When looking for a new iPad, smartphone or other gadgets you may notice an increasing number of retailers that offer refurbished models.

It's a word that some may consider a synonym for second-hand, used or pre-owned, but there are some advantages of buying refurbished tech. 

What’s the difference between a refurbished and a used device?

Typically, when you buy a refurbished device, it’s one that may have previously been used for demonstrations or was returned by a customer either due to a fault or simply because they changed their mind.

As the device has been opened it can no longer be sold as new, so companies give them a refresh, fixing any faults, replacing any missing items and and ensuring that they are almost as good as new.

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.

Some of these concerns can be mitigated by using second-hand specialists such as SmartFoneStore and 4Gadgets, which grade the devices so you can be certain of the kind of condition they will be in and both of which also offer 12-month warranties so you can return the item if it becomes faulty. We’ve used them several times over the years and found both to provide excellent services and devices, all while ensuring you save a good deal on money on your tech.

What does refurbished mean? : Smartfonestore

Refurbished devices tend to be a little more expensive than second-hand ones, but this is due to the fact that they are often returned to factory standards rather than just cleaned up and tested.

One of the best examples of a refurbished device is when you buy a product from the Apple Refurbished Store. You’ll typically save only 15% off the retail price, but you get 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.

What does refurbished mean? : Apple Refurbished Store

Amazon has also started offering refurbished units 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 EU S.à.r.l.’

Again, products are covered by a one-year warranty and eligible for Amazon’s normal returns policy.

What does refurbished mean? : Amazon Renewed

The savings on offer can be quite substantial, as at the time of writing you could pick up on Amazon UK a ‘Renewed’ Samsung Galaxy S10+ for £449 ($571), which is way cheaper than the £769 ($978) price on the official Samsung UK website. Renewed devices are not quite the ‘like new’ examples from Apple, with Amazon stating in the listing that ‘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.’

So, in this case the Amazon version is essentially the same as those on offer from SmartFoneStore and 4Gadgets, meaning you’re free to shop around and choose your vendor.

It is, however, 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.

Refurbished vs Used - Amazon Warehouse

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. Of course, this is Apple we’re talking about so the discount isn’t massive, but it can save you a bit if you were already intending to buy from the company.

Amazon’s Renewed offerings can offer much larger savings on a wider range of products, but you don’t get the devices restored to ‘as new’ condition as you do with Apple. They’re still guaranteed though and have been tested to ensure they work as they should.

Looking around at the Samsung and Microsoft refurb stores shows that neither company is really taking the idea seriously, if the former is even still running it at all, so we’d suggest giving them a miss and maybe heading to one of the specialist second-hand offerings as a better alternative.

To make the best savings, there’s always eBay, Craigslist and similar, but these also carry the most risk. So, literally in this case, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Of course, if you're looking for decent bargain, then be sure to also check out our roundup of the best tech deals.