So we've already established that donated computers are something of a necessary evil in public education, but what about refurbished computers? I received a flyer on the fax today (a bad sign already, if you ask me... Does anyone actually fax things anymore?) touting "Half Price Dell Computers." These half-price machines were actually refurbished computers and, for the low, low price of only $189, I could have a 1GHz Pentium III. Without an operating system. Or a monitor. It comes with a floppy drive, though!
Obviously I wasn't too impressed by that model, so I scanned the rest of the fax. This was the company's base model after all. For $299, I could upgrade to a 1.8 GHz Pentium 4, still no OS, still 256MB of RAM, and still including the omnipresent floppy. An additional $50 gained me a 2GHz processor, double the RAM and double the hard drive. It turns out that Windows XP Professional was an additional $140. The company was even charging $15 for Windows 98 or Windows 2000, both of which are freely available to educational institutions through Microsoft's Fresh Start Program. My volume license for XP Pro (academic upgrade version) was running well down into the double-digits per seat the last time I checked.
Perhaps even more irritating was that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently offered over 100 surplus computers with identical specs to the $189 PCs described above for the mere processing fee of $10. If you made it an even $20, they'd throw in a 17" monitor.
So are there actually any advantages to purchasing "refurbs"? Well, maybe. The computers described in the fax I received had a 30-day money back guarantee and had been reconditioned. Not exactly a selling point as far as I'm concerned though; for $179 less, I'll take a few duds and toss them on my ever-growing Pile-o'-Junk or turn a determined student loose to get it running. I'll need the spare parts anyway. A prior administrator at our school was a big fan of the $189 specials. Suffice to say there are just as many of these machines sitting in my Pile-o'-Junk as there are surplus and donated machines.
However, factory-refurbished machines do offer some potential advantages. If the budget is there to buy a small amount of equipment, then short funds might be stretched by purchasing machines from major manufacturers offered as refurbished. These machines tend to have full warranties and have been brought back to original factory specifications. Dell even sells its new "scratch and dent" computers through their Dell Outlet. Some of these machines may be warranty returns, off-lease computers, or unclaimed custom-built PCs and may retail for several hundred dollars less than the identical item new. Consider these the certified used cars of the PC business. Probably a good deal if the money is there in the first place, just as a gently-used car can represent a much better value than a new car.
On the other hand, given the ridiculously low cost of new computers, it might simply make more sense to purchase more new, low-end machines. Even the best used cars still carry someone else's problems and you can't get a "PC"-fax report like you can on a used vehicle. Dell advertises $3-400 computers all the time and is more than happy to offer aggressive academic pricing on fully-customized, warranted, supported PCs. You can even skip the floppy drive.
To keep up the used car metaphor, steer clear of Fast Eddie's Used PC's. Certifed pre-owned PCs are probably going to be a nice choice if money is tight (and it probably is). Better yet, mosey on down to your friendly "Kia-of-PC's" dealer, and walk away with a really inexpensive, fully-warranted, and perfectly functional, brand new PC, complete with that new-computer smell.