The Secondhand PCs and general computer stuff thread

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Nobby-W

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I've posted little dissertations about buying secondhand PCs on a few occasions now, so I've decided to make a thread for the topic.

Note that my shoulder is playing up a bit so there will be some placeholders up for a little while.
 

Nobby-W

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Terminology and basics

Rule #0 Stick to mainstream kit


Buying secondhand I.T. of any sort works best when you stick to the mainstream vendors as these will have the best supply of kit and parts on the secondary market. Going off-piste puts one at greater risk of having something that's difficult to find parts for. Unless you know what you're doing and have some specific reason to do otherwise, it's best to stick to the major players in any given market. Most of the time there will only be two or three vendors in this bracket, and in some cases there is a clear #1 that is significantly better than the rest of the market for third party support.

Ex-lease machines

From the 1980s until the early part of the 2000's, PCs evolved so quickly that they would become obsolete in just a few years, underpowered for the current generation of software. This meant that the tax laws were structured to assume a three year depreciation period for pretty much all computer equipment. As it turned out, tax laws also favoured leasing the machines, as the entire value of the lease could be claimed against tax with no capital assets on the books for the company.

Thus was born an industry in finance companies leasing PCs to corporate end-users, but after the 3 years was up they were now saddled with large amounts of e-waste that nobody wanted and cost a significant amount of money to dispose of. By the 2000's, however, the useful life of PCs had grown to much more than the 3 years of previous conventional wisdom, and one day somebody had the bright idea of flogging it off on the secondary market, making a few bob on the residual value and saving the fees for e-waste disposal.

Thus was born a large market for ex-lease computers, which were often 3 years old or less and sometimes still in warranty. For many applications, ex-lease kit of this sort offers the best value for money by a considerable margin. In some cases the sheer volume of this stuff coming onto the secondary market keeps the prices to a small fraction of the new value of the items.

These days, it's quite reasonable to expect to get 10 years of useful life from a PC, but the leasing market is still built around tax laws based on the assumption of a three year lifespan. Thus, you can get secondhand computers or other items on the ex-lease market that may still have a useful service life of 5-10 years or more.

What's the difference between a workstation and a PC?

These days, not much. The term originated about the tail end of the 1970s when the first standalone computers capable of a 'serious' computing workload and high-resolution interactive graphics came onto the market. Prior to that the state of the art had been vector or storage tube graphic terminals hanging off mainframe or minicomputer systems.

This was before the term 'Personal Computer' came into common usage[1], so the collective name for these machines came to be 'workstations' and the name stuck. During the heyday of these machines in 1980s-1990s it was used to describe proprietary high-end desktop systems from vendors such as Sun Microsystems or Silicon Graphics and had a sort of snob value over ordinary PCs.

In the 2000's vendors such as Matrox, Nvidia and ATI commodified the market for hardware accelerated 3D, and PC CPUs had caught up with the performance of the proprietary RISC architectures of the workstation vendors. AMD's Opteron brought 64 bit computing[2] into the mainstream as it could also natively run legacy 32 bit applications efficiently at the same time. Those two developments killed off the last of the unique selling points for the RISC architectures so the market eroded rapidly over the 2000s; by 2010 the last of the workstation vendors had stopped producing RISC-based workstation systems.

These days the term hangs around, describing high-end PCs that often use server components. The CPUs (typically Xeons) are not really any faster than an ordinary PC CPU but they typically support more memory and have some other features of interest to the folks in their target markets. Generally they are also tested and certified with particular software applications. From the point of a user they behave much as a normal PC would.

Workstations are interesting to ordinary plebs such as you and me because they also come onto the ex-lease market in decent numbers and tend to have power supplies big enough to support a midrange (and in some cases high end) graphics card. New ones are sphincter-puckeringly expensive but ex-lease ones can be obtained cheaply enough that they can be used as the basis for a cheap gaming PC, and there are folks around who do this. More on this later.
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1 - 'Personal Computer' originally referred to a specific product introduced by IBM in 1981. At the time, the 8-bit desktop machines of the era were normally referred to as 'microcomputers' or 'micros'. Machines compatible with the IBM PC were normally referred to as 'IBM compatibles', 'PC compatibles' or 'PC clones' until the second half of the 1980s when the term 'PC' started to come into general usage.

2 - The main benefit of a 64 bit architecture is to be able to work with data structures greater than 2^^32 bytes (4GB) in a single program image. This is very useful for applications such as database management systems where it allows large memory caches to be managed, up to the physical limits of the machine's memory. In gaming terms, it allows a lot of high-resolution textures and other media to be held in-memory for quick access.
 
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Nobby-W

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Laptops

This article will mainly focus on Thinkpads due to their prevalence in the corporate leasing market, not to mention that I'm also most familiar with these. However, some other manufacturers (Dell and HP in particular) also sell significant volumes into this market and much of what I describe here also applies to these vendors to a greater or lesser extent.

Lenovo (formerly IBM's PC division) makes a range of laptops known as Thinkpads, which are the dominant player in the corporate leasing market. Partly due to IBM's legacy, they are also well supported with parts available through the secondary market and third-party support resources such as how-to videos for repairs and upgrades.

PCs sold into corporate leasing tend to be of decent build quality and have a guaranteed parts supply, so they stick to components where manufacturers guarantee availability and driver support. Components prone to failure - in particular fans and capacitors - are often of higher quality (certain types of capacitors are more expensive but have longer service lives than others). PC leasing is typically not a major cost for most corporates, so they tend not to be very price-sensitive and are willing to pay a premium for trouble-free kit.

Ex-lease machines vs. consumer kit.

Parts availability is a significant issue with the kind of consumer laptops sold through high street channels, which are intended to be replaced every 2-3 years and often built with intentional planned obsolescence. This problem is bad enough in this market that it's not uncommon for parts to be unobtainable for a two-three year old machine rendering it impossible to repair and requiring it to be replaced. To some extent, this is by design.

With the possible exception of gaming laptops, I can see almost no reason to prefer a laptop sourced from retail channels over an ex-lease machine of this sort (obtaining support will be discussed later). Ex-lease commercial grade machines are almost always cheaper, of better quality and likely to last longer than the types of laptops sold through consumer channels. It's not merely a cheaper alternative; in many cases it's better.

Thinkpads

Thinkpads are particularly good value because of the large numbers that come up on the off-lease market. This keeps the price of ex-lease machines to about 20-30% of their new value. By and large the machines you want to look for are X and T series machines. The L and E series are of lower quality and the P series (formerly W series) are substantially more expensive. We will discuss these machines later but the short-form answer is 'If you don't know why you need one you probably don't need it.'

Mainly I will be discussing Thinkpads for three reasons:
  • These are the type I'm most familiar with
  • Thinkpads have the best grey market support network
  • They're available in quantity through secondary channels such as Ebay.
The 'enterprise' ranges, in particular the X and T series, form the bulk of the ex-lease market. Lenovo have changed their branding scheme for these machines recently, but the ex-lease kit we're discussing still uses the old numbering schemes. The numbering scheme has two parts - the first letter ('T', 'X') and the first digit describe the family and the display size of the machine. The second two numbers describe the generation, for example:
  • T450 - T series, 14" display, 5th generation.
  • X230 - X series, 12.5" display, 3rd generation.
  • T560 - T Series, 15" display, 6th generation.
There are some other models such as the X1 Carbon, which is a thin and light machine similar to the Macbook Air. We'll discuss these later.

Generations and models

The current models coming off lease in quantity are the 50 and 60 generation, although there are still a lot of earlier models kicking around the secondary market. There are some reasons to prefer earlier models such as the 20 or 30 in particular; more on this later.
  • X2x0 models are light and compact, with a 12.5" screen and no DVD drive (earlier T-series models still had one built in). These are quite cheap ex-lease and very compact and handy. If you want a small, handy laptop for day to day use then this might be a good option.
  • T4x0 models are the main corporate workhorse laptop with a 14" screen and had DVD players up to the T430. Subsequent generations adopted a thinner, lighter ultrabook format. If you want a bigger screen then this might be an option (I can run Adobe Illustrator on a T430). Make sure you get a screen with at least 1600x900 resolution as the 1366x768 screens shipped on a lot of corporate laptops are a bit crap. The CPUs tend to be a little higher spec than the X2x0 models.
  • T5x0 models have a 15" screen, often with higher resolution. From the T540 or T550 onwards the keyboards also have a numeric keypad. Otherwise they're a bit bigger but not much different to a T4x0.
After the 30 series there was a sea change in the design as the vendor adopted a thinner, lighter ultrabook format with low power CPUs that make for a longer battery life. The 20 and 30 series have full power CPUs so they're still quite powerful machines but they're a bit heavier than later models and have shorter battery life. As they're older models they're now quite cheap so if you just want a machine for use about the home then they can be fine for that and the DVD player may be of use if you still have a body of physical media. The 20 series use the old style 7 row keyboard, which some folks prefer. note that the 20 and 30 series are getting fairly old (7-10 years) now so you may want to go with a more recent model.

Adding a second SSD

Most Thinkpads also have a secondary socket on the motherboard that will take a small form factor (mSATA or M.2) SSD. This slot is used for WWAN cards but if the machine isn't equipped with one (most aren't) or you don't mind removing it you can replace it with a suitable SSD. Depending on the generation, the slot takes a different type of card. Nowadays, a lot of machines come with this feature, although 20-30 gen Thinkpads were the first to start shipping with this in quantity.
  • 20-30 generation: mSATA
  • 40-60 generation: M.2 SATA 2242 form factor.
  • 70-90 generation and later: M.2 two lane NVMe 2242 form factor
There are Youtube videos for pretty much all thinkpad models that describe how to open the machine and fit one of these SSDs.


Support and servicing

Third party batteries
 
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Nobby-W

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Desktops

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Converting used workstations into gaming PCs.

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Printers

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Bunch

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You might want to ask Apparition Apparition or one of the other admins to change the permissions on this thread so you can edit posts after a longer period of time than normal.
 

Apparition

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Can't be done on a thread by thread basis, I'm afraid. The edit window was changed to 24 hours because a couple of people decided to go back and clear all of the posts they ever made on the forums when they flamed out, making older threads really difficult to understand should anyone ever go back and read them. Or try to, anyway.

Discuss with Endless Flight Endless Flight . It's possible to temporarily change the edit window when you want to want to make an edit and then change it back when you're done, but it's ultimately his call.
 

Bunch

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Can't be done on a thread by thread basis, I'm afraid. The edit window was changed to 24 hours because a couple of people decided to go back and clear all of the posts they ever made on the forums when they flamed out, making older threads really difficult to understand should anyone ever go back and read them. Or try to, anyway.

Discuss with Endless Flight Endless Flight . It's possible to temporarily change the edit window when you want to want to make an edit and then change it back when you're done, but it's ultimately his call.
Could it be moved to the Play by post forum? I believe that has a longer edit window.
 
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