Refurb Madness

 Q: With the holidays coming up, I've been scrounging around the Internet for the cheapest gifts possible—hey, it was a lousy year. I found this real tight MP3 player for under $90, and I'm mighty tempted to get it for my kid brother. But I'm a little bugged out by the fact that the site calls it "refurbished." How sketchy are tech retreads?

Buying second-run hardware isn't quite as risky as you might assume. Unlike the rusting Oldsmobiles down at Big Tex's Used Car Xtravaganza, refurbished electronic devices have been fixed up by the manufacturer. And contrary to popular myth, only a fraction were ever defective in the first place. Though Mr. Roboto recently got burned by a refurbed PDA—read on, comrades!—going the fixer-upper route isn't a half-bad idea. But, please, pay extra-close attention to those warranties and return policies when trying to save a buck or two.

No matter the euphemism—some sites prefer the snazzier-sounding "factory reconditioned" or the impressively hefty "remanufactured"—a warmed-over device has at least been removed from its original packaging. A percentage of refurbs are, indeed, lemons that drove their first owners bonkers. But the true duds are outnumbered by those that dropped out of the mainstream market for less odious reasons. Many refurbed computers, in particular, are older models that were part of trade-in programs, like the Dell Exchange (dellexchange.com). Lower-end devices like that MP3 player you covet may have been returned gifts, rejected simply because the turquoise faceplate clashed with the recipient's cocoa brown eyes. Or perhaps they were floor models, or were slightly marred by superficial scratches.

illustration: Anthony Freda

Once a reject arrives at the factory, it's put through the wringer: The memory's erased, flawed parts are replaced, software is reinstalled. According to consumer law, the whole unit must be tested prior to repackaging, to make sure it works. When it resurfaces on a site like ReturnBuy.com or Half.com, a refurb sells for 30 to 70 percent off the original price—nothing to sneeze at.

There are a couple of reasons, however, why tightwads like yourself should think twice. One big downer is that vendors can be haphazard about including user manuals and accessories. The former isn't too big a deal, as you can usually find an Adobe Acrobat version by Googling around. But when there's a power cord astray, that's no fun whatsoever.

Even more annoying are the atrocious warranties, which tend to be of the skimpy 90-day variety. Sure, nervous types can purchase extensions for $25 to $50 per year, but the fees will eat away at your savings. Also, forget about the luxury of free tech-support calls; if you're lucky, you'll be allowed to submit questions via e-mail, which may or may not eventually be answered by a teenage contractor in Szczecin, Poland.

Despite these drawbacks, Mr. Roboto has generally heard raves about refurbs, which has him wondering if his own catastrophe was just an anomaly. You see, your humble narrator recently ordered a refurbished Palm-powered Sony CLIÉ from Overstock.com. Initially ecstatic over finding a PDA with 16 megs of RAM for under $100, Mr. Roboto saw his joy turn to dread when the device turned out to be no more functional than a brick. Many desperate e-mails later, Overstock agreed to waive its usual 15 percent return fee and swap the flop for a replacement. Given the store's preference for UPS's equivalent of steerage class, the new PDA is expected to arrive around the same time NASA sends a manned mission to Venus. (Confidential to Overstock: Semi-swift delivery may earn you future kind words.)

Should this woeful tale sour you on refurbs? Probably not—even brand-spanking-new devices can be lemons, and there is no data to indicate that refurbs are a major source of consumer complaints. To be on the safe side, visit the Better Business Bureau (bbb.org) to see whether a potential refurb source has ticked off your fellow man as of late. And only do business with an e-commerce site whose return policy doesn't hint of a con—sizable restocking fees and 15-day return windows should tip you off that Denmark smells awful.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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