Should you buy refurbished electronics?

On electronics of all sizes, 'refurbished' can mean ‘rebuilt.’ But it can also just mean ‘returned unused.’

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

In these tight-budget times, is a “refurbished” laptop, TV, or Blu-ray player a smart choice for cost-conscious consumers? The answer, unfortunately, is like the picture on your old cathode-ray tube TV set: less than crystal clear.

If you don’t insist on having the latest gadget with the newest bells and whistles – and you consider yourself a careful, savvy shopper – you could save real money, perhaps hundreds of dollars.

What are “refurbished” electronics? The name can mean many things: Sometimes the original buyer opens the box, feels “buyer’s remorse,” and simply decides to return it. They may not have even used it yet. A reputable seller will take the item, then send it to the manufacturer to be checked for defects. Once it’s determined to be operating normally, it will be sold as refurbished.

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In other cases, the original buyer may have had a legitimate problem with the gadget. Manufacturers then repair the product and put it back on shelves as refurbished. Sometimes manufacturers also take back older models of a product from store shelves to replace them with newer versions. The older version may be sold at a discount as refurbished.

“You really have no idea” why the product has been designated as refurbished, says Paul Eng, Web editor for electronics for ConsumerReports.org.

Refurbished products can be a great deal in certain situations. Sometimes a new model of a camera, phone, or TV isn’t rated higher by reviewers than the model it replaces. Or the new features (say a camera now offers “smile detection” or “blink detection”) may not be important to you.

On the other hand, sometimes the new model represents a real advancement. For example, buying an older-model PC this fall may not be a good idea, says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies in Wayland, Mass., a consumer electronics consultancy. That’s because Microsoft just introduced Windows 7, an operating system that’s been winning rave reviews in comparison with the troubled Vista system found on most recent PCs.

Other factors to consider when buying refurbished electronics include:

• Make sure the item has a valid warranty and that you have the right to return it for a refund if you aren’t satisfied. Beware of buying refurbished items “as is.”

• Deal with established online sellers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Buy.com, or NewEgg, or buy
directly from the manufacturers’ own websites.

• Read online reviews of the product. Make sure it rates highly, has the features you want, and that the price represents a true bargain compared with the cost of buying new. Check to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples – the model number should be exactly the same as the product you’re reading about. If the item is discontinued, it may be for a good reason.

Refurbished bargains are out there, Mr. Eng says. But make sure the potential savings outweigh the potential hassles. “It’s tempting to say I can save $500 on this TV,” but it won’t be worth it if you have a bad experience later, he says.

A Consumer Reports’ website offers advice on buying refurbished electronics, including links to some manufacturers who sell online (tinyurl.com/CSMrefurbished). The page is from 2008, but the information is still up to date, Eng says.

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