Rios Computer Associates


     If you live near a Microcenter, it can be excellent source for used
laptops; you can see what they have at their website, .
Be sure to select either a store near you, or their Internet store, at the
top of the screen.  They keep separate inventories for each one, and what
they have to offer can vary a lot from one to the other.
    Other good sources include eBay, if you know how to shop carefully
there.  The companies that have thousands of ratings with a 99.5% rating or
higher are *extremely* careful about satisfying customers-- they treasure
that rating more than any individual transaction.  And eBay has many
requirements for vendors these days that drive away most of the crooks.
Stay with the high-volume, high-rated sellers, and you'll be fine.  Pay for
it with Amex (see below) and you'll be in even better shape.

However, unless you are *completely* strapped for cash, it is well worth
considering a new one.  There are *new* basic laptops around $300, and *new*
powerful laptops around $400.

The reason that "new" is important is

1 - Used laptops may have been subjected to rough treatment and/or shock.
They have often developed idiosyncrasies that may not be obvious at first,
but can be ongoing annoyances.  Among other things, on many used laptops,
the power connector is weak, and may not make reliable contact, or may break
more easily.  Repairing this is over $100.

2 - Batteries in laptops have a limited life, and a used laptop may have a
battery about to fail.  This can cost $30-$100 to replace, often wiping out
the savings of buying a used laptop.

3 - Laptop screens can also have a limited life, and they usually get dimmer
with age.  Screens have a backlight which is either CCFL or LED; if it
fails, the screen will be blank.  Older laptops usually have a CCFL
backlight, which will eventually burn out, and this is usually over $150 to
repair.  Newer or more expensive models use an LED backlight, which doesn't
burn out.  Of course, like anything, an LED backlight could fail, but it is
much less likely.

4 - A used laptop usually has *at most* a 90 day warranty.  New laptops
usually have a 1-year warranty, and you can double the warranty for free
(see below).

5 - New laptops often include features that didn't exist or were not
commonly available when the used ones were new.  For instance, even low-cost
new computers often have built-in webcam and microphone, which makes Skype
calls very convenient, lets you use the computer as a voice recorder or for
cheap international and free US long distance phone calls.  A new computer
will usually have a much larger hard drive than a used one.  And many new
computers will have USB 3.0, which is 10 times faster than the USB ports
that were standard a year or two ago; this means *much* faster backups and
transfers to flash drives, among other things.

6 - New laptops will have the latest version of Windows.  Windows XP support
is being discontinued, and already it cannot run the latest versions of many
software programs.  Among other things, this means that it is more
vulnerable to viruses and spyware.  Windows Vista is *extremely* cumbersome.
I only recommend Windows 7 or 8.  The same general issues apply to used Mac
laptops as well, but they are usually more expensive than a *new* Windows

7 - Newer laptops often have much faster processors than older laptops.
While some of the new ones are very slow, the fast ones don't usually cost
much more.

8 - To run well, computers need enough RAM (memory).  These days, that
usually means at least 4 GB, even for Windows XP.  But many used laptops
come with less than that, so you may wind up spending more money to upgrade
a used laptop in order to make it reasonably functional for today's
     Even if the used laptop has enough memory for now, many of the older
ones could not be expanded beyond 2 GB, and few could go above 4 GB, so
expanding the memory may not even be an option.
     And because new technologies are not only faster, but cheaper, even if
a new laptop didn't have enough memory, it costs *less*, now or in the
future, to add RAM (memory) to a new laptop than to an old one.

Because of these factors, buying a used laptop is rarely a good value.

Whether you buy a new laptop or a used one, it can be confusing to compare
one with another.  Hard drive size is simple enough, as is memory, screen
size, weight, and so on.  The one thing that is opaque for most people is
how one processor (CPU) compares with another.  While there is no perfect
way to compare different processors, a very good method is to compare their
overall performance (which really comes down to *speed*).  There is an
online chart that can give you a single score to use in comparing CPU's.
You can find it here:

There is a search window about half-way down on the right side.  Type in any
part of the CPU name, and it will suggest the full name, and if it matches,
click "Find CPU", and it will take you to that CPU's scores.  The second
column (the first column is the name of the CPU), labeled "Passmark CPU
Mark", gives a benchmark score:  higher is better.  A processor with a score
of 2000 is twice as fast as one with a score of 1000.  The scores range from
about 80 to over 10,000-- so it can make a *lot* of difference which one you

In general, I won't consider anything under 600, even for the most primitive
uses.  1000 is the lowest I like to recommend for general purpose computing,
but it is still a significant compromise.  Around 1400 is what I consider
the lowest score that isn't giving up a lot.  For someone buying a computer
where they want noticeable power (speed), I usually aim for 3000-6000; even
at the high end of this range, there are laptops available around $600, so
gobs of power doesn't have to be ridiculously expensive.

I was able to find one example of an excellent deal on a new laptop:

Microcenter has a Gateway NE56R34u for $329.
It has all the features I would normally want in a laptop, except for the
USB 3.0.

Some of the features that make it stand out:

4GB RAM (memory), expandable to 8 GB
Pentium B960 - Passmark score of 1876
Built-in webcam-- with higher resolution (HD, 1.3 mp) than most
Built-in microphone 500 GB hard drive-- large enough for almost anyone
DVD drive with all the options
LED backlight - this is brighter and more rugged than the alternative
HDMI Video output -- this is the current standard, and allows the computer
to be easily hooked to modern external monitors, TV sets, etc.
VGA Video output -- this lets it hook up to older monitors, etc.
Flash Card reader -- so you can take a card from your camera and put it
directly in your computer.  It has other uses as well.
1 year warranty
In store only-- one to a customer.

For anyone on a tight budget, this is the deal to compare with any used
laptop you might be considering.  In general, my clients have been very
happy with Gateway computers; they seem to do well on subtle human factors
design that is hard to quantify.  Five people have reviewed it on the
Microcenter site-- all five gave it 5 stars (the top rating).

For anyone who buys a computer with Windows 8, it can be very
confusing--they left out many of the basic features of Windows 7 and
earlier.  There is a simple solution, though:  there are many "add-on"
programs available that give Windows 8 all the same features that Windows 7
has, as well as the Windows 8 features.  Here is a review and link for one
of the best:


A few words about payment methods:
If you pay for your computer, or virtually anything with a warranty, with an
American Express card or Discover card, they double your warranty, so you
are covered for 2 years.  Some Visa and Mastercards do the same, but it can
be difficult to figure out which ones do and which ones don't.
Also, most Amex and Discover cards have a 90-day "all risks" coverage:  if
you run over your new laptop with your car, or drop it off a boat into a
deep lake, or your toddler tosses it down the basement steps, you are

They also have features that are almost hard to believe.  Buy something and
change your mind?  Even if the store won't take it back, Amex or Discover
will, up to 90 days (!) after you buy it.  If you buy something, and the
price drops, Amex and Discover will refund you the difference.  And you are
completely protected from any kind of fraudulent charges, including all
online purchases.

Amex and Discover both have cards that have no annual fee, include these
benefits and many others (such as covering rental car insurance), and give
you about 1% back on every dollar you spend.  We *highly* recommend that one
of these cards be used for purchasing anything that has a warranty.

Of the two, my preference is American Express.  They are the most
pro-consumer of the credit cards-- so much so, that many merchants hate to
take them (I've taken them in some of my businesses).  Their attitude
towards the merchant seems to be "Our cardholder made a complaint, so that
means you are in the wrong.  We've already taken their money out of your
account and given it back to them a few days ago--we just thought we'd let
you know that."

Sucks if you are the merchant, but for the Amex cardholder, you've got a
friend where it counts!

Discover usually has more relaxed credit score criteria for issuing their

Their benefits page is hard to find:


8 Steps to a Healthy Computer

Computer hygiene is important, but the paid-for protection programs are often worse than the ones you can get for free.  We have solved a lot of our clients' computer problems by removing Norton/Symantec programs.

Click here to read more.

Macs & Viruses

Have you been told that buying a Mac will avoid problems with viruses? That can be a good temporary solution—until a lot of folks start buying Macs.

Click here to read more.

Choosing Secure Passwords

A word about passwords: lots of people tell you to create screwy-looking passwords with uPPer and LowER case and all kinds of strange symbols in them. It turns out that this is bad advice...

Click here to read more.

Chain Letters

Almost all messages that you get telling you to 'Forward this to all your friends' are hoaxes. Here are some ways to determine whether you should pass it on or hit 'Delete'.

Click here to read more.

Choosing a Laptop

The best approach that I have found in deciding what sort of computer to purchase is to identify the things that are most likely to matter to someone and narrow the search from there.

Click here to read more.

Avoiding Malware Sites

The bad guys seem to have an unlimited number of ways to trick people and avoid detection. Do you know how to protect yourself from malicious websites?

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Web Hosting & Authoring

There are lots of places that will host you for just a few bucks a month. The critical question is not cost, but reliability and support.

Click here to read more.

Choosing a Credit Card

Regardless of which computer you get, most extended warranties aren't worth the money. But how you pay for the computer matters a lot...

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Affordable Office Suites

Microsoft has dominated the office software market with Microsoft Office, but their software package can be expensive for personal use. Did you know that there are cheaper or free alternatives?

Click here to read more.

Videocams & Farsightedness

Comfortable reading is all but impossible when you're farsighted, and computerized magnifers are expensive. Luckily, there is a way to get a cheap makeshift magnifier that works better than the real thing!

Click here to read more.

Working with PDF Files

Going backwards from PDF to text is usually somewhat messy, but not impossible. Here are some methods to convert your PDF documents into more accesible formats...

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The most important program I have, except maybe email, is my Personal Information Manager: InfoSelect.

Click here to read more.

Reinstalling Microsoft Office

If your computer on which you have Microsoft Office installed dies, you don't need to buy a new copy; the license for Microsoft Office is transferable. You just need the original CD and the Product Key to install it just as you did originally.

Click here to read more.

IMAP: Pros and Cons

IMAP is one of two commonly-used email protocols. I've heard lots of wonderful things about IMAP, but in real life, I have found it has its own share of drawbacks...

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Recovering Data From Failed Hard Drives

In more than 90% of cases of hard drive failure the data is retrievable, but the method used depends on the type of failure. A hard drive can 'die' for several reasons...

Click here to read more.

Rios Computer Associates • 930 N Arlington Mill Drive • Arlington • VA • 22205 • 703-536-9190 •