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Used electronics can be an amazing deal. Consumer technology moves at a blistering pace, which leaves a lot of people with old devices and hardware to sell because they’d like the next big thing. You can often snag two or three year-old device for one-half to one-quarter of its original price. You can also end up screwed, though, which is why it’s important to know what to look for when buying used electronics.

Does It Boot?

Strictly speaking, the term “boot” is only relevant to computers, of course, but it’s important to make sure that whatever you’re going to buy actually operates. If you’re buying online, look for photos that prove the device actually receives power and turns on. Run the images through Tineye and Google Image Search, as well. This will tell you if the photo is original and authentic, or if it’s something the seller found online.

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If you’re meeting the seller in person, you’ll need to perform this check yourself. Beware of sellers that seem too hurried to let you take a good look at the device, and if the seller says something like, “Oh, it’ll work – it just needs a new battery,” I advise you walk away.

Some devices, like computers, televisions and audio equipment, will of course need to be plugged in. See if you can meet the seller at their home so you can see the device working before you buy. If you or the seller aren’t comfortable with that, and the device is small (a laptop, small desktop, A/V receiver, etc.) then try meeting at a coffee shop or library. Both are public and usually have power outlets accessible.

Is It Authentic?

You’ll also want to check, if possible, that what the seller offers is authentic. Sometimes a seller will try to pass an older model off as a newer one and in rare cases you might see a device that’s counterfeit How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? How to spot an iPhony! Are GooPhones as Good as iPhones? Do you own an iPhone 5? Or do you wish you could own Apple’s latest but can't afford the ridiculous cost? It may surprise you to hear that the iPhone 5 has a cheap knock-off... Read More . This is most often a concern when buying in-person, because you’ll be purchasing within minutes and you may be distracted by conversation. Online buyers can look over photos at their leisure.

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The best way to know if a device is authentic is to know the device well. For example, do you know how to tell the difference between a Samsung Galaxy S3 and a Samsung Galaxy S4 Samsung Galaxy S4 Review and Giveaway Samsung Galaxy S4 Review and Giveaway Samsung's current flagship device, the Galaxy S4 marries no-compromises hardware with Google's mobile operating system, slathered with a thick layer of Samsung's own software overlays and customizations. That doesn't mean the outcome is perfect. How... Read More ? If you answered “no” then you’d better learn before shopping for an S4 on Craigslist.

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If you’re looking at an iOS device, you can tell the model by going to Settings, then General, then About. Scroll down and you’ll see the Model line which lists the Model number. Perform a Web search for that number and you’ll see what iPhone or iPad you’re holding. With Android, you can find similar information by going to Settings and then, under the System section, tapping About Phone or About Tablet.

When looking at a computer, you’ll want to verify that it has the hardware the seller claims. If it’s a Windows PC, you can find information about the internal hardware in the System and Device Manager menus. If you’re looking at a Mac, you can find information by going to the Apple menu and selecting About This Mac. If it’s running Ubuntu, open Terminal and enter “$ cat /proc/cpuinfo” for the processor and “sudo lspci | grep VGA” or “sudo lshw –C video” for the video card.

What’s The Condition?

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Once you know that you’re getting a working, authentic device, you’ll want to assess its condition. A lot of buyers pay attention to scratches or dents, but these aren’t that relevant. People drop things – it happens. If the device works then it’s unlikely the existing scratches are anything more than cosmetic (unless they’re on the display, of course). Here’s what you’ll want to check.

  • Power cord: This is extremely important with anything besides desktops, phones and tablets. Make sure the cord is not frayed, the outlet prongs are straight, and the power brick (if one exists) is intact.
  • Ports: Check all the relevant ports (HDMI, USB, Ethernet, etc.) to make sure they’re not broken, bent, burnt or otherwise harmed.
  • Cooling: If the device has active cooling, such as case fans, make sure they’re working. Hold your hand over the intake and exhaust to see if air flows.
  • Battery: Make sure that the battery isn’t bulging, cracked or misshaped. A damaged battery can be a serious fire hazard.
  • Wireless: WiFi and Bluetooth are usually integrated and not easy to replace. If possible, bring a Bluetooth compatible device and try to pair it. You should also try to connect it to local WiFi, if an open network is available.

I consider these traits the most important because they’re difficult or impossible to replace. Did you buy an A/V receiver with a broken power cord? You’re out of luck! Online buyers can’t check these items, of course, but most sites ask sellers to list any major flaws and will take action against the seller if they lie. If you’re wary, ask for additional photos or buy exclusively from sellers with an established record of customer satisfaction.

How Does It Smell?

This one only applies to in-person transactions, of course, but if you’re looking at the device you may as well use all your senses – and smell can be an important one.

Picking out the smell of burnt electronics isn’t difficult. The pungent, tangy scent is offensive and tends to linger. You may think it’s alright if the device turns on, but the smell may be a sign that a non-critical component has gone bad. If the video card is fried on a desktop, however, the seller could just hook it up to the motherboard video port and act as if nothing is wrong. Not everyone would notice that the DVI cable snakes to the wrong port before handing over cash.

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Also be prepared to sniff out devices that smell musty, smoky or just plain sour. There’s a wide range of potential issues that can cause these odors. The device may have been recovered after a fire, or it may have been water damaged two years ago but has since dried out, or it may have been home to cockroaches. Put simply, if it smells bad, it probably is. Pay attention to what your snout is telling you.

Know When To Buy

Ensuring the device you’re buying is functional and legit is nine tenths of the battle, but if you really want a great deal, you need to be savvy about when to buy. The question of when relates to the tension in all used electronics; you want a deal, but you don’t want something obsolete. Here are some guidelines that will help you decide if the device is still relevant.

  • Does it use modern connections? Electronics become obsolete when they no longer can be connected to new devices. Most people won’t gain much use from an A/V receiver if it doesn’t support HDMI, for example.
  • Is it quick enough? If you’re buying a device that can run software, look up the system requirements of apps you want to use and compare them to what you think of buying. If the device doesn’t meet the recommended (note: recommended, not minimum) requirements, pass on it.
  • Do you have room? Old electronics can be large and are often tossed when they no longer fit into a lifestyle. A pair of twenty year-old box speakers can be a great deal, but if you’re living in New York and rent a 400 square-foot studio, move on.

If you can answer “yes” to all three questions, you’re in good shape.

Conclusion

These tips will help you buy used electronics that are in good shape and aren’t on the verge of becoming obsolete. This may seem like a lot of information, and it is, but don’t be scared. I’ve purchased many used electronics and have never had a serious problem. Used electronics can be very reliable – if you check them out before purchasing.

Image credit: Flickr/Jon Karakatsanis, Wikimedia/LBPics, Flickr/Jeff Kubina, Flickr/K?rlis Dambr?ns

  1. Nancy B
    April 30, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    I always buy parts etc, from the same bricks and mortar store that also fixes my pc's and old, old laptop. The guy has upgraded, changed parts and I recently had to buy a newer monitor when mine died after 5 years of daily use.
    I bought a new to me video card and knew, as I had already looked them up at online stores I had bought parts from before, for only $20 for a top of the line, working, installed and even cleaned the dust bunnies out of my pc! The card was way faster and a better quality than what I originally had and is still working!
    I've sent friends and relatives who were about to go to major retailers to fix their computers or buy a new monitor and all of us have been thrilled with the purchase and service, plus a 90 day warranty!
    Nothing like supporting a small local business, and getting what you paid for at a reasonable price and backed by a warranty, even if the part is used!

  2. Bniedem M
    April 27, 2014 at 10:41 am

    "If it’s running Ubuntu, open Terminal and enter “$ cat /proc/cpuinfo” for the processor and “sudo lspci | grep VGA” or “sudo lshw –C video” for the video card."
    How about an article explaining, in plain language, the output messages for these, please?

    • Col. Panek
      May 3, 2014 at 12:19 am

      There's an app for that. I don't remember where it is on Ubuntu, but KDE usually uses the KInfoCenter which tells all.

  3. nrk
    April 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Most phone batteries have a moisture sensor on them. Be sure the device has not been wet. It is usually white with red "X"s on it. When exposed to moisture the Xs blur. Now for $1 a sheet you can buy these stickers so do some good research before purchasing... check a new phone, I have taken one out of the box at the Sprint store and the indicator was blurred showing moisture intrusion.

  4. Ed
    April 25, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I sell plenty of electronics on Craigslist.
    Always met nice people. You would be surprised at how many people will buy stuff without turning it on.

    I've sold routers, printers, DVD players. People will meet at a Starbucks, and even though you can't really test these types of items in a Starbucks, people won't even plug them in to at least see if they turn on.

    I'm one of those that always keeps the original boxes and manuals and even cleans the stuff before I sell it. If it takes me a few weeks before I sell something, I will even pull it out of the box and test it one last time before I go meet the buyer. I like my used stuff to look brand new when I sell it so the buyer feels like they are getting a great deal.

    When selling a smartphone, I always meet them at the cell phone store and make sure it gets activated before I take money, so they know it is working on their carrier with their account.

    I love the smiles on peoples faces when they buy something from me, and I love getting rid of used stuff knowing it won't be wasted if it is perfectly good.

    • Nahla D
      April 28, 2014 at 2:02 pm

      I wish there are more sellers like you. And yeah, I keep my gadget's box, manuals, etc. intact, too. Imagine my horror when I learned my Dad irresponsibly threw my current smartphone's box away for general cleaning! When I confronted him, he said "you won't need it anyway!" >:(

  5. Duane
    April 25, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    In some cases, burnt electronics may not smell acrid.
    I was an IT repair person and 2 decades ago, I went to replace a 'burned up' CRT monitor. It smelled exactly like cooked hot dogs!
    One of my stranger experiences.

  6. Navanski
    April 25, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    Lastly but ever so simple, if it seems too good to be true then alarm bells should ring loud and clear.

  7. RPJ
    April 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    You say: "Beware of sellers that seem too hurried to let you take a good look at the device, " Why? Why be suspicious of someone who want you to get stuck in and try the thing you're thinking of buying?

    • Malazan
      April 25, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      I think you're interpreting it wrong, the author means if the seller is trying to distract you from looking at the device properly.

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