Chapter 14: Computing on a Shoestring

Chapter 14: Computing on a Shoestring

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.


ONE OF THE BIGGEST BARRIERS TO COMPUTERS IS THE PRICE TAG. Computer manufacturers would love you to think that you need the absolute latest computer that just coincidentally costs more than you want to spend. The trick to buying a computer is knowing that few people need the most advanced computer available: New computers plummet in value faster than new cars. To cut costs, do a little research and you could save hundreds of dollars on your next computer—and, with a little creativity, load it with software for nothing, or next to nothing.


If you need another computer, never buy a new one. Instead, save money and buy a used or refurbished computer. Since computer prices drop every day, even the latest computer will become obsolete and overpriced within a few weeks. With a little bit of careful shopping, you may even be able to get the latest computer at a cut-rate price, but only if you know where to look first.

Refurbished computers

Refurbished computers are products that someone either returned because of a defect or because they didn't like it for some reason—even though it may be working perfectly well. Once a manufacturer receives a returned computer, they tear it apart, test every component, and then put the computer back together again so it's just like new—but with one problem. Legally, manufacturers can't sell a returned computer as new, so they have to sell it as a refurbished computer.

Since the manufacturer has already lost money accepting a returned computer, they offer to sell it at a greatly reduced price just to get rid of it. If the computer were to fail a second time and force someone to return it, the manufacturer would lose even more money. So when manufacturers receive a returned computer the first time, they actually test it more rigorously than a new computer, because they want to make sure that customers won't have a technical reason to return the computer again.

Refurbished computers come with the same technical support and warranty as the identical new model, but at a much lower price. Perhaps the one major drawback with refurbished computers is that you may have to customize them to get all the features you want. When you buy a refurbished computer, you can only buy what the manufacturer happens to have in stock that day. So if you want a computer with a 120Gb hard disk but the manufacturer only has a refurbished computer with an 80Gb hard disk, you'll either have to wait until the manufacturer gets a computer with a 120Gb hard disk or just buy the computer with the 80Gb hard disk and replace the hard disk (or add a second one) later.

Still if you don't mind getting a computer that someone else may have opened and used, buying a refurbished computer can be a great way to get a top-of-the-line machine without paying top-of-the-line prices. You won't find refurbished computers sold at your favorite store, though. Most computer manufacturers only sell refurbished computers through websites. Although best known for selling books, also sells new and refurbished computer systems and accessories (; 800-800-8300).

Astak Sells various name-brand computer systems and parts, many of which are OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) parts that computer dealers normally buy to build and repair computers, so manuals may be missing or non-existent, and products arrive in plain cardboard boxes (; 408-519-0401).

HP Shopping Hewlett-Packard's online computer store that also offers a special outlet section for selling discontinued and refurbished desktop and laptop computers. In addition to computers, you can also buy refurbished printers, monitors, and handheld computers (; 888-999-4747).

Dell Computer Dell Computer is another mail-order computer giant that has its share of returned products, which it sells at a discount (; 877-471-DELL).

Gateway Gateway sells refurbished desktops, laptops, and servers (; 1-800-846-3614).

Opportunity Distributing Opportunity Distributing contacts companies that are upgrading their computers and sells their old equipment to the public (; 952-936-0221). Besides selling refurbished and discontinued products from various manufacturers, including Gateway, Sony, Dell, and Toshiba, also sells consumer-oriented software at cut-rate prices, such as children's games and educational programs (; 800-989-0135).

PC Factory Outlet Packard Bell, eMachines, and NEC sell their returned or discontinued models here (; 800-733-5858).

PCnomad Specializes in selling refurbished laptop computers, including those from IBM, Toshiba, Dell, and Compaq (; 800-278-4009).

PCRetro Buys computers and office equipment from failed or bankrupt companies, and refurbishes them for sale to the public (; 877-277-3872).

TigerDirect Sells new and refurbished computers and computer parts, so you can build your own computer if you have the desire (; 800-800-8300). Offers a clearinghouse for a variety of dealers who specialize in selling used and refurbished computer and office equipment at prices way below retail (; 877-277-3872).

Floor models and returns

Every computer store has floor models that customers can bang away at for a test drive while browsing through the store displays. If you must have the latest technology, consider buying a floor model. Most stores will be happy to cut the price a bit to make a sale.

Alternatively, consider buying a returned or "open box" machine. Many of the larger computer stores allow customers to return new computers within a specified period of time. Usually stores will have one or two returned models that are perfectly good but out of their original packaging or in an opened box, so the store will sell them at lower prices.

Online auctions

If your local computer store doesn't sell returned or floor models, try online auctions or resellers. Online auctions are a great place to buy inexpensive computers and computer parts. The computers, computer parts, and even "antique" computers sold on these sites come from individuals off-loading their old hardware or from liquidators and brand-name distributors (such as Dell Computer) that need to dump their surplus or old stock. And, if you hunt around long enough, you just may find that elusive part you need to keep your computer running, and get it at a bargain price to boot.

Since online auctions offer so many different computers and accessories, make sure you know what you're buying before you dive in. With a little research and plenty of patience, you can buy new or used equipment or software at prices far below what you could ever find through mail order or in a retail store. Just be careful that you don't get so fixated on buying a particular item that you wind up bidding more than the retail price.

To find computer equipment through an online auction, visit one of the following websites:

CNET Auctions


Dell Auction

CompUSA Auctions


Government auctions

Every year, police departments around the country confiscate property from criminals. After taking the good stuff for themselves, the police hold an auction to get rid of what's left and to raise money.

At police auctions (usually held monthly, depending on where you live) you'll see everything from cars and yachts to houses, office furniture, and, of course, computers. (Call your local police department to see when they hold property auctions.)

Before the auction begins, try to inspect the equipment to make sure it's working. (This may not always be possible.) Auctioned computers come with no guarantees, so either assume they won't work and be prepared to strip them for parts, or just hope for the best.

Recycled computers

A few computer companies have popped up that buy old computers from corporations, refurbish them, and then resell them. Although you won't get the latest models when you buy recycled equipment, you can get a fairly decent used machine with a warranty to boot. Just make sure that the cost of the recycled computer really is less than buying a refurbished computer, a floor model, or an auctioned computer.

Here are some good sites for recycled machines:



Build it yourself

If you're handy, you can build your own computer. Depending on the parts you buy, you could either save a lot of money building a bare-bones model or create a souped-up computer for the same price you might pay for an ordinary name-brand computer. Best of all, you get the experience of building your own machine, so you'll know how to fix and upgrade it later.

Look online or in any issue of PC Magazine, PC World, or Computer Shopper to find tons of dealers who sell computer parts, or find a local computer store (usually one without a fancy franchise name), and buy the parts you need. If you need help, pick up a do-it-yourself computer book that explains how to build your own PC (although the best way to learn is simply to watch someone else build one), or search online where you'll find lots of tutorials and reviews of various hardware (try,,, or

Computers are relatively easy to build because they consist of easily purchased and replaceable components that you simply snap or screw together. If you can build a toy house out of Lego building blocks, you should have little trouble putting together your own computer. It just takes a little more fiddling around to get it to work.

The biggest hassle with building your own computer is getting the right parts, and getting them to work correctly together. Even new computers crash, so don't expect a computer you've built to be any different.

Buy a new computer

Sometimes you absolutely must have the latest computer model available. While you could wait a few months until people start returning these models so you can buy a refurbished computer, you may just want to go ahead and buy the latest computer right now. For people who can't wait, at least make sure you don't spend more than necessary.

To help you find the lowest prices on the Web, visit these sites:


By using these websites, you can search for the lowest price offered by various online retailers for the exact same piece of equipment. Once you've found the lowest price, you can buy your new computer knowing you got the best price available at the time.

When you're in the market for a new computer, consider buying machines with processors from a company other than Intel. Because Intel is the leader in the processor market, their prices are usually higher than those of compatible rivals, such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). AMD processors are often just as fast (or sometimes even faster) than their Intel rivals, yet AMD processors almost always cost much less.

Soup-up your old computer

Many people want another computer because their current one is too slow. But rather than buy another computer, those on a budget might consider just yanking out their current processor and replacing it with a faster processor. If the computer won't accept a new processor, you can often yank out the entire motherboard and replace it with a new one that accepts a faster processor. The cost of a new processor and a motherboard will almost always be less than buying another computer.

For an even cheaper way to boost the performance of your computer, try overclocking it. Basically, overclocking means tweaking your hardware (typically the main processor but sometimes the video cards too) at a higher clock speed than what the manufacturer designed it to run. Overclocking may void your equipment's warranty and even overheat and damage your equipment if you're not careful, but with a little bit of care, you can boost the performance of an ordinary computer into a super powerhouse, using the equipment you already own.

For more information about overclocking your equipment, visit ClubOC ( or Extreme (, or pick up a copy of The Book of Overclocking by Scott Wainner and Robert Richmond, published by No Starch Press.