Is it time to start thinking refurbished?

For a long time, I stopped accepting donated computers. They were costing me too much money and time in upkeep, maintenance, and disposal.

For a long time, I stopped accepting donated computers. They were costing me too much money and time in upkeep, maintenance, and disposal. When you have nothing else, then donations will do. When you finally convince people that reasonable technology integration actually requires a budget and a bit of money starts to flow, it often makes more sense to lease (or sometimes buy) new equipment and avoid the management headaches.

After all, computers have a reasonable life span of 3 years of hard use in a school before things start to go really wrong. A 3-year lease keeps things running smoothly and ensures that you always have a budget line that can be dedicated to technology.

However, this wonderful thing called the Internet means that so much of what we do no longer requires the horsepower of the newest, high-end computers, especially if you're using Windows 7 or most Linux distributions. If anything, RAM, reasonable HD video capabilities, and a stable OS are more important now than a particularly speedy processor. Obviously it depends upon the tasks, but the vast majority of educational needs can be served either with thin clients or inexpensive desktops with middle-of-the-road dual core processors, 4GB of RAM (2 will do), HD-capable onboard video (or a low-end discreet card), and a good 64-bit OS (even that last item is optional, but is probably worth the small amount of future-proofing it provides).

Even if you go for a decent 18.5" wide-screen LCD (I just got a few of these, by the way since they seem to be at a real sweet spot on the price/screen real estate ratio), a TigerDirect kit will only set you back a few hundred dollars. New Tier 1 machines with these specs can be had for $5-600, including Windows 7 Professional.

So that's great, right? Except what if you need to go even lower in terms of price? Are refurbished PCs and servers a better deal? While the lifespan of a computer running in a dusty kid-infested school is often only 3-4 years, many corporations refresh their clients every 2-3 years. These machines tend to live in air-conditioned office buildings and be maintained regularly by IT staff. When they come off lease, refurbishers buy them at very low cost, swap out broken or damaged parts, make upgrades as needed, and then resell them, often to schools or small businesses.

The question is, with their generally included warranties and options to purchase without an OS at reduced cost (often not possible with Tier 1 vendors offering systems on a government contract), do refurbished machines represent a better value than low-end/mid-range new desktops or barebones kits? How about refurbished servers or laptops?

A look at the Compucycle website suggests that there are some decent deals to be had on desktops and laptops, especially if you are looking for alternatives to netbook deployments. However, by the time you upgrade the RAM in many of the machines and add a monitor, you aren't far from a barebones kit at TigerDirect or NewEgg. That barebones kit, by the way, will include better graphics capabilities, a 64-bit capable processor (worth considering if you're planning to hang onto the machines for a few years), and a chance to have students help build and deploy a lab.

A better case might, in fact, be made for refurbished servers. Insight Systems Exchange, for example, is offering a refurbished dual quad-core Xeon with 2TB of storage and 8GB of RAM for just over $3000. That's enough processing power to drive a decent-sized LTSP implementation, or VDI in a 15-seat lab without breaking a sweat. Web applications, databases, and the like would move right along on this kind of equipment as well and it's certainly a bit more challenging (and expensive) to build a 2-slot server. Servers also tend to have longer lifespans than desktops and laptops and often spend their first lives in a climate-controlled datacenter.

So what's the bottom line here? Computers are cheap these days. Netbooks can make 1:1 happen cheaply as well, although durability is certainly a concern. Thin clients are really cheap, but the servers that drive them can get pricey. Moore's Law has brought us to the point where refurbished machines from a trusted vendor are as worthy of consideration as DIY computer kits, netbooks, and inexpensive new PCs. All represent a compromise, but if the goal is to get as close to 1:1 as we can for the lowest possible cost, then we shouldn't rule any of them out. 2-3 year leases on high-end desktops and Adamo laptops aren't going to happen in most educational settings; given that reality, we compromise.

The one area where refurbished machines represent less of a compromise is in the server market. Servers are made to be relatively long-term workhorses and most schools aren't running high-end datacenters. Server purchase options should definitely include a visit to the Dell Outlet or other resellers of refurbished machines.

Talk back below -- Have you had good experiences with refurbs?