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Supply chain delays? Where to buy used laptops and other tech gear

Want a laptop or other computer gear? Worried about supply chain delays? We outline some options for sourcing and buying used and hard-to-find gear, including considerations and important cautions.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I've gone through phases when it comes to buying used computer gear. Way back at the dawn of time, the only items I could afford were used. In fact, I couldn't even afford working computer gear, so I'd scavenge broken machines and combine parts to make them work. It was frustrating, highly educational, gave me confidence around the gear, and was the only way I was able to get my hands on what I needed.

Then I went through an only-buy-new phase. I needed super high-performance gear that would obsolete (at least for my needs) roughly every 18 months. Used gear was already too old and slow for my needs, so I had to buy new.

Recently, I've been using a mix of these strategies. This year I bought all new Mac gear, upgrading my company's small fleet of computers. But I also bought a refurbished Apple Watch and, courtesy of equipment reseller Back Market, I'm rocking a refurbed iPhone 12 Pro Max, which I'm quite happy with.

While there is definitely a caveat emptor component to used equipment purchases, done right you can get some very good deals and save quite a bit of money. In this article, I'll point you to some good sources and give you some tips for making successful transactions.

Listen to your Spidey-Sense

Before we get started, I want to talk to you about a very important aspect of buying used: noticing subtle cues. History is rife with examples of people who tried to get deals that were too good to be true. In nearly all the cases, they were in fact too good to be true -- and folks got ripped off.

Psychologists call it your inner knowing, or listening to your subconscious, but us geeks know the concept as Spidey-Sense. It's that tingling at the base of the neck that tells you something ain't right. Sometimes it's subtle. Sometimes, it's just unjustified paranoia. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you (or steal from you).

When buying used, if something seems even slightly off, lock down your wallet, put one foot in front of the other, and run.

What are you looking for?

With that caution out of the way, let's talk more about the twin purposes of this article. First, it's intended to help you find the gear you need in an economic environment where container ships are stacked up outside ports and goods and services aren't moving as efficiently as they should. Second, it's intended to help you save money when buying gear. Usually that will be about buying used gear, but I have some tips for saving money on new or off-brand items as well.

Keep in mind that used gear, by the very nature of it having been previously owned, comes in many different levels of quality. The used Mac minis I took out of service are in just as fine a condition now (better, if you count their upgrades) as they were when I bought them nine and ten years ago. But the used laptop you're reading about might be pristine -- or it could have spent four years holding up a table leg.

Again, it depends on what you're looking for. As I mentioned, there was a time as a student that I sought out damaged gear and rebuilt it, sometimes reselling it at a profit. But also keep in mind that computers were far more maintainable back in the day. It's a lot more work to fix a damaged MacBook Pro than a dust-filled tower PC, and many modern phones are almost impossible to fix.

That said, if you want to try your hand at fixing damaged gear, one of the very best resources is iFixit's excellent library of repair guides. If you're thinking about cracking open a device, pay a visit to iFixit and read what it takes to do a tear down and rebuild.

Check the big general-purpose retailers

If you're looking for a laptop and are having difficulty finding one, consider the big general-purpose retailers. Check:

They will rarely be top-of-the-line power gear, but much of what they offer -- especially straight from the actual store -- isn't half bad, and some carry refurbished options.

Do be careful, though, if you order from these players online. Take Walmart, for example. When you order from Walmart, you sometimes get items directly from Walmart. But you're just as likely to be ordering from Tom's Laptop and Carburetor Warehouse, through Walmart.com.

Walmart says, "Walmart requires seller to use minimum standards for item returns, but each seller has their own policy." In practice, that means you can bring your purchase back to a Walmart store within 14 days of purchase, but the refund is processed by the vendor, not by Walmart. Presumably, if the vendor doesn't issue the return, you might have some recourse with Walmart, but Walmart does not make any specific promises.

This approach also applies to Amazon. On the company's Computers and Electronics returns policy page, the company states, "New, used, and refurbished products purchased from Marketplace vendors are subject to the returns policy of the individual vendor."

Vendor-operated refurb stores

Now let's look at the places you might turn to buy used gear. My favorite sources for used gear I can count on are the various refurb stores run by the vendors themselves.

I bought my Apple Watch (which, two years later, I'm still wearing on my wrist even right now) from Apple's Certified Refurbished store. Inventory changes daily and while you might not get the very best price, you know you'll get something that works -- and if it doesn't work, they'll fix it. I wrote a very helpful guide to buying used Mac gear, so I recommend you hop over there and read it if you're considering buying a used Mac:

Buying a used Mac laptop: How to avoid scams and find the best deals

Here are some other manufacturer-operated refurb stores:

In each case, you'll want to carefully pore over the terms and conditions. Generally, you'll have a baseline of 14 to 30 days to evaluate your purchase. I strongly advise you to take those days to fully test out what you bought and make sure it performs properly. If not, all of these companies have reasonably good quality support and will make good on your purchase.

Online trade-in companies

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I got my iPhone 12 Pro Max from a refurb company named Back Market. I had a good experience. Online used gear resellers have become a big category.

Aside: Hey, Apple. You call the biggest, baddest iPhone the "Pro Max," but your processors are either "Pro" or "Max." Seriously? Internal consistency should be one of your core strengths. Get your branding together.

Okay, back to the topic at hand. We've run a number of in-depth articles on trade-in companies. Rather than repeat what's been said, here are some links to get you started:

The usual suspects: eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist

For more than 20 years, many of us have turned to eBay and Craigslist to find deals on used items. Facebook Marketplace is newer, but my comments about eBay and Craigslist apply equally to Facebook Marketplace.

I've had many successful transactions through eBay. Personally, I haven't done much purchasing through either Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, but there are good products to be found in both.

The gotcha is that you have to turn up your Spidey-Sense to eleven. While there are many legitimate sellers who use these services, there are also far too many scammers as well. While you might get a great used laptop, you're just as likely to get ... nothing. There's also the issue of ownership. You really can't be sure it's not stolen. So, like I said, tread with care.

My advice, especially for expensive items, is to only buy from these sources when you see the item in person. I wrote in depth about how to do in-person testing in this article, so I'm not going to repeat it. And, of course, we're in pandemic times, so face-to-face contact needs to be mitigated by social distancing and mask wearing. Sadly, that makes it even harder to read the facial expressions of the person you're considering buying from.

Again, speaking personally, I'd avoid these services when buying higher ticket items. But that's me. You just need to decide what you're comfortable with.

Thrift stores

Here, I'm talking about charity/donation stores like Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity's ReStore stores. You can never tell what you might find in these places. To be fair, the chances of finding a high-end laptop are limited, but not impossible.

I was in a ReStore here in Oregon before the pandemic and saw an entire wall of HP server racks available for at an insanely inexpensive price. There's a big HP branch nearby, which is probably how that gear wound up there.

While you are less likely to find the exact laptop you want, you will find a ton of great resources for setting up or extending your home office. And don't forget that people often donate in bulk to these stores, so while you might not expect to find a lot of gear, it sometimes happens.

Somewhere near Palm Bay, Florida, there's a Goodwill that received a massive donation of X-10 devices back in the day. How do I know? When I moved, I donated my entire collection, along with a lot of other gear I was moving out to make room for stuff with new blinkenlights.

Once again, check out this article for guidance on how to test while in the store. 

Alternate sources for parts and components

Certainly eBay and Amazon are go-to locations for parts and components. I take so much advantage of my Prime membership that I think of Amazon as my cloud closet.

But sometimes Amazon is out of stock. I had this happen recently with the quick release adapters I profiled last year. I needed a bunch more to keep building out my studio and they were nowhere to be found. At least on Amazon and eBay.

My next stop was Etsy. While Etsy is known as a crafter's marketplace, it's also a great place to look for parts and components. This makes sense. If makers sell a lot through Etsy, parts and components used by makers are also available through Etsy. Unfortunately, my adapters were not available on Etsy either.

Also: Best shipping services for small businesses

Next, I decided to look overseas. I'm here in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest part of the United States. US-based vendors might have difficulty bringing in containers of goods through overburdened ports. But individual items ordered from AliExpress or Banggood don't come to the US via container ships. They usually travel by air, often carried by DHL.

Not only did I get my adapters, but I got them at one third of the price Amazon was selling them for. The US-based merchants I was buying from most likely bought the same goods I did from AliExpress and merely marked them up ... a lot. I got my supply of adapters in about three weeks. Two months later, they were still out of stock on Amazon.

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are a lot of alternatives when it comes to buying gear, including some outside-of-the-box ideas. Just be careful and don't go for "too good to be true" deals.

What sources have you used for buying used gear, or for finding goods not available through the normal channels? What tips do you have? Any insights, cautions, war stories, or cool wins? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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