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Used Computers

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March 13, 2002

by Dennis Catey

Time is an elastic dimension. Flies when you’re having fun, crawls through a commercial break. Computers can seem old (obsolete?) in a time frame that, were it a car or TV, you’d still be calling it new (and maybe still paying for it). So it’s a buyers market when it comes to used computers. But before you buy used, make sure you’re not being used.

    Why would you want a used computer? These days, I consider being able to use the Internet a minimal requirement. If that’s all you want a computer for, consider getting a new Web TV for a couple of hundred bucks. They are a lot easier to learn (and a lot harder to screw up) than a computer. If you want to play the latest games, do picture editing, or other graphics-intense operations, you also need a new machine. But if you’re on a tight budget and just want to surf the web and do some text work, track the family finances, get out some homework, those kinds of things, buying used makes sense. If you are trying to sell a used computer, you may also find the following cogent.

    You will need a machine with a processor rated at least 150 megahertz (MHz). It is hard to determine processor speed since older versions of the Windows operating system have no screen that will tell you this. But if you quickly press the Pause key on the upper right of the keyboard as the computer is turned on and white text begins to appear on a black background, most computers will announce on screen what processor is installed. If you can’t find it there, you’ll need to have the seller produce an invoice with this specification.

    Pressing any key if you’ve paused the startup will result in the Windows operating system loading. Then you can click the right mouse button over the "My Computer" icon then left click on "Properties." The screen will show how much memory is installed. If it’s Windows 95, 32 megabytes (Mb) is the minimum acceptable; if its Windows 98 or Windows ME, 64 Mb is the minimum.

Next, click the left mouse button on the "Device Manager" tab. Make sure none of the entries displayed has a red X or yellow exclamation mark in it: such a mark is Windows saying it has a problem with some hardware component.

    If all is well so far, left click the cancel tab then double click (quickly press the left mouse button twice) on "My Computer" then right click on the icon marked "C:" and left click on "Properties." The available free space on the hard drive should be at least 300 Mb, preferably more.

    To check on the modem (used to get the computer on the phone line), left click "Start", then "Settings", then "Control Panel", then double click on "Modems". The modem that shows should be at least 33.6K. Now click on the "Diagnostics" tab, click on the COM entry that shows a modem, then click on "More Information." If you get a screen full of incomprehensible info, good--the modem is working. If the modem is defective, you will get the message "unable to communicate with modem" instead. If the seller has current Internet service, have him get online and demonstrate that the computer moves through web pages without long delays.

    If you really want to make sure the computer has no hidden flaws, take it to a reliable shop and have them check it out, much as you would get a mechanic's inspection of a used car you were thinking of buying.

    A computer barely making these minimum requirements should sell for about $150 for the computer and software alone. Make sure you get the installation disks and license numbers for all the software (it is illegal to sell a computer with installed software without doing this). If the sale is to include keyboard, monitor, mouse and maybe a funky old printer, add $100. If the computer is well beyond these minimum specifications, up to $500 may be a fair complete system price.

    Be sure to get a new surge protector for any used computer you buy. The surge protector currently on the used computer is almost certainly worn out. While I wouldn’t advocate buying a good (Transtector) surge protector for a used computer, make sure UL certifies any surge protector you buy by looking for the term "Surge Protector" on the device itself (not just the packaging) near the Underwriter Labs stamp. Bogus units will usually use the term "Temporary Power Tap." Also make sure there are phone jacks in the surge protector for protecting the computer from irregularities on the phone line going to the modem.

   

    Dennis Catey and his wife, Virginia, own PCEZ, The Computer Store in downtown Sandpoint.

 

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