Data Centers

Going, going, gone! Auctions bring affordable PCs into the office

Could your company use a few more computers? Let Lauren Willoughby tell you how online auctions can help you get some great bargains for your tight-fisted budget.

Could your company use a few more computers? Maybe you have to plan a special project involving a horde of temps who'll be coming in to do data entry. Or maybe you've been put in charge of creating a computer training lab. What if you're on a tight budget? New computers aren't always the best idea. In this Daily Feature, I’ll explain why.

Does your office really need Pentium IIIs?
Where I work, the IT guys are upgrading staff computers, and they're purchasing Dell Pentium IIIs. This is for people who spend most of their time doing word processing, with a little Web surfing thrown in.

Know what? Although it's really cool to be able to claim Pentium IIIs on our desktops, these speedy machines aren’t going to make us think or type any faster.

People groan when you mention this kind of thing in the same breath with the words "486 computer." Even though the 486 is still a decent machine for data entry, the low end has moved up. If you haunt online auction sites, as I do, you'll see Pentium computers occupy price ranges that only last year were held by 486 DX/66 PCs.

I'm talking Pentium 133 (or better) computers with at least a gigabyte of drive space, 32 MB of RAM, a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive, a keyboard, and a mouse for well under $200. Monitors, network cards, and operating systems cost extra, but often you can get the whole package for about $200—or less, if you're game to install Linux and a free Office clone like StarOffice.

Would you rather afford one computer—or ten?
If you had just $2,000 to allocate to your data-entry temp workers, which way would you rather spend the money: on two new machines or a fleet of ten refurbished ones?

I do most of my bargain surfing at eBay and , though there are many other places you can go tech shopping, including TechRepublic’s own auction site and uBid . As everyone knows, eBay specializes in person-to-person auctions, and the "inventory" fluctuates wildly. Egghead is a more predictable marketplace where wholesalers and liquidators come to sell their wares—new, discontinued, and factory-reconditioned PCs and accessories.

If you're in the market for desktop computers, you'll find brand names like IBM, Dell, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard. Reconditioned machines usually come with 30-day warranties, sometimes longer. So, when you purchase reconditioned computers, you're taking a risk, but a minimal one, I believe.

Watch price fluctuations carefully
Hang around Egghead a while, and you'll start noticing fluctuating price patterns—fascinating research to undertake before committing to a purchase. I've noticed prices close slightly higher on the weekends, perhaps because more recreational bidders are turning out. The number of units available also affects prices: Higher quantities usually result in slightly lower prices.

It's difficult at Egghead to track closing prices on machines that sold yesterday or earlier, because the data is cleared out within an hour of auction close. The best way I've found to track prices is to indulge in some recreational low-ball bidding on items in the early minutes. Give it a try. Yes, you'll be outbid quickly, but the goal isn't necessarily to win the bid. It's to claim your right as a bidder to review auction outcomes, complete with closing prices. (However, if you do decide to bid to win, you'll gain an advantage by having been an early bidder. Bids are evaluated on a first-in basis—early bidders win at the low end of the bid range.)

By checking in with your Egghead account, you'll find all that data there in your list of unsuccessful bids.

Lauren’s bidding wars
As an example of the kinds of closing prices you can expect, here are some of my unsuccessful bids:
  • Friday, March 3—refurbished emachine etower with 400-MHz Celeron, 32 MB of RAM, 4.3-GB hard drive, 32X CD-ROM, 56-Kbps modem, Windows 98 (and a $400 CompuServe Internet rebate for up to $400 back)—closing bid range $311 to $331
  • Saturday, March 4—same emachine as above—$331 to $361

(Gee, what a difference a day can make—a weekend day)
  • Tuesday, Feb. 1—refurbished IBM PC 750 desktop with Pentium 133, 32 MB of RAM, 1.2-GB hard drive, 4X CD-ROM, keyboard, and mouse (no operating system)—$101-$121
  • Sunday, Jan. 15—refurbished IBM PC 350 desktop with 90-MHz Pentium, 32 MB of RAM, 1-GB hard drive, keyboard, and mouse (no CD-ROM or operating system)—$51 to $71

Shipping prices on these systems average about $35.

Egghead offers more than just desktop systems. Looking for notebooks, new hard drives, modems, monitors, LAN adapters, network hubs, modems, or removable storage devices? You might snag a bargain. Here are more of my auction dabblings:
  • Saturday, March 4—refurbished Dell Latitude Pentium 90 notebook with 24 MB of RAM, 810-MB hard drive, 10.4-inch TFT display, and Lithium Ion battery pack (no CD-ROM or operating system)—$201-$251
  • Monday, March 6—new SyQuest SparQ 1-GB external drive, parallel port, included 1-GB cartridge—$57 to $65
  • Friday, Feb. 4—new Maxtor Diamond Max Plus 6800 3.5-inch 13.5-GB UDMA/66 Low Profile Hard Drive—$106-$127

I actually do bid to win occasionally. Although I lost my bid on a SparQ drive, I did win my bid on a SyQuest SyJet, external parallel version. The 1.5-GB cartridge wasn't included, but I bought that in another auction. The upshot is that for less than $100 I have an external storage device, with 15 times the capacity of my external Zip drive, a device I can use to back up not only my data but also that of friends and relatives. Yes, SyQuest is out of business, but you can't beat that less than $100 blowout price. And wouldn't something like that make a handy addition to your office's tool chest?

Lately I've also been leaning toward acquiring a copy of Windows NT 4.0 Workstation. I found copies were selling at auction (Egghead has software auctions too) from $113 to $151. Egghead also sells it outright for $219. But that's a little high for me. When I noticed a Pentium 200 machine bundled with NT 4.0 going for $249, I had to bite—and I won. Now I have a new (refurbed) NT box in the house.

You can’t have too many PCs
Really, you can't have too many PCs. If your office is expanding with new employees piling on, you need a PC for every pair of hands. And auction sites let you affordably add workhorse computers to your stable of systems. And if your needs outgrow older PCs? Resell them on eBay.

The powers-that-be where I work recently decided to offer computer training to interested employees. They outsourced the training with a well-known company. I signed up for a class on Microsoft Excel and arrived early the first day. I watched as the trainer fetched 10 systems from his van, using a dolly to ferry them into the building.

"What kind of computers are they?" I asked.

"PC-compatible," he replied.

"I mean, what kind of chip?"

"Mostly Pentium 90s," he said, adding sheepishly, "and a few 486s."

Nobody in the class complained.

Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky, where she also writes the weekly "Technophobe" column. At night, she turns into an online auction junkie. When she's not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she's reading science fiction novels.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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