Is it better to buy a used high end laptop? If so, what should you buy?

Why would you even need a higher end laptop?

If you are a engineer or a hardcore laptop gamer, you don’t need this guide. You know exactly what you are using your laptop for.

For the rest of us though, why would you even want a higher end laptop? I have found that higher end laptops have better build quality, screens, and overall performance. Better yet, they are designed to be upgradeable and can be, for often a modest investment, upgrade that laptop so that it is almost as good as the latest models, only for a considerably lower price. Best of all, there are now high end workstation and gaming laptops a couple of years old that are available for a fraction of the price. You can now buy a used workstation or gaming laptop that is only a couple of years old for the price of a new mid-ranged to high end consumer laptop.

The reason why I am not so keen on consumer laptops is because they are the product of a race to the bottom. It is a pretty miserable experience and there have even been calls for OEMs to kill off their low end hardware. As Joel Hruska notes, “Consumers aren’t happy with the hardware they purchase, OEMs aren’t happy with their profit margins, and Microsoft wants people to actually want to use its operating systems.” While I don’t expect that in the near future, any OEM will kill off their lowest end hardware, you don’t have to suffer because, used workstation laptops offer a way out.

Ever notice that newer computers don’t seem to be getting faster by much each year now? Certainly the progress is getting slower than before. You are not imagining things. Since around 2011, which is when Intel released it’s Sandy Bridge series of CPUs, modern processor speed has all but stagnated. New generations of CPUs do bring Instruction per Clock (IPC) improvements still, but they are often in the single digits, factoring in the lower clockspeeds. Even single threaded performance per watt does not see not to be improving much, which means that battery life progress has also slowed down.  The reason why is because we are hitting the end of Moore’s Law and there have been no revolutionary breakthroughs in batteries – yet.

Why should you think twice before doing so? The cons:

Let’s look at the cons to buying used high end hardware first:

  • Not thin and light: There are now high end workstation and gaming laptops that emphasize being very thin and light, but on average, workstation and gaming laptops tend to weigh more and be thicker overall. The reason of course, is the performance is emphasized first and foremost.
  • Wear and tear: One of the reasons why used equipment is always cheaper is because of wear and tear. Most scrupulous buyers will look acknowledge wear and tear. Some times, vendors even have grades for how good their used laptops are. Dents in metal casing, scratches, and worn touchpads are the most common things that I have seen. Always look closely at images and descriptions. When in doubt, always ask the questions.
  • Risk: There is always the risk that the old seller was not honest in what they were selling. Fortunately, PayPal and many other platforms have pretty good buyer’s protection these days, so that may not be the drawback that it once was.
  • Mandatory upgrades: You may have to replace some parts, especially the battery when buying used. Batteries lose their capacity over time, but fortunately, workstation and gaming laptops have pretty common batteries that are not difficult to find.

There are some very clear drawbacks to buying a higher end used laptop that you should weigh carefully. You will need to do your research closely before buying, something you should do anyways before spending a lot of your hard earned money.

So what are the big advantages to buying a used high end laptop?

There are some very big pros too, or I would not be recommending that you consider this option when laptop shopping.

  • Build quality: You will find the materials used in the casing, the durability of construction, and the overall subjective impression of high end workstation laptops to be superior. Amongst the cheaper laptops, the only laptops that I have found with good build quality are the Lenovo Thinkpads, and even then, there have been declines in quality. The race to the bottom has driven laptop manufacturers to cut corners wherever possible to get to the lowest price points. Workstation and premium gaming laptops have been designed with customers that want the best in mind. This is a big factor for me, because higher end laptops tend to be more likely to survive a drop, and face it, we are all quite clumsy at times.
  • Performance: This is a major factor. Remember that the newest CPUs are no longer much faster than their older counterparts. You can get a much better price to performance ratio if you buy used. You can buy a much more powerful machine that would otherwise be out of your budget. The other advantage is that they were built with the cooling capacity in mind to handle high end components. Often I have found that top end consumer laptops will throttle due to thermal limits when put under very intensive workloads.
  • Room for upgrades: Many laptops nowadays have limited capacity for upgrades. Often the RAM is the only thing that can be upgraded. Most consumer laptops have their graphics cards (assuming they have discrete GPUs) soldered, the battery often is not replaceable, and there are limited options for other upgrades. While increasingly even on workstation laptops, the CPU is soldered, there are still opportunities to upgrade. Apart from the RAM, high end laptops tend to have upgradeable GPUs (they use a form factor called MXM), more room for multiple storage options, and upgradeable secondary components, such as the wi-fi card, which is often soldered on consumer drives. There is also a huge selection of aftermarket components geared for many of the top end workstation and gaming laptops, such as monitor upgrades, replacements for the keypads, and touchpad replacements. Even the case itself can be upgraded.
  • Other components are higher end: Typically, consumer laptops do not come with the best displays. That is changing somewhat nowadays with IPS displays becoming cheaper and more available, but even then there is a gap in terms of quality. Workstation laptops especially (for those geared for photo-editing work) tend to have the best displays available on the market. I have also found that with the exception of Macbook Pros, often touchpads on PCs are a lot worse. The gap has been narrowing as of late, but the one thing that I can assure you of is that workstation and gaming laptops will generally ship with the best PC laptop touchpads available.
  • Keyboard: There are a handful of good consumer laptops with decent keyboards, but they usually are higher end and cost as much as a used workstation laptop anyways. When typing for hours, having a great keyboard is extremely important and workstations tend to have the best possible on a laptop. Gaming laptops sometimes carry macro keys. So far, nobody has been able to come up with anything matching the best desktop keyboard experiences (especially typing on a Topre keyboard, which in my opinion is the best typing experience), but workstation laptops will provide you with the best possible on a laptop.
  • Security features: Due to the value of workstation laptops, they often ship with security features such as fingerprint readers and a Trusted Platform Module built right into the laptop (needed for the Windows Bitlocker Drive Encryption). That is important if you have sensitive data and hey, your laptop itself is valuable! I also find that many consumer laptops do not ship with Kensington locks.

These are some pretty major pros, as you can see. Each laptop is different and you will have to research what combination of price, performance, and features satisfies your requirements.

I don’t recommend that you try to “score” the advantages and drawbacks, but to consider each of the points individually to best suit your needs.

A brief introduction to high end laptops

Typically, when people think of high end laptops, for they immediately think of Apple’s Macbook Pro line-up. They are designed to be stylish, lightweight, and thin. They also famously ship with their “Retina Display”, which is known for their high resolution. Perhaps the one feature that stands out the most is their outstanding touchpads.They also have a non-standard PCIe SSD storage, leading to very fast performance, exceeded only by the top NVMe PCIe SSDs on PC.

Yet despite these advantages, I feel at times that their laptops are overrated, and that the value is poor, considering the price versus the hardware that they deliver. One very serious drawback they have is that they tend to overheat when under heavy workloads, because they have been built to be thin and light above all else, with CPU and GPU performance taking a backseat to all other considerations. Finally, they have very limited options for upgrades. Needless to say, they are very difficult to repair. Apparently, the 2016 model is actually an improvement over the 2015 model!  If you go through the images closely, I want to draw attention to the fact that all the parts are glued together and look closely at the design. Many of the parts are likely to be vulnerable to breaking under heavy use, and unfortunately, aren’t the easiest to repair. Despite all of this, Macbooks often retain their value, making purchasing a used one sometimes a questionable model. Research the year carefully before buying.

In reality, there are far more choices amongst the workstation and gaming lines.

  • Lenovo makes the W-series and P-series of workstation laptops
  • Dell has their Precision line of laptops, with several models. Alienware is owned by Dell and is well known for their gaming notebooks.
  • HP has several lines, most notably their Elitebook and Zbook series.
  • MSI makes a full line of gaming laptops, such as the GT73 and they have recently extended into workstation laptops with the WS and WT lines.
  • Asus makes their Republic of Gamers (ROG) line of gaming notebooks, but no major workstation laptops.
  • Gigabyte makes the Aorus line of gaming notebooks.
  • Clevo is a major OEM manufacturer that makes a wide variety of notebooks that are resold under various other brands (ex: Sager, Eurocom, and many, many others).

These are the main laptops that are designed for performance. Splitting them, I would like to draw a distinction between gaming and workstation laptops. They are typically certified under MIL-STD-810 standards.

  • Gaming laptops: Tend to emphasize graphics performance above all else. The build quality is better than consumer laptops, but typically not as good as workstation laptops. They tend to have excellent multimedia capabilities and a large trackpad. Their displays tend to emphasize brightness and refresh rates (important for FPS gaming) above all else, and more recently features with gaming GPUs (most notably Freesync and Gsync). They also have outstanding cooling systems. They are not always available with the top end CPUs.
  • Workstation laptops: Tend to emphasize heavy workstation loads used in engineering, such as for CAD. They tend to have the best monitors in terms of image quality and color accuracy, with refresh rates and battery life taking a back seat. They also tend to have top end CPUs more so than gaming (because most games are more GPU bottlenecked rather than CPU bottlenecked, save in strategy games such as the Total War series and simulators such as Cities: Skylines, which are more CPU intensive). They usually have the best build quality of any laptops (although there are specialized laptops such as the Panasonic Toughbook series that are more durable), and ship with a variety of ports used for engineering. Many engineering laptops have support for Error Correcting RAM (ECC RAM).

You can purchase both second hand computing and gaming laptops. They tend to depreciate fairly rapidly, so even a model a generation old can be had for less than half the price of what it would be if it were new.

My subjective thoughts

Let’s look very closely at a few noteworthy models. These may not be the latest model numbers by the time that you read them. This is meant to be a quick summary of the models that I have had experience with and not meant to be a comprehensive guide. I am mostly commenting on the laptops that I am personally familiar with. I will expand this section into a separate article at a later date.

Lightweight category

The Dell Precision M3800 and M5510 are  the “ultrabook workstations”. They are perhaps the closet laptop you can buy to a Macbook Pro on Windows, and come with a comparable price tag, along with a much higher level of performance. There is room for a 2.5″ drive, and a M.2 SSD slot. The GPU and CPU are not upgradeable. The M3x00 was the predecessor. They are relatively light, but pack a punch performance wise. They can be bought with a 4k display for an even higher resolution and pixel density than the “Retina” Macbook Pro.

I suppose the MSI GS 6x series would be equal to the Dell M3800, only as a gaming counterpart. MSI also makes a WS 6x counterpart, but this does not seem to be a very popular model, at least not here in North America.

The Razer Blade carries a laptop in the 14″ that has a comparable mass to the Macbook 15″, only with a much more powerful GPU. Upgrade space is very limited though with the GPU soldered, the RAM soldered, and very limited storage options.

The 15.6″ laptops

It used to be that these would have been considered average 15″ laptops a few years ago, save for of course the trend of thin and light. The extra weight gets you extra CPU and GPU power, along with more flexibility in storage options.

Amongst the workstation laptops, there is the Dell Precision M4x00, which was succeeded by the Dell Precision 7510. The older model of HP Elitebooks including the 85x0W series was their main competition, which was succeeded by the HP Zbook 15 series. Note that many mainstream notebooks were also sold by HP under the Elitebook brand. Lenovo also makes the W series and P50 series of workstation notebooks, which are comparable to their Thinkpad line-up, similar in construction, only with workstation grade components. I personally liked the M4x00 Precision line more than the old Elitebook and Lenovo offerings, due to their excellent build quality, cooling, and other features, but since the Zbook 15 came out, I feel that is vastly superior. The Lenovo W series is lighter in weight, but it comes at the expense of cooling performance. I do like the signature plastic chassis over the aluminum and magnesium skeleton. One advantage the Lenovo does have is the built in self-calibrator for the display.

The Zbook is especially something that I consider top notch for its outstanding case (and the reviews suggest that it holds up very well over time). Perhaps the only laptops mainstream that are more durable are the Panasonic Toughbooks and the more specialized designs, typically sold to law enforcement.

The 15.6″ segment is very heavily contested in the gaming area, with options from all major vendors. Alienware 15, the MSI GE 6x, the Aorus X5, multiple Asus ROG models, and Clevo models. In general, apart from the Clevo models, the 15″ laptops for gaming have limited upgrade options. The  GPUs are often soldered and the only thing that is upgradeable is the display, the RAM, and the storage. Clevo amongst the group is by far the most upgradeable, but also in general the bulkiest, and subjectively lacking in build quality.

Many people consider the 15.6″ to be the trade-off between a mobile notebook and a full on desktop replacement, which has limited mobility. I personally recommend keeping an eye for used Dell 15.6″ Precision laptops

The 17.3″ laptops

The 17.3 line-up is similar to the 15.6″ line-up, only more weight (typically around 500g – 1 kg more), and are full desktop replacements. Graphics capabilities on these laptops are more powerful than on the 15.6″ laptops, offering a full MXM-B GPU, which leaves the opportunity for more powerful graphics and near desktop performance.

Dell’s main offering was (and the one that is often available used) was the M6x00. Amongst them, the M6600 and M6700 are great values right now used. Dell offers a Premiercolor Display, which is a 10 bit IPS display with very high color accuracy for photography. The M6800 was in some ways a step backwards, with an inferior cooling system and no option for a Premiercolor Display. I am not as thrilled with the new Precision 7710, because it has transitioned into a thinner notebook that does not have a removable battery and the keyboard feels less like a serious workstation as much as something meant for consumer use.

Lenovo offers the P70 series of workstations. This is a relatively recent addition so used versions will be hard to find. Like the 15″ counterpart, it has a rubber and plastic chassis over a aluminum-magnesium skeleton. Subjectively the lid is a bit thin though, so I’m worried about it in the long run. The big flaw though (and this is far less tolerable in a 17″ laptop) is that it is thin. It was not designed with robust cooling, but more towards weight savings.

There is again, a competitor from HP. The HP 87xW, now replaced by the HP Zbook 17 is HP’s top of the line workstation. Especially noteworthy is the Dreamcolor display, which is a special 10 bit IPS display regarded by many as the top displays for laptops. One drawback is that the Dreamcolor has been known to have a “buzz” sound that many find unpleasant. The ZBook 17 like the Zbook 15 has a reputation for its excellent chassis and in my opinion is the top workstation laptop. One thing to note is that the HP has a single fan, which seems to have a more aggressive profile than the 2 fan Dell version, although it cools just as well under load. HP does offer an extended battery as well (the HP BB09) that can be used for extra life.

Clevo  has laptops powerful enough that their 17″ laptops use full desktop CPUs on Intel’s mainstream desktop platform. Clevo laptops are also highly modular, with essentially all components upgradeable. The Clevo 17.3″ laptops can be configured to be either workstation or gaming laptops.

Amongst the 17″ gaming laptops, my personal favorite is the MSI GT7x series because of its combination of good build quality, room for upgrades (only exceeded by the Clevo), and cooling system.. The latest Alienware 17 is now fully soldered, with limited options for upgrades. The Asus ROG series also has a soldered GPU and GPU. Older generations of Alienware laptops were more upgradeable. The Alienware M17 Rx variants had a lot more room for upgrades and the component selection means that they can be upgraded with modern components. These are an excellent deal.

The 18″ laptops

These are true monsters and not very mobile. Fully configured, they can easily cost more than >$10000 USD and they require a lot of electricity.

MSI has a 18″ laptop called the GT80 Titan with full desktop grade mechanical keyboard switches. It can accompany 2 GPUs, but curiously enough, is not offered with top end GPUs.

Alienware offers the Alienware 18 and before that the M18x RX (x being several numbers). These are highly upgradeable 18″ gaming laptops with the top end CPUs available.

Clevo actually offers a full LGA 2011 (high end desktop or full server) grade laptop, the Clevo P570WM. This “laptop” weighs more than a “trashcan Mac Pro” and the battery life is very short. It can accompany 2 GPUs. Unless Clevo offers an updated version of this monster, this is the most powerful laptop on the market. So far there has been no successor with an X99 chipset laptop.

Other

If you are buying an old workstation, I highly recommend that you buy an SSD if it does not come with one already. Performance wise, around 2011 with the arrival of Sandy Bridge is where CPU processor performance began to level off. Be sure to carefully research the specs before buying!

 

Conclusions

There is a lot of choice between the used high end market. Look carefully for deals and for the unique aspects of each model of laptop. One advantage with high end workstation and gaming laptops is that there is a lot more information publicly available.

Whether or not to choose a used top end workstation or a newer more mid-ranged laptop is a choice that each usage case will have to evaluate very carefully. There are drawbacks and advantages to each approach.

What I do recommend though is that you do your research very carefully and upgrade carefully. Remember, a laptop is likely something that you are going to be using very frequently until you upgrade to the next one, so it is something that you do want to put some effort into making the best decision on.

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