PC Troubleshooting Book

If It Jams Home

Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal

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Buying a Second Hand PC - Used Computer Prices

Value is in the eye of the beholder? True with art, but when an acquisitions editor I know recently asked me if her company should publish a book about classic computers, I told her I couldn't imagine who would buy it. Well, actually I could, but I don't think there are enough of us to justify publishing the thing:-) In the previous section we talked about what you can and can't do a used computer, and the general conclusion was you could do just about anything if you sank enough money into it, but it would rarely be cost effective. On this page I'm going to give some guidelines for putting a value on a used computer, but let me start with a caution about accepting PC's for free. In my town, it costs $10 to dispose of a PC at the dump (they call it a recycling center or something) and an additional $10 to get rid of an old CRT or a dead LCD monitor. In other words, if I'm given a "free" PC and I can't find somebody who needs it, it costs me $20 to get rid of it legally. So, from one perspective, old computers actually have a negative value, and when it becomes widely known, blackmailers will walk around saying, "Give me $10 or I'll leave my old PC on your doorstep."

Second Hand Computer Prices

Computer Price/Value Description We start with new computer price ranges for comparison. Note that I'm not showing packages, with the printer and monitor. Printers are practically free with rebates and monitor prices should be figured separately.
$199-$349 New economy system from brand-name. You can expect to get a closeout model from last year, equipped with either an AMD or Intel CPU in the 1.5 GHz to 3.0 GHz range with a 250 GB or larger hard drive, 1 GB or 2 GB of RAM and CD/DVD recorder at the higher end of the price range. It will have build in networking, a 56K modem, a motherboard integrated video adapter, and a cheap power supply. Don't purchase one of these systems to upgrade it, but they are ideal for students going to college or a first PC for the homeowner or small office.
$349-$499 New Brand Name PC You can buy a really top performing PC at the high end of this range, and the low end is more than good enough for any home or office application. It won't be a serious gaming PC, but it will have one of the latest model Intel or AMD CPU's (though not the highest speed), a big hard drive (greater than 500 MB), 3 GB of RAM, and a high performace graphics card featuring nVidia or ATI, and the case may not be fully expandable.

Gaming / Multimedia PC Name brand manufacturers sell computers they call "multi-media" PC's, and some of these units will have a decent discrete video card, an extra large hard drive and 4 GB of RAM,. A real gaming PC from a company like Alienware will start around $599 and go right up through $4,999. At the high end, you're buying a computer with multiple high-end video adapters (they share the load to speed graphics performance), super fast hard drives in RAID arrays for performance, mounds of RAM, the fastest multi-core 64 bit CPU available, every bell and whistle imaginable, including a stylish case. You don't buy one of these without studying product reviews for a few months in magazines.
Free Old brand-name economy system There's just no sense in paying anything for an old economy system. I'm defining "old" here to mean it was purchased new more than 2 years ago. If you shop around, you'll be able to buy a better computer instead for whatever they're asking. Again, this doesn't include the monitor or the software. If you feel the monitor and the software are worth $50, go ahead, but keep in mind you won't be able to move that software to a new PC when you pay to get rid of the old one.
$0 - $50 Used brand-name economy system A brand-name computer that's less than 2 years old, includes a DVD player and CD recorder, at least an 120 GB hard drive, 1 GB of RAM, and works like a charm when you test it. Never buy a used PC without taking it for a test drive first. The owner may think it's worth more because 2 years ago, economy PC's cost around $400, buy you point out that you can get a new one for $200 today, and they should come around. Windows XP must be installed.
$50 - $100 Used brand-name PC This is a brand-name PC with a DVD recorder, a reasonable number of ports (USB 2.0, Firewire), and hopeful some other junk they've accumulated over the years. Hard drive should be 120 GB or greater, 1.0 GB or more of RAM running XP or 2.0 GB running Vista. A decent keyboard, mouse and speakers should be included, try listening to the speakers with a music CD. Don't pay more for multiple drives (ie, a CD Recorder and a discrete DVD player), it's not worth more than a combination unit.
$100 - $150 Used brand-name multimedia PC Should have a decent Intel or AMD CPU, with a minimum of 2.0 GBof RAM and a ATI or nVidia video adapter. At least an 250 GB hard drive, 4 or more USB 2.0 ports (front and back), Firewire and a memory slot for digital camera memory. Make sure the software for recording DVD's is installed,that the fans aren't noisy. Also, make sure the video adapter is discrete (not integrated on the motherboard) and that the card has at least 128 MB of video RAM. It's not really a multi-media box otherwise.
$150 - $500 Used hobbyist PC A hobbyist is going to know every bit of hardware in the box and what he paid for it. Make sure the motherboard supports PCI Express, and the video adapter is an PCI Express adapter with at least 256 MB RAM (the old AGP 8X is pretty long in the tooth). Make sure the power supply is a brand name, at least 400 watts, that he paid at least $60 for. Memory must be DDR-2 or DDR-3. Don't be surprised if he thinks the sound card is worth a lot of money, it isn't to you. Expect five hundred GB of hard drive capacity spread across two or more drives. Just add up what he spent on all the parts and if the system is less than two years old, it's worth an absolute maximum of half that, up to $500. It's not worth over $500, whatever is in there, and if it's more like 2-3 years old, I wouldn't pay a quarter or the original of the parts cost.
$500 - $1000 Used Gamer PC The only situation in which I'd consider paying this much for a used computer is if the seller is a member of the gaming community you know who is upgrading to a new gaming PC for several thousand more. This gets into the area of it being worth what you want to pay for it, so sit down and play some games you're familiar with on the thing. The sound system is critical, don't get sucked into some deal where the speakers aren't included. If it's more than a year old, I wouldn't even consider it.
$1000 - $2000 New Gamer Distress Sale I'm only mentioning this to avoid getting angry e-mails. If your best friend spent a couple thousand dollars on an Alienware box a few weeks ago, but now he's getting married with a kid on the way, you can pay more than 50% of what he paid for it if it's really what you want. Call them and see if they'll officially transfer the warranty to you. It better have PCI Express video and a many-core CPU at this price.

A large part of the value of any used computer is the installed software. Different software companies have different policies when it comes to who actually has a legal right to use their software. Keep in mind that software is sold by license rather than outright, and big companies or educational institutes which have site licenses or educational discounts, are more likely to wipe the hard drive before selling or otherwise disposing of used computers. Sales between individuals pretty much always include the software, whether or not it's actually legal, and it would be naive to ignore the value. If you build a new PC and you go out and buy Windows XP and Microsoft Office (OEM versions), you've just spent a few hundred dollars on software. If you purchase a used computer or receive a hand-me-down which has this software installed, even if it's Windows 98 and Office 97, you can get right to work. Again, I'm not preaching about morality here and I don't really understand the legal issues involved in using software that's licensed to the original owner, I'm just reporting how things are. I would say the cheapest you can legally obtain a copy of Windows XP and Microsoft Word for (not the full office) is still over $200 if you build your own PC.

Getting onto the hardware. We're going to look at value by CPU family, which means you have to really have to turn the PC on to see what processor is installed. I would never purchase a used PC without first sitting down and running a few installed applications, shutting down and restarting to see if there are start-up errors, and using System icon in Device Manager, Control Panel>Device Manager>System to get the System Properties display which has been part of Windows for as long as I can remember.

Not the System Properties reports on the Operating System and release installed, the CPU and speed (This is my notebook with a 1.3 GHz Celeron), and the about of RAM installed (it's actually 512 MB, but the video adapter is sharing 32 MB, so it's reported as 480 MB). You can click on the My Computer icon on the desktop to see all of the installed drive, and right-click on the drives themselves and choose "properties" to see the capacity and the amount of free space. The unformatted capacity of my notebook drive is 60 GB, but the usable capacity is 55 GB of which 10 GB has been used.


Also, before getting to a blue book for used computer prices, I want to say a couple words about monitors. Monitors and PC's are generally sold separately, even if you purchase them at the same time. The two are not coupled in any way, any new monitor will work on any new computer. Older monitors are a little more finicky, but it's been about 10 years since compatibility was a real issue. The following table is for determining the value of the monitor separately from the PC. Note all measurements are diagonal (across opposite corners of the screen) and CRT (tube monitor measurements) include the tube under the plastic, so you have to add about an inch to the measured length for the "true" size. This is a quick reference table, I'm not getting into the dot pitch, luminescence, resolution (critical on LCDs) or the brand. It's just to keep you from getting burned. If you want a closer estimate, get a price on a new equivalent from the Internet and then slice off a minimum of 50%.

Size Cathode Ray Tube (CRT Monitor) Liquid Crystal Display (LCD Monitor)
14" Free Free
15" Free Free
17" Free $25
19" $25 $50
21" or greater $50 (but you'll break your back) $100

Now we get to my version of a blue book value for PC components and used computers. If the PC you're looking at was build by a hobbyist or sold as a gaming PC, odds are it's actually worth appreciably more than a brand name PC with a similar CPU. The reason is two-fold. First, brand name PC's are usually built with highly integrated motherboards to cut costs, and the computer is actually engineered in the sense that they'll use the cheapest, lowest wattage power supply that's is good enough for the particular model. Highly integrated motherboard have two downsides. First, if an integrated component fails, you may have to replace the whole motherboard if the system won't support an add-in adapter. Second, the performance of integrated video cards will be lower than their add-in bretheren, and the option to upgrade will be highly limited. On the other hand, hobbyists often buy the highest quality cases and power supplies (Antec comes to mind), in addition to carefully researching every part for the best performance and compatibility. Gaming PC builders (if they're good) do something similar, since price is no object. You can spend as little as $20 on a case and power supply, or as much as $200 - guess which path the brand name manufacturers who compete solely on price take.

Discrete computer components actually have value, since they are totally exchangeable, and age isn't really the issue, technology is. In other words, a 2 year old $100 ATX power supply is still a high quality power supply, it's just had an extended "burn-in" period, so you know it's good:-) On the other hand, a two year old $20 junk power supply is on it's last legs and isn't worth a dime. I'm not saying I'd value the 2 year old Antec power supply that cost $100 at $100, but it's worth $50 to a serious hobbyist. Video cards don't hold their value quite as well because the technology changes so fast, but a 8X AGP nVidia with 128 MB that cost $299 two years ago is still worth $50 to somebody who needs one, where a $100 4X AGP adapter that was bought for last year isn't worth $5 today. The highest end components hold their value the best until the technology changes (ie, PCI Express takes over from AGP), at which point the older components value goes to nothing unless you find just the right buyer.

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