Refurbished vs. Used vs. Certified Pre-Owned: Which Is Better?
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Each year, we’re encouraged to buy new technology. Smartphones, TVs, laptops, and other gadgets are released annually. However, you may be worried about the financial or environmental cost of regularly upgrading.

If you do find yourself in the market for an item of technology, you could opt to purchase non-new devices. These items should be assumed to be pre-owned in some form. Many terms are thrown around: pre-owned, refurbished, used, and even certified pre-owned.

But what’s the difference between them all?

Refurbished Tech Hardware

People checking refurbished hardware
Image Credit: nd3000/DepositPhotos

A refurbished item is likely to have been used, and either returned as used or returned as faulty. The device will then undergo diagnostic testing and any necessary repairs completed. The item gets a thorough clean and is repackaged for sale.

To encourage you to buy a refurbished item, a new warranty will often be added. The warranty often won’t be as comprehensive as for a new item but gives peace of mind should anything go wrong. However, you should check the length and terms of the warranty as it will differ between retailers.

eBay has two categories of refurbished devices: manufacturer refurbished, and seller refurbished. Both styles should have restored the device to almost-new specifications, but the manufacturer has not approved a seller refurbished item. If this all sounds confusing, they do provide an Item Condition Look-Up Table to help you identify a product’s condition.

How to Shop Refurbished

Before committing to a refurbished device on eBay, it’s worth researching the seller. You’ll want to be looking at their ratings, how many products they have listed, and their refurbishment process. If you can’t find the answers you’re looking for, then ask the seller.

Many manufacturers have their own certified refurbished devices for sale too, often at a significant discount. There are a handful of places where you can buy a used or refurbished iPhone The 3 Best Places to Buy a Used or Refurbished iPhone The 3 Best Places to Buy a Used or Refurbished iPhone Want to get a great deal on a used iPhone? Here are the best retailers for buying a used or refurbished iPhone. Read More , for example, including Apple’s own website. Amazon even has a Certified Refurbished storefront for you to browse all available devices.

Amazon allows both manufacturer and seller refurbishment. However, the company can revoke the Certified Refurbished label if a seller is found to have an imperfect refurbishment process. These items are covered by the Amazon Renewed Guarantee, which provides a 90-day warranty in the US, and 12 months in the EU.

Smaller retailers may also offer refurbished items, but these often come with less protection should something be amiss. If you choose to purchase a refurbished item outside of a major store, then make sure that the terms of sale are laid out in writing before you pay, and that there is a warranty or return process.

Used Devices

A woman holding a broken smartphone
Image Credit: roxanablint/DepositPhotos

Depending on where you purchase the item from, there will be different definitions of used. eBay defines it as “[an] item [which] may have some signs of cosmetic wear, but is fully operational and functions as intended.” By that definition, the item should work as expected but could be scratched or have a damaged screen.

Outside of a regulated site like eBay or Amazon, the term can take on any number of meanings. While sites like Craigslist are a great way to buy and sell used stuff online 5 Sites Like Craigslist to Buy and Sell Used Stuff Online 5 Sites Like Craigslist to Buy and Sell Used Stuff Online Want to buy and sell your used items locally but not on Craigslist? Here are the best sites like Craigslist you should consider. Read More , there is no regulation of how items are described. Any sale is between you and the seller only, making complaints challenging to manage.

Some people are happy to accept the risks of buying a used device, especially since they offer far more substantial discounts than pre-owned or refurbished devices. However, if you don’t want the hassle of attempting to fix a broken item, or being out of pocket, then you may want to pass over used items.

Pre-Owned Hardware

An iPad covered in fingerprints
Image Credit: elnariz/DepositPhotos

Pre-owned is generally a bit of a gray area. While it technically refers to any second-hand product, in most cases it usually refers to a well-taken-care-of item. This category of device sits between Refurbished and Used, where it is in good, but not exactly new, condition.

In this sense, it’s similar to the vintage label being applied to clothing. Another term you tend to see intermingled with pre-owned is pre-loved. Those terms imply that they are in generally good condition even though they’ve been used. You would expect there to be nothing explicitly wrong with them outside some minor cosmetic damage.

However, it’s always best to be skeptical of terms like pre-owned, pre-loved, and vintage. They are words designed to evoke a feeling in you that the items have been taken care of, but this isn’t guaranteed. As there is no agreed-upon definition, it varies across stores, sites, and sellers.

As with other second-hand items, understand the risks of purchasing a used item, especially when it comes to electronics or high-value purchases. Before committing, make sure you know the seller’s return policy and any warranties offered.

Certified Pre-Owned

While pre-owned is primarily marketing speak for used, Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) actually has an entirely different meaning. CPO is a term in the used car industry that describes a vehicle that has been inspected by the automaker or dealer and returned to the original specifications. In this sense, it is very similar to a certified refurbished item.

The used car is inspected and, if found, faults are repaired, and parts replaced. The warranty is typically extended either based on mileage, the months of the original warranty, or a parts warranty. However, just as with Certified Refurbished, there is no hard-and-fast rule and the details will often vary between dealers and automakers.

Which Second-Hand Device Is Right for You?

In the majority of cases when buying a second-hand product, refurbished is the way to go. The device will have been returned to a close-to-original condition and will be cheaper than a new model too. Certified Refurbished products go a step further, adding a manufacturer’s warranty into the mix. There are even significant benefits to buying a second-hand computer instead of a new one.

However, you may well decide that a second-hand product isn’t right for you. That doesn’t mean you need to break the bank next time you choose to invest. If you’re prepared to shop at these online shopping sites for cheap electronics The 8 Best Online Shopping Sites for Cheap Electronics The 8 Best Online Shopping Sites for Cheap Electronics Buying cheap electronics is one way to save money. These online shopping sites have the best deals on cheap electronics. Read More , there are deals to be found.

Explore more about: Buying Tips, Hardware Tips, Online Shopping.

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  1. Christopher
    July 27, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    Pretty much anything costing me $100 or more was a refurb. Some vendors (TigerDirect comes to mind) grade their refurbs from C (held together with duct tape) to A (probably the only thing to exhibit wear is the Windows sticker of the bottom of the laptop).

    Buy A unless you're buying to cannibalize.

    Had a friend who could not even listen to me advise refurbs. She was disgusted at the thought that someone might've touched the item before her. (And yes, generally speaking, she was a germaphobe, but mostly I thought was a lousy date she would've been.)

  2. isse
    July 26, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    While I'm disgusted with the ecological aspects of always buying new, used electronics have been a waste of time and money more often than not. One example... after a warranty issue with a Motorola device which I had purchased new, I was sent a manufacturer refurb to replace it. They ended up sending me FOUR refurb phones before I got one that worked properly.

    • James Frew
      July 26, 2019 at 4:50 pm

      The manufacturer replacements are a bit more opaque than commericial refurbishments. You often don't have anything but the company's word that the device has been checked over, and, as you're already going through a warranty replacement process, replacing the refurbished device can be a hassle.

      Purchasing used devices, so long as the store is reputable and has a good history of high-quality refurbishments/repairs, you should be able to find good quality second-hand devices.

  3. Sailor Jo
    July 23, 2019 at 3:39 am

    Years ago I bought a refurbished camera. Thanks goodness I bought an extended warranty. The first serious test came after the original warranty had expired. An Alaska cruise challenged the camera and when I did my post processing I found on all pictures the same area distorted. As the camera was not on the market any more I received the buying price for the camera as the insurance agreed with my claim.
    Nevertheless, my pictures are not the fun they were supposed to be. My suspicion is that refurbished products may have deficiencies that are not apparent during testing but exist anyway. For me the risk of deficiencies is not worth the little discount.

    I just took a look at a reseller of refurbished items and found them almost as expensive as new items. It seems that the vendors of refurbished items try to imply a price advantage that does not exist.

    • James Frew
      July 23, 2019 at 12:47 pm

      I'm sorry to hear that you had that experience - it must have been quite disappointing to lose those photographs from your vacation.

      On a more general point, refurbished items *can* be a great deal, but ensuring you buy from a reputable retailer that has refurbished the item properly, and offers a warranty should mean that, if the product does break, you at least have a way to get it sorted.

  4. HildyJ
    July 12, 2019 at 11:57 pm

    For computers, check the manufacturers' websites. Most have an outlet where you can purchase refurbished models in addition to open box, scratch and dent, and discontinued models.

    • James Frew
      July 13, 2019 at 12:04 am

      Absolutely. I also suggest the samem in the article.

  5. Tom B.
    June 14, 2017 at 4:53 am

    Also, refurbished (certified) devices are usually slightly used because they were returned as faulty after a fews days or weeks by their original owners.

  6. Eddie G.
    December 6, 2016 at 7:09 am

    I don't have a problem with buying refurbished items, BUT I won't do it from eBay, but fro ma respectable establishment such as WalMart.....Staples.....or Amazon. I have purchased laptops and desktops that were refurbished and are now way past their "expiration date" but they have been running like stallions (Linux of course!) and with RAM upgrades, fan replacements and TB HDD replacements everything is fine. I don't see the need to run out and buy "latest & greatest" because the price almost NEVER justifies the length of time you'll have the item. Take for example, a brand spanking new Dell latitude laptop with a touch-screen (HATE that particular technology on a laptop!...that's the whole point of having a touchpad!) or buying an all in one that has a 4K display? yeah, it doesn't justify the money they're asking for it. Because in 4 - 7 years time? that will be the new "Windows XP" and it won't be worth anywhere near what they're asking for now! I prefer to buy refurbished and to extend the life of the machines with hardware and RAM upgrades. I guess eventually the "new" stuff will come along and be used and I can score some really nice stuff later on. I'm patient enough to wait for a nice gaming PC! LoL!)

  7. Ron
    December 5, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I have used eBay for purchasing used phones. My rule of thumb is if you purchase from a company that has "hundreds" of the same item for sale, you take more chances than from an individual who is a general eBayer who just happens to have a phone to cell. Also check the pictures that are attached and ask the seller any question that you have. I once purchased a phone with the wrong carrier back, after confirming this via email.

  8. George Lucas
    December 3, 2016 at 1:28 am

    Purchased my last two PC,s factory refurbished from Staples. Both have given me excellent service. Last one was an HP and I noticed that the hard drive was smaller than stated in the specifications. Contacted HP and the confirmed that the wrong hard drive had been installed and they sent another replacement at no charge. Warentee was the same as buying a new one. When this finally packs up would but refurbished again.