NAND flash – is unlikely to get an overhaul, and that means the repairs that are done mostly count as cosmetic. Like mechanical drives, a refurbished SSD won’t have had the most important aspect of its hardware repaired. Dust and physical wear isn’t as much of a problem with SSD drives, but flash memory does still fail after a certain number of writes and rewrites. Even though it might look indistinguishable from a fresh SSD, the wear will still be there, and it can’t be reduced. The provenance of an SSD sold as refurbished is also worth thinking about. There’s very little reason to get rid of a working SSD at the moment, so those that have been refurbished will probably have been returned for being faulty in some way. Since we’ve established that a repair job is hard (if not impossible!) to do on an SSD, if it genuinely was faulty then there’s a good chance it still is. If the retailer didn’t spot the fault, make sure you do by thoroughly testing any refurbed drive you buy. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, as with most of the components we’ve mentioned so far, there’s no way to refurbish a modern processor. At best, any processor claiming to refurbished will be an open-box or ex-display model, with all the risks that implies. Unlike hard drives, open box CPUs have a good chance of being in full working order and are likely to stay that way. Since processors can’t be refurbished, even by manufacturers, then if the unit is on sale it’s because it has been tested and deemed to be in full working order. Even if the worst happens and it breaks soon after you buy it, your system is unlikely to suffer any serious damage or data loss due to malfunction – something that isn’t the case with hard drives. If you buy a CPU that claims to be refurbished, the only thing you have to worry about is the returns policy of the place you’re buying it from. If they allow you to return faulty items, you might as well take the gamble. If they specifically exclude open box and ex-display models from returns, it probably isn’t worth the risk, purely because processors are hugely expensive even when purchased second hand. They’re also not something you can do without for any length of time!
The complexity of graphics cards tends to mean that refurbished examples turn up with reasonable regularity, since there’s a lot that can go wrong and plenty that can be repaired as well. The good news is that most graphics card parts can only be replaced by the manufacturer, which guarantees good-quality repairs, and those parts that can be replaced by users aren’t exactly critical in the first place. For example, only manufacturers can replace the GPU or memory chips on a graphics card, which are the components that matter the most. Users may be able to repair a graphics card’s heatsink or fan, but assuming they’re guaranteed to arrive in working order, this shouldn’t present much of a problem. It’s entirely possible that ‘refurbished’ means it’s just been given a clean and paired up with new cables and accessories, in which case you’re getting a great deal. Graphics cards have a very long lifespan, such that they don’t usually wear out under normal use; it’s more likely that you’ll have to replace it for failing to keep up with technical demands than because it’s broken. The only thing to be careful of is open-box graphics cards, which haven’t been repaired or refurbished. There’s a strong possibility – especially at the high end of the market – that an open box graphics card was overclocked but couldn’t handle higher speeds and was returned for that reason. Overclocking a card even for a short amount of time can introduce minor flaws that cause the card to fail much earlier than if it has been run normally, but there’s no way to tell whether you’re buying a card which has been thrashed to within an inch of failure or returned unused. Open-box graphics cards should be treated with far more caution than any claiming to be refurbished simply because of the culture surrounding them. There’s at least one good thing about refurbished graphics cards, though, and that’s how inessential a graphics card is to the normal operation of any system at the moment. If you’re running a recent Intel or AMD CPU, there’s a strong chance it has an on-board GPU, which you could use temporarily should your graphics card fail. This makes the risk slightly easier to swallow: if the card fails, you’ll still have immediate access to your system while you claim your refund. Memory is almost unique in being both incredibly cheap but critical to a PC’s operation. A bad stick of RAM can cause problems and instability that might look like the result of a fault in literally any component of your system. Even if you could buy refurbished RAM, it would scarcely be worth saving the money to do so. As it happens, you can’t buy refurbished RAM, purely because no one’s actually selling it. At best, you may find open-box RAM, but even then it’s probably not going to offer a considerable saving. Anything more than £5 off retail would be excessively low. If you’re looking into buying old or specialist RAM, ‘refurbished’ might mean that it’s been recovered from an old system, cleaned up and then tested for integrity. In any case, you’re dealing with the same issues you’ll face with other items that can’t be manufacturer refurbished: essentially, it’s just second-hand hardware. Check for a returns policy, and for RAM specifically, run it through some rigorous testing when you get it. Don’t just check it for data integrity either: do a stress test. If there are any serious flaws, they should become evident as soon as you get the heat pumping into it, and it’s better to realise sooner rather than later. Most components require you to exercise a large degree of caution if you spot a refurbished example. For monitors, the opposite is true: as soon as you know roughly what model you want, you should do everything you can to actively seek out a discounted, refurbished model. The reason for this is that monitors are one of the most frequently returned pieces of hardware on the market. Many of the returns will simply be because the buyer didn’t like the look of the screen, but refurbished ones are normally returned because they have a couple of stuck or dead pixels. In case you’re not sure what that means, stuck pixels are those which remain a single colour rather than changing with the on-screen picture, while dead pixels are pixels that don’t light up at all, appearing as black dots. Most LCD screens have at least one or two stuck or dead pixels, purely because weeding them all out would financially cripple manufacturers through discarded screens. Retailers, however, may have a less rigid policy. If a buyer doesn’t like the stuck or dead pixels, the retailer might take a return just to keep them happy. Assuming you can live with the odd intrusive pixel, the money you save makes open-box monitors worth buying. But better-still are the genuine, manufacturer-refurbished monitors. Only if the number of stuck or dead pixels exceeds a certain amount or if the pixels are in the main area of the panel (i.e. the middle) will screens be sent back for manufacturer refurbishment, and when that happens they’re essentially replacing the whole screen with a new one. A fresh LCD panel will be swapped into the existing shell, free from stuck pixels and ready for action. Thankfully, refurb monitors aren’t any more likely to break than completely new ones. At worst, you’ll have an annoying pixel or two to contend with, but for the amount of money you save, you can just use that pixel as a way to remember how much fatter your wallet is as a result. Again, motherboards wear out so rarely that even a refurbished board shouldn’t have much trouble surviving well beyond the point where you need it to keep working. Most people replace their motherboards because they’re upgrading the CPU to one that demands a new socket, and they’d happily chug along for a lot more time than we ask them to. In terms of what can actually be replaced in a motherboard, there isn’t a whole lot. Fans and heatsinks can be cleaned and/or replaced, the CMOS battery can be switched out for a new one, and after that point the motherboard will virtually be as good as new, save for a sprinkling of dust in the hardest-to-reach areas. If a board has been professionally or manufacturer refurbished, then it’s possible that certain electronic components – maybe capacitors or resistors – might also have been replaced, but these are so minor that it’s unlikely to be indicative of any wider fault. As long as the testing has been thorough and there’s some kind of returns policy in place, there’s very little reason to worry about a refurbished motherboard’s performance. If you buy a motherboard that’s refurbished or open box, the only thing you really have to worry about are the accessories. Motherboards come with a lot of parts, some of which you need, some of which you don’t. If the second-hand board you’re looking at doesn’t have all of its parts with it, make sure you know what else to buy. It may be as important as a backplate, which you can’t really do without, or it may be as minor as a SATA cable that you already have spares of anyway. Ultimately, the chance of receiving a dead refurbished motherboard isn’t much greater than the chance of receiving one new, so if you spot the one you want at a substantially reduced price, we think it’s worth the risk.