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Rebuilt to Last: A DIY Expert Explains Why He ONLY Buys Refurbs

Kyle Wiens of iFixit wants to relieve shoppers of their refurb anxiety.
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refurbished electronics

Part tech maven, part tech maverick, Kyle Wiens of iFixit is to DIY electronics repair what Mr. Wrigley is to chewing gum. And believe us, if anyone could figure out how to fix an iPhone 6s with a wad of Juicy Fruit, Wiens is the guy.

Wiens isn't afraid to speak his mind on any gadget issue — and he made waves in late October when he told Patrick Austin of Consumer Reports that "Every computer I've ever bought has been a refurb." Wow. You could just see those shiny new iMacs coming off the assembly line turning green-screen with envy.

While the shopping ins and outs of refurbs get plenty of coverage, the electronic advantages don't get nearly as much media love. So Wiens — a longtime friend of DealNews — took time from his busy schedule to walk us through what makes refurbished products rock.

Hard Drives Are Fully-Tested During the Refurb Process

Many shoppers know how to pick computers for hard-drive size — but as they say, size isn't everything. Wiens shared this little-known trick of the trade that applies to refurbished computers: the burn in. This is a period akin to how new cars get broken in during the first 1,000 miles.

With refurbs, "a lot of manufacturers run the computer through all of their tests again, which is actually good for consumers," he says. "With hard drives, the failure rate is such that it's either going to happen in the first few months, or after five years. So if it's a product with a hard drive, they're running it for a while during the refurbishment; they're going through that burn-in process and you're actually going to be better off."

The Smartphones Refurb Market is Hot

Used cars go through a pre-certification process, but it's not quite the same as how recycled cell phones get gussied up for resale. "If you look at the average life of a smartphone and checked how many owners it had, it's usually three," Wiens points out. "Yet resellers are paying top dollar for those phones, cleaning them up, and selling them — and it's a huge market."

SEE ALSO: Why Your Next Phone Should Be a Refurb

In fact, research firm IBISWorld reports that as of April, the cell phone recycling market, dominated by the likes of Gazelle, has reached $742 million, with 13% annual growth. "With Gazelle, they get their products in by mail, and then they bring them back to a state that's like new."

The Quality Control is Twice as High

Wiens also cites the rigor that established computer companies put into refurbished gear. "When the products come back to the manufacturer, they go through all the same quality control processes — in fact, it's twice the quality control because it's their second trip through." That means that for many consumers, refurbished can be way, way better than new: "There are many places in the world where if it's between a used Dell or used Apple versus a new Chinese product, people will take the used product."

No Two 'Furbs Are Alike

While iFixit performs product teardowns on all types of electronics, it's a little harder to apply uniform scrutiny to refurbished goods because each case is unique. Some go back to the factory because Joe Fashion Plate didn't like the color, while other items might have suffered a crack in the shipping process.

Asked if he could in theory do a teardown series dedicated to refurbs of a particular model, Wiens replies, "We could. But the way you'd really tell is to buy 10 of the same thing and power them up for a while, or look inside to see if they've been cleaned properly. It's a consistency thing as well as quality."

Refurbishing an Image

If the refurbished market offers so many advantages in terms of efficient function at a low cost, why do some shoppers stay away? "I'm wondering if that's because refurbished goods are sold separately from new products, and that makes people think of them differently. Or maybe it has something to do with the car 'lemon laws,' where there's a negative perception that gets passed on to refurbished products."

While Wiens is a smooth operator under a laptop shell, he doesn't probe under the human skull. "I haven't done psychological research on it," he says, laughing. "I just always go for refurbished."

Refurb Words of Praise, and Pause

While he's dissected gadgets right down to the smallest screw and scrappiest chip, Wiens' personal experience makes for compelling evidence to go refurbished with confidence in reliable performance. He magnifies his Consumer Reports statement to say that he's bought refurbished laptops "from my second computer at least, and I think I've gone through seven MacBook Pro equivalents over the years."

If the original manufacturer isn't doing the refurb, it's being farmed out to an outside company — and that's where you'll want to do some homework.

Still, there are some caveats to consider operations-wise. If the original manufacturer isn't doing the refurb, it's being farmed out to an outside company — and that's where you'll want to do some homework. "Every one has different standards. With PCRR (PC Rebuilders & Recyclers), they do data wipes on the computer, put a new copy of Windows on it, and resell through a lot of reputable brand channels. The job they do is as good as the reputation they have: and in their case, they do a pretty good job."

In the end, Wiens says more buyers should go the refurbished route because there's much to gain in purchasing a product rebuilt to last. Some warranties might not run as long as for new, but that's not the case with big brands such as Apple. (It offers one-year warranties on new and refurbished computers, with prices roughly 15% cheaper for the latter).

But there's one case where he says not to take the plunge. "Don't buy a refurbished camera in Brooklyn," he warns. "There are a lot of well-known scams there. They'll sell the camera but leave out the power adapter. Anywhere in the world but Brooklyn."

Readers, what do you think about refurbished electronics? Are there any items you always — or never — buy refurbished? Let us know in the comments below!


Contributing Writer

Lou Carlozo is a DealNews contributing writer. He covers personal finance for Reuters Wealth. Prior to that he was the Managing Editor of WalletPop.com, and a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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19 comments
bciocco
I buy refurbs for myself, new for gifts. I can't think of ever having a problem with a refurb, floor model, or B stock item.
One exception to the "new for gifts" rule was a five disc CD Player I bought for my wife when we first got married. It wasn't a refurb, but a floor model. I bought it at Circuit City and it was much lower than the new price and they "threw in" (included in the price) the extended warranty. It was a great purchase and the extended warranty gave me the confidence to buy the floor model.
I am surprised more stores don't do that. It would get their items sold and get them their extended warranty sales numbers.
rays
Yep I have always told people refurbished electronics are most likely good to get, especially if the description says scratch and dent. if you think about it scratch and dent are usually something that has absolutely nothing to do with the operation of the unit, and if its a cell phone you are going to put some kind of case on it anyway! :-)
unoshatta
I bought a 52" Phillips flat panel TV in 2008 that had been refurbished. At that time, it sold for $1200 when a new one cost $2000.
It still works to this day!
bigfattone420
Bought a Lenovo Yoga 8 tablet $100.00,refurbished last Dec ,it's close to 1 year without any problems.Also Lenovo is a company that gives 1 year warranty on refurbish items.I was able to add 2 yrs extra warranty for $14.00,so this refurbish Tablet is covered for 3 yrs total.
Angry_Ginger
I will only buy refurbs direct from the manufacture itself. Most of the times the warranty on the refurb item is comparable to a new item. If it isn't, I may think twice about purchasing the item depending on what it is. If it's a small item, then usually no issues. If it is something larger, then probably not. I used to snub my nose at refurbed hard drives but then I realized at work when we have to get replacement drives for systems (servers, desktop, laptops, etc.) because of drive failures, 95% of the time we get a refurbed drive as the replacement. And I don't think we've ever had a problem with those drives. New ones we still have problems with. This article and past experience reassures me that refurb drives are not as bad as it sounds. And you should have your data backed up anyway incase of drive failure. It's not the drives fault that you lost your data. It's your fault for not backing it up. There are definitely great deals out there on quality refurbed items.
Pandp
Bought a refurbed Nikon pocket camera and is still the everyday user for shooting pictures for a site I moderate. 5 years and still clicking. Bought a couple others but still find Nikon's low resolution for computer is the best. Found out a major retailer in area uses the same. Posting from a Dell refurb too.
toadc
I took a refurb iPhone 3G offer from AT*T and it was fine for a few years. Sold on eBay. Currently have a refurb MacBook Air, from Apple Store. It's the way to go, as the article states OEM refurbs are a walk in the park. I certainly wouldn't buy a refurbished ______ (fill in the blank) from a fleaMarket type place. Nor from some guys selling speakers out the back of the windowless minivan.
boilers
I am a big fan of Kyle Wiens. America needs more like him.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQP0mYmtWMg
fast4word
My experience with FACTORY refurbished products has been so good I would be foolish to buy new. Failure rate of new products I purchased exceeds refurbished. I would extend endorsement to factory certified used vehicles with the caveat of independent professional inspection prior to purchase. Power tools are another bargain. Many people are not aware, but most machines escape hot factory QC. Numerous inspections occur during assembly, but only a low percentage is fired up prior to shipment. Cost containment and confidence in an acceptable warranty claim rate drives this policy. Refurbished equipment receives closer inspection than new. In many cases, design or critical component issues are rectified during refurbishment as manufacturers have the benefit of mass consumer product feedback. Most often the only difference from new is an indication on the box - accessories and documentation are included. I cannot justify sending more products with rare and toxic components to landfills.
eggbert43
I have been buying refurb computers, PCs and laptops, from Dell for over 15 years. They have the same warranty as new. My last two cameras were refurbs from Canon and they had same as new warranty. No problems with any of them.
SoggyInSeattle
Over the years I have bought three refurb PC's and they have out-last my new PC's. There are some great bargains to be found.
smarte001
I always bought refurb from Apple and never had a problem. They even follow up if they do have recalls.
RandyLormand
The only time I had a problem with a purchase from Dell was when I bought a new item. I always buy refurbs because I have always had good luck with them and they seem to last forever. I look at it like the last person who owned it found the problems and they were fixed. I have probably purchased 12 to 15 refurbs (desktops, laptops and game systems).
Rawmeat
I've bought refurbs that had limited warranties, like 90 days only. I've only had a problem with a weed whacker. On items like electronics, oftentimes you can buy a Square Trade or other warranty for a reasonable price for peace of mind, and it still costs much less than new.
Wolfcub01
I bought a refurbished smartphone through AT&T because of the significant discount in price. 1 day literately past the significantly shorter warranty it ceased to function. When I contacted AT&T they shuffled me around till putting me on the phone with someone who had the authority to say, "Its past your warranty so I don't have to help you. Would u like the manufacturers number before hang up?". It was probably just my really terrible luck due to the 1day past warranty (seriously 1) but the experience left me pretty turned off on refurbished smart phones. I also tend to keep mine longer than average and with the things I have seen happen to them I wouldn't touch a refurbished phone personally.
Just about everything else especially computers and laptops I would not hesitate to buy refurbished. At least if from the manufacturer and the discount is decent enough. In fact the only laptop I have had problems with and had to send back happened to be the only one I've bought new. lol
Richard323
I've only had 1 problem with refurbished. It was a kindle fire HD tablet for my niece. I had to send it back about 4 times.
lcbrownz
For over 15 years, I only purchased refurbished desktops. The only problem, they became obsolete long before they wore out.
Phatdeals
Previously, I've read about how refurbish is the way to go as well. But my previous purchases of refurbish laptop and tablet, I've had issues with the batteries. Not really sure if it's because of them being refurbished or not, but the battery will show like 50% one second before and the next second it drops to like 30%!
Courvo1@outlook.com
During my previous career in managing several national service centers for Apple, Dell and others, refurb is the way to purchase excellent product. Over the last 20 years, a migration of aerospace and defence engineers/ managers have transitioned over to the commercial computer industry. They have brought what we call "Best Practices" . Reliability/Environmental testing, Quality Engineering and Configuration Management have resulted in major improvements in our ability to deliver refurb products. When working with Dell Computer, I was amazed to be working with many of the same engineering staff that I worked with previously in building multiple aerospace projects.