Hardware | Feature

5 Questions To Ask Before Buying Used Hardware

Buying used hardware can save your school or district a ton of money on an initial purchase, but how can you be sure all that gear won't be an IT headache or in need of replacement just a few months down the road? Below are five questions to help make sure you'll get the most out of refurbished hardware.

Schools can save big by purchasing refurbished computers. Districts buying used equipment can expect to save 50 percent or more over the cost of new and the machines are good quality, according to Dennis Crowe, director of technology for Gorham School Department in Gorham, ME.

Crowe recently considered buying some new machines that cost more than $600 each, but instead he decided to buy refurbished ones for $300 each. "These are really good machines with a lot of life left in them. We can them get for a song, and people think they're great," he said.

At Chico Unified School District in Chico, CA, a good 90 percent of the computers are refurbished, according to Jason Gregg, director of information services for the district.

That district gets its refurbished computers through Computers for Classrooms, a nonprofit organization connected with the school district, at a cost of about 30 percent of new, according to Pat Furr, the founder, president of the board and CEO of Computers for Classrooms. "One of the biggest reasons for buying refurbished computer systems would be for cost savings over buying new," said Furr. "You can get a lot more technology for the buck if you're buying quality refurbished rather than going out and buying new."

For districts considering refurbished equipment, here are five questions to ask before making the decision.

1. Does the company offer a warranty?
It's important to make sure refurbished equipment is backed by a warranty in case of problems, and most reputable suppliers offer them. "You can get a warranty that goes from one to three years, depending on the group you're working with," said Furr.

Both Crowe and Gregg said the majority of refurbished equipment they buy is problem-free, but both of them have had to make use of warranties at some point. "We've had a couple of machines come through with a bad CD drive and we had one with a bad Ethernet card," said Crowe. He contacted his supplier, and they replaced the defective equipment in a few days.

Gregg had a batch of computers with bad capacitors. "You might have power supplies or capacitors on motherboards that have issues, but that's no different than if you had a brand new machine that's having issues," said Gregg, "as long as you have some type of warranty to stand on to replace those."

Crowe said he considers a warranty an absolute must when buying refurbished equipment. "If I had to buy refurb equipment and it didn't come with some kind of warranty, I simply wouldn't do it," he said.

2. Does the company stock enough equipment?
Another important consideration when selecting a refurbished equipment supplier is whether they carry the same model of computer in sufficient quantities to fill a classroom or lab. When Gregg buys 35 computers for a lab, he wants all of the machines to be the same model. That way, the IT department can save an image of the operating system, drivers and software installed on that model, and if there's a problem, they can easily wipe a machine and reapply the image. But each variation in equipment requires a separate image, and IT departments don't want to have to maintain too many different images.

Crowe has the same requirement because his IT staff is stretched thin. If they encounter a software problem on a computer, they want to reimage the machine and move on rather than waste time diagnosing the problem. "Same machine, same image, same everything is the best thing because if there's a software problem, we just want to reimage the foolish thing and get on with our lives," he said.

3. Does the company have a good track record?
When Crowe started purchasing refurbished computers almost a decade ago, he spent some time investigating the refurbishing company. "Whenever I venture into new waters, I want to know if there's some other school that has tested those waters, and I want to hear what they say about the waters," said Crowe. He asked the supplier what other school districts they had sold to, and then he talked to those districts and got a good sense of the company before he bought anything from them.

Chico Unified School District didn't go through that type of evaluation because Computers for Classrooms started as a volunteer program within the district more than 20 years ago and eventually grew large enough to incorporate as a separate nonprofit organization. However, Gregg said he agrees that it's important to check out a company's history and track record. "What is their longevity? Have they been in business for a while?" he said.

For districts considering refurbished Windows machines, Furr recommends checking the Microsoft Registered Refurbisher program. "The refurbishers we work with all are part of the Microsoft Registered Refurbisher program, so they're able to buy licenses for operating systems for schools that would cost much more if someone was going out and purchasing it," said Furr.

Furr speaks highly of other refurbishing companies. "You find a lot of refurbishers willing to give tremendous service that you can't get from new," she said.

4. Are the machines thoroughly refurbished?
When a company refurbishes equipment, they should at least wipe the hard drive and check for hardware issues. "It's really important that you get something that has been gone over very thoroughly," said Furr.

According to Gregg, the refurbished computers his district buys have gone through a hard drive wiping process that meets Department of Defense standards.

"All of our hard drives have been wiped and they're checked to make certain they don't have bad sectors or any problems with them so they will last," said Furr. "We also check the computers to see if they have bad capacitors because that can happen. You don't want to buy anything that has bad capacitors because it won't last long."

When buying used tablets, Furr cautions schools to find out the history of the battery. "One of the biggest problems with tablets is that the batteries need to be changed after three years or so," she said, "and there's a real problem when it comes to replacing the battery because some of them have been glued into the case and there's just no way of getting them off."

5. What is the total cost of ownership to your district?
Finally, before deciding whether to buy refurbished equipment, the district should calculate the total cost of ownership of that equipment, according to Gregg. "Acquisition and implementation costs really only add up to about 25 percent of your total cost of ownership, so you have to consider all of those other factors of tech support, software, training and maintenance."

Once you make the decision to buy used, Crowe said he thinks it's extremely important to develop a strong relationship with the company. "I'm huge on relationships with vendors because I want to be able to pick up the phone and know that I'm not going to have to fight for good customer service," said Crowe.

Crowe recommends buying refurbished, not just as a way to save money, but also to help the environment. "I just think it's a great way to keep stuff in use and most of the time the people receiving them are getting all the machine they need for three or four years," he said.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].