Computer Column



The personal computer industry is selling upwards of 30 million new PCs every year, and more than half of them fall into the category of “replacement” machines that is, they are purchased specifically to replace old computers. Which leads to a question: What is happening to all those used computers?

Some of the old PCs continue to be used; they’re passed along to a worker who didn’t have a computer before, or carted home and set up in somebody’s basement. Some of them end up stacked in the closet or the garage, because nobody can think of a use for them. It’s hard to throw away a device that cost a couple of thousand dollars just two or three years ago.

But many of them perhaps as many as 3 million per year find their way back to the market. That is to say, the secondhand PC market, which has been growing even faster than the market for brand-new computers.

The market research firm Intelligence Infocorp. says that sales of secondhand computers are growing at a supersonic rate as much as 50 percent each year. Some are sold as “reconditioned” models, which is a sideline business for some mail-order houses and a few major retailers like Best Buy. Many are offered in the classifieds, or on 3×5 cards posted on the bulletin board at the local grocery store.

But just as the used-car industry developed, a growing number of retail and mail-order outlets now specialize in used PCs.

A used computer can be a brilliant investment. It is quite an ordinary thing today to find a secondhand PC with a high-speed microprocessor, a good color display, adequate memory, and a CD-ROM drive for about $600. Fully equipped new models will easily cost three times as much.

But to make this investment a wise one, you have to know two things: What you need out of a used computer, and what you don’t need.

For example, if the used PC you buy comes equipped with a microprocessor of the 80486 generation that is, a somewhat slower chip than the more up-to-date microprocessors in most current machines it may still fill your particular needs perfectly. If your main use for a computer is word processing, you probably don’t need the high-speed display and computational power of a Pentium chip.

But you probably do need whether you know it or not a computer that has a CD-ROM drive. Most new software today is distributed on CD-ROM disks, and if you buy a computer that can’t read these disks, you’re out of luck. If you buy a new PC from just about any maker today, you are likely to find that it comes with a broad selection of pre-installed software. But when you buy used hardware, you take your chances about which if any software programs will come with it.

The other thing you probably do need, no matter what the sales person might tell you, is a decent warranty. Modern personal computers can be fairly fragile devices; a power surge, a bolt of lightning, a computer virus, or simply a spilled cup of coffee can render the machine useless.

How do you find a used PC that comes at a bargain price but still provides the features and support you need? Go to a place that specializes in used computers and talk to the sales people about the features you need and the warranty they will provide.

On the mail-order side of things, an Austin, Texas, company called Recompute (800-510-8414 or has set itself up as a national supplier of what it calls “re-manufactured”personal computers. The company says it offers brand-name computers like Dell, AST, IBM, Compaq, etc. Some of its computers are lease-program returns; others are machines that were shipped back to manufacturers for some kind of repair.

The Recompute machines come bundled with a set of application programs. They also give you one month’s free technical support, and an unlimited warranty for the first month. For extra money, you can buy an extended warranty for up to three years.

Recompute charges $600 for its simplest model, with an 80486 microprocessor, a 120-MB hard drive, a modem, and a color monitor (note that there’s no CD-ROM drive with this basic model). Better-equipped 486 machines are available for an additional $200-$300. Recompute’s Pentium-based PCs are pricier, costing $1,100 apiece. At that level, you might as well spend a few hundred dollars more and get a new computer with the manufacturer’s full warranty.

Still, the emergence of this national mail-order supplier and the growing number of used-PC stores around the country suggest that the time has come for secondhand computing. If budget is a big concern for you, these outfits are worth a look.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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