MTBF – In Defense Of Refurbs

There is a term used in engineering – Mean Time Between Failure, or MTBF. MTBF is a measure of how reliable a hardware product or component is expected to be, and in essence will tell you how long a particular thing will function before it is likely to fail.

This is not information that companies prominently display on product packaging. In some cases, if you dig really deep into the documentation of a component like a raw hard disk drive you can find a MTBF statement, but for the most part this data that manufacturers keep to themselves.

This whole thing is much easier to understand in the context of a single product, so let’s take the laptop on which I am writing right now.


Laptops are made up of a handful of basic components:

  • A physical case (holds it all together)
  • A motherboard with chips and memory (does all the thinking)
  • A Hard Drive (for storage)
  • A screen (so you can see things)
  • A Battery (to make it portable)
  • A bunch of other little components (keyboard, trackpad, speakers, a camera, and a bunch of connectors)

I won’t include the charger, since that is functionally another system all together.

When a company designs a laptop, they look at all of the MTBF data for each component in the design.

For something like the case, the numbers are basically infinite since modern manufacturing is now capable of making a laptop case that, unless physically damaged by an outside force, will functionally last forever.

The motherboard is a single component made up of hundreds of other components, so they look at every one of those individually as well. Each of the other pieces like the hard drive, screen, battery and all the other little bits are analyzed, scrutinized and ultimately selected to provide an appropriate blend of functionality, reliability and economy for the laptop being designed.

Once all of the components and sub components are selected and all of the MTBF data is crunched together, the engineering team will know:


For every thousand laptops sold, how many will fail and how long it will take for them to fail. They will also know which components are the “weak links” in the chain that is the laptop. Since the M in MTBF stands for “mean,” which is synonymous with “average,” of laptops are going to fail, some will fail sooner than others.

This is data used to calculate the cost of warranty claims and support across the lifetime of a product. The marketing team will also use this data to set pricing and possibly ask for engineering changes. If the predicted failure numbers are too high, and as a result the cost of supporting those failures is also too high, it may make more sense to spend a little more on one or more of the “weak link” components.

A poorly saved dollar in design could cost thousands to support through the lifetime of a product.

When a product fails within a warranty period, most manufacturers give you a new one, take the broken product back and run it through a reconditioning or refurbishing process.

Apple runs a large refurb store right alongside its new product offerings.

Apple runs a large refurb store right alongside its new product offerings.


This process identifies the point of failure, fixes it, tests the product to meet the original specifications and cleans it up to be sold again. This is how “factory reconditioned” products come to be available. Now that you know how all of this happens, think about this.

If a product experiences its inevitable component failure early it its life and been repaired, isn’t that product going to be more reliable than a brand new one since the expected failure had already occurred?

Well, it is impossible to say for sure, but statistically… yes.


What’s more, if a particular component ends up having a higher MTBF than anticipated, the manufacturer may decide to upgrade that component during a reconditioning. This upgrade may eventually make it into the new production process, but such a supply chain change could take months.

Refurbished and reconditioned products are sold through factory stores and other retailers. I have listed several of these at the end of this post and some of them may surprise you.


Tiger Direct refurb offers an 11% discount over the same camera at Amazon.


Several years ago, we installed a new dishwasher in our kitchen. The original banana yellow Kitchen Aid dishwasher that came with the house sprung a leak, and we replaced it with a brand spanking new Frigidaire.

About thirteen months later, the latch broke.


Looking at the documentation that came with the dishwasher and the receipt from Lowes, I was not surprised to see that the unit had come with a one-year warranty that had run out only five weeks before the latch failed.

I flipped the breaker, and opened up the door to the find the problem. Between the handle and several switches and rods, was a four-inch piece of plastic shaped a bit like an elbow. This is the piece that had failed.

I found the part number embossed on the side of the plastic, picked up the phone and called the local appliance part company.  After giving them the brand, model number and part number from my dishwasher, I was pleased to learn that they had the part in stock… it would only be $13.

The next morning I made the journey across town to the counter of the parts company. They had already pulled the part and it was waiting for me on a shelf.


When the clerk handed me the little part bag, I immediately noticed that it was much heavier than the broken example I had in my other hand. I tore the bag open to discover that the replacement part was identical in every way except… it was metal.

Clearly Frigidaire had discovered a design weakness in the plastic part and had chosen to replace it with a more substantial metal version. Once installed, that part worked flawlessly for more than five years when that dishwasher was replaced during a compete remodel of our kitchen.

Lots of companies offer refurbished or reconditioned versions of their products and they offer four substantial advantages:

  • They are statistically less likely to fail
  • They have been checked-over with far more attention to detail that the original manufacturing QA testing
  • They offer discounts anywhere from 10%-30% off the price of a new product
  • They typically come with the same warranty as the new product

If you have product fail outside of warranty, it is certainly worth calling the manufacturer anyway. If your product failure has a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) associated with it, they will often cover the repair or replacement beyond an expired warranty. A TSB is an internal document about a problem that is one step short of a recall.

In life we gain wisdom through our experience and failures. In a way physical products are no different.

So, the next time you need a new product of any kind, consider searching for a refurb version. You’ll save money and you’ll benefit from a product with a little “experience.”  Who wouldn’t want something that was both new and wise.


Here are some refurb product sources to consider:

Apple Refurb Store


Tiger Direct


Reconditioned Tools


Best Buy


Copyright © 2014 - Stephen S. Nazarian - All rights reserved. (MTBF – In Defense Of Refurbs)


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4 thoughts on “MTBF – In Defense Of Refurbs

  • How timely… I was about to buy a universal remote online and couldn’t decide if I wanted the refurbished model or the new one. I have to admit, there is definitely some sort of mental impasse with items one knows to be previously “broken”… thanks for a little purchasing confidence!

  • PERFECT timing! I could really use an iPad for my business – nice to know there is another way to go when deciding!

  • I remember you being a big advocate for refurb products even back to your days at Fusion. I too like refurbs, however, with things that take non-replaceable batteries, I would be a bit leery. I would bet they do not replace the batteries causing the device to fail sooner than it would have. I make sure to do everything I can to extend the battery life of my devices reducing the memory effect that ALL (some much less than others) rechargeable batteries suffer from.

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