In the enthusiast world, very little is more agonizing than waiting for a necessary shipment for an upcoming build; waiting until Thursday to order was a mistake - you know it on Wednesday, but you waited anyway. Now it's a toss-up on whether that open-box product will even get here before the weekend.
There is something worse, though: Opening a DOA product. Worse than that? Opening a completely functional motherboard, hard drive, or what-have-you, only to find that it fails 31 (or 91, in some cases) days after purchase. Oops.
Our warranty guide gives a solid comparison of hardware manufacturer warranties, but one thing we did not cover was how to simulate months of use within the span of a few days. It's something our team does with every item we review or personally purchase; I recently took a risk on an open-box laptop and, after an initial gag-worthy return (I'm sure Newegg placed the pubic hair under the keyboard for valid reasons, but I, for one, did not welcome this additional service), I ran enough tests to simulate several months of heavy usage, hoping to eek out problems early. Ominous ticks-of-death in HDDs are common in refurbished products, as are other failures, but running a standard "test regiment" on any purchases should validate exactly what - if anything - is broken on the open-box item, and in the best case scenario, it should draw-out failures before the truncated warranty expires.
A word of warning before we continue: Personally speaking, I recommend avoiding the purchase of refurbished power supplies and CPUs (motherboards are a toss-up), but you can normally get some worthwhile deals out of refurb'd drives, monitors, laptops, and even video cards.
This guide will tell you how to go through some serious synthetic testing procedures to benchmark refurbished products and check for flaws. Everything herein can be performed by most novice users (it's mostly installing benchmarkers, changing some settings, and hitting 'go'), but feel free to ask us specific questions in the comments below or in our forums.
Why Burn-in My Components?
It's just as important to burn-in used/open-box/refurbished components as it is to burn-in brand new ones. This will help weed-out inadequacies or failures before any warranties expire by stress-testing the components at levels they wouldn't normally experience in normal use.
It can save a lot of time (and money, if something fails post-warranty) to perform burn-in testing early, and these tests are normally things that can be run overnight or while away from the PC.
Here's a quick listing of useful tools, organized by the tasks they are best assigned to. We'll talk about how to use each tool in the sections below.
Memory Burn-in Testing
The most note-worthy (and free) consumer memory burn-in testers can be found here.
Memtest86+ - We'll be detailing this one below; it's one of the most powerful and reliable memory testers, and can normally yield failure-or-success notifications with unbelievable accuracy and rapidity.
Prime95 - While this is primarily to be used for CPU punishment, Prime95 offers a 'torture test' that stresses both RAM and the CPU with several customization options. Its customizability and level of torture makes it a prime subject for extensive testing on refurbished systems, RAM, or CPUs.
BIOS - It sounds silly, but we always recommend a simple check of BIOS' system information screen to ensure your components are running at the frequencies advertised. The system information screen in BIOS is normally the most accurate, so check up on CPU speeds, memory frequency and voltage, and anything else that may be important to your specs.
SSD/HDD Reliability Testing
Fortunately, there are several drive testing utilities of various power levels. We also recommend performing a full drive wipe before using someone else's recycled crap, since Windows doesn't actually delete files. We used all the below tools in our Kingston 3K SSD review, for those wanting examples of what they do.
ATTO - This simple utility will give you an idea of your drive's read/write capabilities within a user-defined range of file sizes and synthetic transfers. The speed of the transfer should positively correlate with file size.
AS-SSD - This one's a bit prettier and easier to read and is slightly more powerful than ATTO (but it's always good to check an SSD with multiple utilities to eliminate utility error). It has compression benchmarks, copy benchmarks, and a scoring system.
HD-Tune - My personal favorite drive tester and the most powerful of the lot. HD Tune will give you the most detailed information on the read/write speeds of your drives.
CrystalDiskMark - This one's probably the simplest of the bunch to use. Download it, run it, watch it go. Check the rates to make sure they correlate with your SSD's advertised speeds (if you have one) and if you have a spindle/magnetic drive, listen to check for clunking.
Video Card Torture Testing
Buying a used video card can sometimes pay-off, but it's just as likely you'll end up selling one at some point - perform thorough testing before pawning your broken junk off on someone else. Likewise, make sure these tests are run on any "officially refurbished" products from retailers.
Heaven - Unigine's Heaven benchmarker is one of the best for stress testing in a pretty fashion. Run this alongside MSI Afterburner's logging for full analysis of temperature fluctuations and FPS or clock variance.
Furmark - Furmark's not quite as beautiful as Heaven, but it does what it wants to: Stresses the GPU.
MSI Afterburner - MSI Afterburner is great for overclocking, but it's also great for logging (and EVGA users can enjoy EVGA PrecisionX). Go to Afterburner's settings and enable logging, then specify the preferred level of detail.
Checking the specs of your CPU to ensure it's actually running at the advertised rates is important -- especially if you bought a refurbished laptop.
CPU-Z - Probably one of the more widely known utilities, CPU-Z interprets the specs of your CPU (this is also great for verifying overclocking), spits them out, and lets you decide if you like them.
Prime95 - As mentioned in the memory section above, Prime95 is a great stresser for CPUs.
The other components are either things you don't want to buy refurbished or are generic enough that they're covered in our below testing methodologies... with that said, let's dive into the section that describes how to actually make use of all the above tools.
Continue to page 2 for the practical guide to burn-in testing your components!