Many places and situations make us feel helpless and inadequate: an airport baggage carousel, a stuck elevator, online at the DMV, waiting for your wife to give birth, and in an electronics store listening to some kid spew incomprehensible digital double talk while trying a buy something you thought would be simple, like a TV or a camera.
There is no reason to feel helpless or inadequate when gadget shopping – and no reason to drag along a geek to translate electronics store sales person digi-English. Gird your ego by following these 10 simple suggestions to confidently buy the best make and model gadget for you.
1. Know what you want the gadget to do. In other words, don't drool over a gadget just because it's the coolest thing and your ultra-competitive neighbor keeps flaunting hers. What primary function or functions do you want the gadget to perform – beyond its primary function? For instance, don't buy a Blu-ray player just because it plays Blu-ray discs. All devices offer secondary features and functions that will differentiate one model from another. Decide what else you'd like the device to do, and you'll be able to map those functions to specific features.
2. Ignore format wars. Plasma or LCD? Apple or Android? Windows or Mac? Who gives a #%&@? Don't be sidetracked by these rhetorical and academic questions. It's not "who," it's "what" – what do you want to do with the gadget? Make sure your device of choice performs the functions you need it to perform in the way you want them performed. It's operating system or format is a secondary and, in many cases, an unnecessary consideration.
3. Research online. Yes, the Internet is filled with advice, but let me narrow down your online research to two sites: Amazon and CNET. On Amazon, search for a product inside a specific department ("Electronics & Computers," "Home, Garden & Tools," etc.) and you can sort models both by customer rating or best seller. I'm not saying the best-selling model is the best model, but best sellers with 4.5 and higher star ratings from more than, say, 50 reviewers, is a great starting point. CNET offers not only great expert reviews (I've worked for and with many of the folks there), but they have excellent plain-English buying guides and "product finders" that help you define and narrow down your feature/function/price choices.
4. Demo demo demo. Once you've researched online, go to a store for some hands-on. You can still buy online, but you want that tactile experience with your prospective purchase first, especially in actual usage conditions. View TVs in dark demonstration areas or rooms, stereo equipment in sound rooms, etc., and bring along video or music you're familiar with to demo. Try to take portable devices with screens outside to see how well you can see the display in the sun. Most importantly, get your hands on both the gadget and the remote control, if applicable. If you can't figure out the operational logic in a couple of minutes, move on.
5. Don't let the sales person control the sale. First, make the blue-shirted geek speak English. If s/he says something incomprehensible like "It's got extra quads," ask "Why is that a good thing? How does that help me?" Make like Denzel Washington in Philadelphia and say unembarrassingly, "Explain this to me like I'm a four-year-old." Also, the sales person might try and steer you to what they've got in stock rather than what you need. Worse, sales people often get "spiffs," a kickback from the manufacturer or employer to sell a specific item. An unnatural emphasis on a specific make and model should be a tipoff.
6. Don't rationalize "That's all I need." Don't give in to this penny-wise/dollar-foolish rationalization. Remember, technology changes radically in a brief period of time. By buying closer to state-of-the-art now, the longer you can stave off a replacement purchase later. Buying up is especially critical for computer/tablet memory – always get more than you think you'll need, and in TVs – you'll be happier and more satisfied with the next-size screen. (Only exception to this more-is-better advice: digital camera megapixels – as I noted in "6 Digital Camera Buying Tips," more megapixels is not better.) Buying up also helps you avoid "I should have gotten the bigger/more" buyer's remorse.
7. Stick with the names you know. Yes, there are really good products available from companies you've never heard from – but these are never the cheapest products. Don't recognize the brand offered for a bargain price? Then that model is a must to avoid.
8. How to find best price. First, never EVER buy on price. Yes, set yourself a price range or limit, but all other factors should be considered before using price as a final determining factor. And to find the best price, go to TheFind, a site that searches and finds the prices of products all over the Web. But beware: listed prices often don't include shipping or tax or both, which could drive the actual price higher. Use TheFind as a guide, not an absolute, and buy from a retailer you trust with no-fee return/exchange policies. You're always better off spending a bit more for piece of mind.
9. Measure your storage space. A cabinet. A drawer. A counter or desktop. A backpack or purse. A pocket. Regardless of its size, you will keep/store/mount/carry your gadget purchase somewhere. Measure this space – height, width and depth – and make sure your gadget will fit comfortably. For large items, such as big-screen TVs or floor speakers, make sure your purchase will fit in the stairwell, around the corners and through the doors necessary to get it into the intended room.
10. Just Say No To Extended Warranty. Under no circumstances should you buy an extended warranty from a store. But instead of using this space to explain my injunction, see my previous "Should You Insure Your Gadgets?"
Now go with confidence and shop!