Bargain Hunting – Buying Used Equipment

I’m one of those people who has a collection of old (OK, some are ancient) computers, test equipment and what-not floating around. Over the years I’ve collected, and discarded, literally truckloads of stuff, including a complete DEC MicroVAX system, a DEC PDP-11/34, an HP-3000, and a slew of 9-track tape drives, line printers, oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, old PCs of various flavors, and boxes of loose parts. And that’s just the stuff I can remember without thinking too hard about it. I still have too much junk, but I’ve been applying the “If it doesn’t light up and work when I plug it in, then out it goes” rule as much as possible (sometimes it’s painful, though).

I’m also one of those people who likes to ring as much out of what I have as possible. I don’t like to run out and spend money on something just because it’s the latest, greatest, coolest or whatever. I still own and use a Palm III because it does what I want a PDA to do, no more, no less. Most of my personal electronics test gear is 15 years old, or older.  I have and use software that’s several revisions behind what’s currently on the market. Again, it does what I need it to do for the types of things I typically work on.

In pre-eBay days I would go sniffing around surplus outlets. Not the ones that sell camping gear and canteens, but the hard-core places that had large parts of airplanes and helicopters lying in the yard and a tin roof building with all kinds of bizarre electronics gear piled on steel shelfs inside. When I discovered eBay in the late 90’s, it all changed.

You can get a lot of useful stuff from auction sites like eBay, and when people ask me about it I tell them I really only have one rule for myself: I never bid more than I can afford to flush down the commode. Seriously. I have no way of knowing what I’m going to get because, to be honest, many people either can’t or won’t correctly package something heavy for shipment. I once received a medical diagnostic monitor (the thing that sits next to the bed in the hospital and shows heartbeat and respiration and what-not) that was so badly packed for shipment that it arrived completely destroyed. As in, parts fell out, a quarter-inch thick metal chassis was bent, and inside the unit the neck of the CRT had been snapped off and the circuit boards cracked. I suppose it didn’t help that the shipper (three letters, and I’ll leave it at that) apparently managed to drop it off the back of a truck, but with the way it was packaged it would have been very difficult to handle in any case, and it was heavy as hell. It should have been sent as at least three seperate packages with polyurethane padding. In any case, it was a total loss, although I did manage to salvage some of the unbroked parts for my junk box.

In other cases I received the item in perfect working condition. Like the HP 1600 logic analyzer I bought for a song (with all the pods and clips, and the user’s manual, no less). I now own a working example of one of the world’s first commercially produced logic analyzers, and I’ve even used it effectively on a project.

So, you can get good stuff, but you have to be willing to take a risk. You might have to deal with a seller that won’t accept responsibility for shipping damage, or a shipper that can take months to deal with your little damage problem. Then there’s the definite risk that what you get will be broken from the outset. If the posting for the item states “Powers up, but have no way to test further” then don’t be surprised when you get it and find out that the reason it became surplus was because it died in someone’s lab.

The one thing I generally don’t buy used is software. I’ve found that with Linux I don’t need to buy anything, and for Windows I would rather pay for the product and get the technical support than get a CD of unknown origin that may, or may not, have documentation with it. So, when shopping for something like a schematic capture or PCB layout package, I’ll opt for the real deal if the project can afford it. Same goes for high-end software analysis or modeling tools. If want you need isn’t available as open-source software (OSS), or if the OSS isn’t up to the task at hand, then I think that it would be time to decide if the tool is really necessary, and if it is, then make a case for it and buy it.

So, happy shopping. And always remember: Caveat Emptor!

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Little Buddy

An awesome little friend

Jordi the Sheltie passed away in 2008 at the ripe old age of 14. He was the most awesome dog I've ever known.


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