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Spending Smart

For the daring, PC deals easy to find

Bargain-hunters can find cheap, used computers up for grabs at flea markets and Internet auction sites

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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Computers are relatively cheap these days, but thanks to the recession, lots of us are relatively broke. So you might consider buying something used. After all, a two- or three-year-old computer in good repair can handle just about any common task - Web surfing, writing letters, downloading music files. And you can save a couple hundred dollars or more by purchasing a preowned PC.

But where should you buy? It depends on how adventurous you are.

These days, lots of good gear turns up at flea markets, especially the legendary MIT Flea, founded a quarter-century ago by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. On the third Sunday of every month from April through October, dozens of vendors peddle a variety of cut-rate electronics, including stacks of used computers.

On a recent Sunday, we came across a Dell Latitude laptop with an Intel Pentium 4 chip, a gig of RAM, and a 40-gigabyte hard drive - plenty good enough for the average user, and decently priced at $250. Another find: For $300, there was a Hewlett-Packard laptop with a 14-inch screen, an Intel dual-core Centrino processor, a gig of RAM, and an 80-gig hard drive. The only brand-new machine you could buy at that price would be a low-powered netbook with a single-core processor chip and a 12-inch screen, at best.

But shopping at any flea market is something of a gamble. Merchandise is often sold “as is,’’ so you have little recourse if a product fails after you get it home. At the MIT Flea market, some vendors offer 30- or 60-day warranties, but to cash in, you must come back to the market the next month to meet with the dealer. That’s not much help between November and March, when the market is shut down. But if you’re up for a walk on the wild side, you can find out more about the MIT Flea at www.mitflea.com.

You can play it safer by shopping on eBay.com. You’ll find plenty of no-name merchants, but eBay’s vendor rating system lets you choose dealers with lots of experience and good reputations.

Besides, you can back up eBay purchases with an extended warranty, through a company called Squaretrade that offers protection for used items as well as new. For instance, a three-year Squaretrade warranty for a $450 used Apple laptop costs an additional $60. Buying an extended warranty makes little sense for new electronic gear, but it’s a smart move when you’re buying used. Find out more at www.squaretrade.com.

The most risk-averse bargain-hunters should look at buying refurbished computers direct from the manufacturers. The big companies, such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell, run online “outlet stores’’ on their websites, where you can buy defective machines that have been repaired or computers with scuffs and scratches. The computers carry the same warranties as brand-new gear, but they sell for around 25 percent less than new machines. For instance, Dell recently offered a refurbished Inspiron 15 laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor for $560. A similar new machine costs $784.

Buying from a big-name outlet store won’t save you as much money as a trip to the flea market. But you’ll get a newer machine from a trustworthy merchant, while still paying well below full price.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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