Not everyone can afford to buy brand new phones, tablets, laptops and other tech devices. The obvious way to save money is to look for good used models on ebay, Gumtree and other places. Find a highly-rated seller offering the product you want in great condition and you might save a lot compared to buying the same thing new.
However, there's another option: refurbished devices.
Both retailers and manufacturers are beginning to understand that many buyers want not only lower prices but also for their purchases to be more eco-friendly.
That's why you'll increasingly see refurbished models sold by Amazon, Apple, phone retailers, and general tech retailers.
But what does refurbished actually mean? It's a word that some may consider a synonym for second-hand, used or pre-owned, but there are lots of advantages to buying refurbished tech.
Here, we'll explain everything you need to know so you can make an informed decision when looking for your next upgrade.
What’s the difference between a refurbished and a used device?
To refurbish something, in the traditional sense, means that you'd spruce it up to improve how it looks, before selling it on.
Unfortunately, when it comes to tech, refurbished can mean different things depending upon where you're buying it from.
It could, for example, be a shop demo model or a customer return - not a faulty device, but returned because they simply changed their mind. It may be sold without the original box or accessories for a discount against the usual price.
The device, such as a phone, could have been traded in by the previous owner to get a discount on a new device, or it could have been a used phone bought by a refurbisher or retailer - such as Amazon - as part of a reuse and recycle scheme.
Whatever the device, be it a phone, tablet, laptop or smartwatch, will be cleaned up, tested and graded according to their condition. It's possible that any faults are fixed, the battery replaced and any missing accessories added so it's as good as it can be.
While this may sound no different to a decent second-hand model, that’s not quite the case.
Take a phone for example. When buying a used iPhone or Android phone from ebay or any other marketplace, you have to take a number of factors into consideration. These include how long it’s been since the model was released, since battery life diminishes over time and a two-year-old model won’t hold its charge like a new device.
Then there’s the display; are there any scratches or cracks? Is it locked to a certain network? Has it been treated well by its current owner? These are the sort of things that will dramatically affect how satisfied you’ll be with any device that turns up at your door.
Also if you’re buying from a private individual, you’re pretty much out there on your own if the phone develops problems after a few weeks. There is some protection offered if you bought the item from the ebay using PayPal, but none if you buy via Gumtree or similar sites.
When buying a refurbished phone from a specialist such as SmartFoneStore and 4Gadgets, you won't have to take this gamble. Each device will be given a grade, such as A, B or C. You can then read the description to see what each means, so you can be certain of the condition you will receive. Most will tell you the battery health if the battery hasn't been replaced, but it is worth checking if this isn't specified: you don't want to end up with a phone that lasts half a day before needing a recharge.
You should also expect to get a warranty - the two retailers mentioned offer a 12-month warranty so you're covered if the item you buy becomes faulty. We’ve used them ourselves several times over the years and found both to provide excellent devices at competitive prices.
Refurbished devices tend to be a little more expensive than second-hand ones, but this is due to the cost of supplying a warranty, and any cleaning and repairs carried out. Obviously, the price will also be reflected in the grade you choose: pristine-condition devices will cost more than those with cosmetic defects.
Refurbished Apple devices
If you buy a refurbished device from the Apple Refurbished Store it's very different from what you'll get when you buy from, say, the SmartFoneStore.
Being a manufacturer, Apple can more easily replace parts and provide a ‘like new’ device that’s been fitted with genuine components and new batteries. They are impossible to tell apart from brand new device and also receive the same warranty as a new Apple device, making them the safest way to get an iPhone, iPad, Mac or other device at a discount.
The bad news is that the discount is typically just 15% off the retail price, which isn't as much of a saving as buying a graded used device.
Amazon also sells refurbished products in its Renewed store, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, consoles and desktop PCs.
The company states that the refurbished devices are put through an inspection process that ‘typically includes a full diagnostic test, replacement of any defective parts, and a thorough cleaning process carried out by the Marketplace seller, vendor, or by Amazon’.
Again, products are covered by a one-year warranty and eligible for Amazon’s normal returns policy. You can read more about Amazon renewed.
The savings on offer can be quite substantial, too. Renewed devices won't be indistinguishable from new, but the listing should provide details on what to expect such as ‘The product may have minimal scratches or dents, and a battery with at least 80% capacity. Box may be generic and accessories may not be original, but will be compatible and fully functional.’
It is also worth keeping an eye out for Amazon Warehouse deals. These are often unused customer returns which may have damaged packaging but are otherwise new. The items are graded so you can pick whether you're willing to accept an item that might have scratches or damage, or if you're only willing to buy something with damaged or plain packaging.
To search for Warehouse deals, use the drop-down menu to the left of the search bar on Amazon's website and choose Amazon Warehouse, then type in whatever you're searching for and press Enter.
Other manufacturers offer refurbished versions of their products, albeit in a sporadic fashion. Samsung has a refurbished store in the US but not the UK. It’s called Samsung Certified Pre-Owned and again confirms that the devices are restored to original condition by its engineers and come with a 1-year warranty. The main problem is that the products on offer at the time of writing were a few years old, the Galaxy S8 was the newest, and out of stock, signalling that maybe this service is no longer an ongoing concern.
Microsoft also has a US-only Certified Refurbished Surface store where you can find Surface Laptop 2, Surface Go and other Surface products, but the discounts we saw weren’t exactly tempting.
Should I buy refurbished or secondhand?
There are pros and cons for both. In the case of Apple, the refurbished store is an excellent option if you want essentially a new device but at a lower price. The discounts aren’t massive, but it can save you a bit if you were already intending to buy an iPhone, iPad or Mac.
Amazon’s Renewed scheme can offer much larger savings on a wider range of products, but devices aren't restored to ‘as new’ condition as with Apple's. They still come with a warranty, though, and have been tested to ensure they're fully working.
The biggest savings will always be found by buying from private sellers on eBay, Craigslist and similar, but these also carry the most risk, so it's caveat emptor: buyer beware.
Of course, there are also sales and discounts to be found on new devices. And you should take a look at our roundup of the best tech deals to see what's on offer right now.