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Tis the season to buy new PCs, electronics, and a bunch of other stuff for that matter. There are great deals to be had, but whether you're buying for yourself or others, the road to electronic bliss is fraught with peril. Before you shell out your hard-earned dough for that new gaming rig or plasma screen TV, read our guide--or suffer the consequences!
By shopping around, you can sometimes find a better bargain than is even available at Wal-Mart. Yes. Really. Wal-Mart.
We’ve actually found that one of the best ways to find a deal is to cruise the technology “coupon” sites. Sites such as techdeals.net and techbargains.com track supercheap bargains from retailers and often provide links and the coupon codes needed to get the low price. These sites are quite different than search engines because they are geared toward the best deals, not simply searching a store for an item and its price. For example, on one particular day, you could get a 20 percent discount on a Canon Rebel XTI digital camera at Dell.com, but you had to buy the camera that day and use Paypal. Taking advantage of these steep discounts is certainly more work but can be worth it if you're willing to do the legwork.
As always, be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. It's entirely possible that Circuit City will run a crazy cheap special on an HDTV to get people in the door, but if Bob's Internet Tire & Battery Emporium is offering a cheaper deal on the same TV, beware.
Extended warranties on desktop PCs are rarely worth the money. Desktop PCs have become so reliable that if one works for the first three hours out of the box, it probably won’t die for five years. For notebook PCs, however, extended warranties have a better chance of paying off, as notebooks have far higher failure rates than desktops. Notebook PCs get carried around, pressed, compressed, vibrated and knocked about. Add that to hundreds of delicate components operating in a tiny space and it’s not a question of if your laptop will break, but when. That doesn’t mean you should automatically say yes when the man in the blue shirt asks if you want to buy an extended warranty for your new notebook, but there's a much higher likelihood that your investment will pay off.
For "dumber" consumer electronics and home appliances, the extended warranty is rarely a good idea. Devices like washing machines and dishwashers rarely, if ever, break. When they do, it's inevitably beyond even the extrended warranty period. The exception may be high-end consumer electronics--think large-screen HDTVs--it may be worth paying for the extended warranty just for the in-home service.
Warranty policies are generally written by horrible beasts with the brain of an insurance actuary, the soul of a lawyer, and the mouth of a politician. In other words, they’re not designed to help you, they’re designed to help the company increase profits without increasing liability. The warranties are written with the knowledge that most consumers won't have any problems over the life of the extended warranty. Of course, shady companies can pad that profit margin even more by simply refusing to cover a customer's warranty claims. Just because you have that warranty doesn’t mean that a company will honor it. Oftentimes, extended warranties carry verbiage that absolves the company from intentional damage caused by the customer, which is a vague enough claim that they can choose not to cover accidental damage--like dropping your laptop. Once the company determines that you intentionally damaged your gear, you're screwed. We don't want to imply that every extended warranty is designed to screw you, but they’re not going to cover every problem you have. As always, buyer beware.
If you prefer to shop online, watch out for the landmines that online stores have laid. Many stores, especially smaller, less reputable stores (and even some larger stores) will charge you a restocking fee if you need to return anything--even defective products. The restocking fees are often quite high in order to dissuade you from trying to return items that you bought. A really disreputable store will actually try to charge you a restocking fee on defective items that you return. How do you watch out for this trap? Read the store’s return policy before you click the check-out button.
The other common hidden fee is the shipping and handling charge. Frequently, unscrupulous online vendors will list an item at below retail cost and then make up their money on exorbitant shipping and handling fees. Always pay attention to what shipping and handling are going to cost you.