Copyright 2011 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
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
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%.
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.