The holiday buying push comes earlier every year. I'm already surrounded by snowflakes and Christmas trees when I go shopping, though I haven't even hammered out my Thanksgiving menu. Before you get drawn into the vortex that is holiday shopping, let me share some tips to maximize your dollars -- and your happiness -- with your next electronics purchase.
-- Check reviews before buying any big-ticket item. A Google search alone isn't sufficient, because some reviewers accept payment to endorse products. For unbiased, expert reviews, go to CNET News, PC World and other technology news sites. Peruse user reviews for more information about a device's real-world use and costs over time. I always check Amazon to compare reviews and decide among several similar products.
-- Factor in the cost of related equipment and service. A new gadget's bells and whistles can easily distract you from some key features that will impact its usability and long-term cost. Upgrading to a new HDTV is only going to result in improved picture quality if you have the right cables to connect it to your home theater and the HD content to watch on it. This may require upgrading your satellite or cable package. That smartphone will need a protective case, a car charger, maybe even an extended-life battery. Speaking of battery life, toys and handheld electronics can use a lot of batteries and sometimes require odd sizes. Be sure you check the item's battery needs.
-- Check for deals. Before you head to checkout, do a quick search for coupon codes for an item, merchant or website. I always check www.retailmenot.com; often, entering a code in the checkout cart's promotion section saves me 10 to 30 percent off my purchases or gets me free shipping. Or, I find printable coupons to bring to the store. With a coveted item, don't be afraid to ask the store to match a lower price you've found elsewhere, even online. Always ask the salesperson if there's a promotion or deal you can take advantage of.
-- Consider the retailer's or manufacturer's warranty and what other buyers have to say about how the company stands behind it. If you have a problem with a new $900 computer after six months of use, you don't want to be stuck with a refurbished replacement.
-- Think long and hard about buying an extended warranty. Salespeople are often pushed hard to sell them because they're profitable to the retailer, but they rarely pay off for consumers -- particularly if there are limits or deductibles. Most truly faulty computers and larger electronics will fail within the manufacturer warranty period, typically one to three years. "There is a spike in front," Jim Kahler, an HP director for consumer products support, said in a March 2006 PC World article. "You pick up any flaws in manufacturing in the first 90 days; it flattens out (soon thereafter), then rises, especially with a mobile product."
Many handheld electronics have a short warranty period -- say, 30 to 60 days. Accidental damage coverage might be worthwhile if either you or the intended recipient is prone to dropping or breaking things. Just make sure to review the policy's limitations before you decide.
(Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds on Call, which offers on-site computer and home theater set-up and repair. Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at www.callnerds.com/andrea.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com)
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