Advice on Buying a Used Laptop?


I’m wondering if I should jump on a used laptop that’s being advertised near me. It’s listed as an HP Pavilion, “only 2-3 years old,” running Windows 10 on an Intel Pentium with 500 GB hard drive. The asking price is $160.

I’ve been using a Mac for years and haven’t kept up with the Windows market, but this sounds pretty low-end. However, I’ve been needing something to deal with a large number of photos, most of which are on PC-compatible external drives, and this might work for me.

But I’ve never bought a used laptop before, so I’d appreciate some advice as to whether the HP Pavilion is a reliable beast, and if so whether the price is reasonable.

Honestly, if all you need the Windows laptop for is to access the external NTFS-formatted hard drives, I think you'd be much better off just buying something like NTFS for Mac (it's supposed to have a 10-day free trial).

Buying any used PC, especially if you're largely unfamiliar with what to expect and don't have time to do some decent reliability testing before you buy, is risky.

Okay, thanks. Always worth remembering the part about seeming too good to be true.

I hadn't heard of NTFS for Mac, but I'd rather have a separate machine anyway. Can you recommend a basic Windows laptop that's reliable without being too expensive?

What do you need your Windows laptop to do?

What is your budget?

How savvy are you using Windows PCs?

On a scale of 1 (least) to 5 (actual certified IT technician), where would you realistically rate your comfort getting into the nuts and bolts of computer troubleshooting?

All I really need it for is accessing and working with photos and documents. No gaming, nothing involved at all.

Budget depends on what gets me a baseline of reliability. I have a Dell that I've been using almost daily for fifteen years, but I don't know if they build Dells like they did fifteen years ago.

As for computer troubleshooting, my comfort level is about 0.2 on your scale. My old Dell is still running software from fifteen years ago, and I've been using Macs for the past several years, so I'm completely unfamiliar with where Windows has gone during those years.

What level of working on photos? Simple organizing stuff or editing in Photoshop? If Photoshop-level, do you already have a good color-calibrated & accurate external monitor to which the new laptop could be connected?

Most computer hardware, including Apple, is all built from the same standardized components from 3 or 4 OEM suppliers. Hardware reliability is rarely an issue anymore; it's about after-the-sale support, both in sustaining software updates/fixes and informational/tech assistance from humans.

For the photos, mainly organizing and basic alterations, nothing too complex. I do have an external monitor available, but I'm not doing anything that requires precision calibration.

For this and other reasons, I'd like some flavor of basic PC, as long as it has USB 2.0-compatible ports and a CD/DVD player for older media. That's probably pretty old-school in terms of requirements, but that's what fits my needs right now.

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OK, without knowing your budget, here's my wild stab at a pick: Dell Vostro 14" 3490 for $519 + tax (free shipping).

My reasoning:
Vostro: The Vostro line is designed for small & large business applications, with very minimal (or possibly none) crapware/junkware pre-installed.
(10th Gen) Intel Core i3-10110U cpu: I'd greatly prefer at least a Core i5 or i7, but that's a noticeable jump in price for performance you may not need. It is the newest gen CPU though.
Windows 10 Pro operating system: Maybe you could get away with WinHome, but WinPro has better networking support especially if you decide to network it to your Mac.
8GB RAM: You can run Win10 with less, but I wouldn't recommend it. It has an open slot, so down the road you could drop in another 4 or 8 GB if needed.
256GB M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD: I'd rather 512GB, but it'll still give you room to play. SSD drive will be very quick, and with no moving parts, should be more reliable and use less power than the old SATA/IDE drives with platters.
Intel UHD Graphics: I'd prefer the new Intel Iris or an NVidia GPU, but again more expensive. And since you aren't doing anything GPU intensive, should be sufficient.
14.0-inch FHD (1920x1080) display panel: Pretty standard. For what you're doing, I'd prefer 1920x1200 to give you more vertical room, but those panels are hard to come by. Don't get a lower resolution display, you'll regret it. Otherwise, the display should be a fairly standard experience with range of color reproduction, but it won't be as good as an IPS panel (more $$$). A 14" or even 15" panel is a happy medium, but I find 17" panels irritatingly cumbersome.
Standard 802.11ac WiFi & Bluetooth 4.1, HD webcam, stereo speakers, touchpad, and un-backlit keyboard: Basic stuff. Not a weird, cramped keyboard layout.
3-Cell, 42 WHr, integrated battery: I'm not keen on the smaller battery, especially a non-removable one. But, this system is optimized to be low weight and not be a power guzzler, so you'll likely be OK when mobile.
I/O Ports (SD card reader, 1 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A, VGA out, HDMI, RJ-45 network jack, headphone/mic): Pretty much all standard stuff.
Weight: 3.8 lb. Not bad.

It doesn't ship with an integrated CD/DVD drive... which is actually what you want these days. Dell will sell you an external USB CDR/DVDR drive for only $39. If the drive dies, replacing it is cheap and easy and doesn't require an onsite tech or shipping your whole laptop in for service. You won't miss the added weight or extra heat & noise it generates. If you want to watch movies on the go and can't take the external drive along, there are ways to rip your DVD movies temporarily to the SSD drive.


Personal opinions: If you don't go with Dell, Lenovo is comparable. ASUS makes decent hardware, but their tech support has been lacking in the past. Acer is generally a little more affordable, but product build and support is also less-er. VAIO (formerly Sony) is overpriced for what they sell. HP... well, HP is [RANT DELETED].

Thanks for the extremely comprehensive recommendation. That does look like a good choice for the price, although I'm not sure if that's the regular price or a special sale for this weekend.

I've never had an SSD, and it does seem a little small in terms of capacity, but worth considering. The one thing I would prefer different is the CD/DVD drive, since I would very much prefer to have that integrated.

Weight is not really an issue, since this will be a stay-at-home machine rather than a travelbot. As for networking, I'm interested in the idea, but I have the technical capabilities of a tree cricket, so that will have to wait.

Overall it looks like a pretty solid choice for the price, so I appreciate the suggestion and the detailed commentary. Glad to know Dell still makes decent products.

Dell always includes "discounts" on their PCs, and they frequently run sales. Odds are it'll be close to the same price regardless of when you buy it (assuming you decide to get it from them). If I remember correctly, most laptop manufacturers introduce their refreshed line in late March to early April, so if you can afford to wait a little longer you might pick up a Dell (or whatever you choose) for cheaper then.

I don't know how old your Apple is, but if it's running OSX, you should be able to set up a basic network with a Win10Pro system without jumping through too many hoops.

One thing I forgot tor recommend is to pay a visit to your local big box electronics and/or office supply stores and browse their laptops that are on display. Spend a little time looking their inventory over and compare. Also look for disqualifying stuff, like wonky keyboard layouts or weird feel under your fingers, dim and/or low contrast screens, construction that seems cheap or flimsy, skipping track pads, how much bloatware comes preinstalled (by the desktop icons and under the Start menu), etc. You're not looking to buy so much as get a general feel for what you like and don't like. If you see models you do like, especially with a built-in DVDRW/CDRW drive, jot down their model numbers so you can look up their specs and any reviews online.

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