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.
Know the protections your credit card offers, and always make large purchases with a card that offers some sort of buyer protection.
Don’t always rely only on the store’s warranty. If you bought your item with a credit card, check the credit card company’s policy on warranty coverage. Many Platinum, Titanium, and Adamantium credit cards will automatically offer extended warranties for items that were purchased with the card. You can find out what kind of consumer protection your card offers by calling the 800 number on the back. For that reason, it's a good idea to make major purchases, like that new 30-inch monitor, with a card that offers purchaser protection.
If you’re not buying a PC from Dell, HP, or one of the other big boys, you’ll want to see what kind of track record your vendor has. At a minimum, your due diligence should include checking the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org. A second level of protection would be to check consumer complaint sites like Resellerratings.com. The site lets people evaluate stores and companies and compiles a quick score and lets you deep dive into the nitty gritty of the good, bad, and ugly of a particular store or PC builder.
Beware too-good-to-be-true digital camera deals online! Unsavory online camera stores will hold your money hostage and gouge you for an included kit.
Digital cameras will likely be a hot item this Christmas, but cameras and online shopping can often end tragically. That’s due to the high number of borderline slimy stores that target digital camera buyers. It works this way: Your Google search for a Canon EOS 40D SLR yields an incredible price of $600! Wow, that’s $600 less than the other stores are offering it for. You order it and check out. Months later, you still haven't received your camera. You call the vendor, and you’re given a song and dance about it being back-ordered because of X excuse, would you like to buy the camera bundle with some accessories for $1,700? It's a lose-lose situation. If you fall for the upsell and actually receive your camera, you’ll notice that your package bundle, which you paid extra for, includes the battery and charger (which are normally included with the camera for MSRP). If you give up and cancel the order, you've wasted a ton of time, you don't have a camera, and the company has had your $600 for three months. If you foolishly let them cut you a check instead of getting your credit card company to reverse the charges, you’ll get to play the “where’s my check game?”
The short story is that there is no way in hell any store can sell a camera for half of what other legitimate stores are selling it for. But they know that greed works every single time. Just follow the old adage that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Not all components are created the same. Top-tier components are full retail items in fancy boxes designed for store shelves. Theyusually include the full enchilada: all of the accessories, documentation, and the full warranty. One bin down is the bare component. These are often called OEM items, but that isn't always the case. Sometimes these bare items are considered full retail parts by the manufacturer and carry the full warranty–you just don’t get the fancy packaging or maybe the free T-shirt or software bundle that the retail part had. The riskiest item to buy is the OEM component. These are parts made and sold to PC assemblers and builders. Sometimes they carry shorter warranties or no warranty at all. They may even vary greatly in specifications from the components you read about online. They may have less cache or lower clock speeds or be missing key components that you wanted. The bad news is that it's extremely difficult to tell the difference between OEM parts and bare retail components; sometimes the reseller won't even know.
This applies not only to hardware but software as well. If you buy a retail copy of Windows, you can move it from machine to machine, reactivating it over and over again through several hardware upgrades. Hardware upgrades aren't a problem, even if you swap out every component in the rig. You may have to reactivate by phone after the second or third reinstall, but it will continue to work. If you buy the less expensive OEM version of the software, you'll have a problem. Microsoft has the option of limiting OEM copies of Windows to the motherboard that it is first installed on. If your motherboard dies, Microsoft technically considers your copy of the OS dead and can and has in the past, refused to reactivate it for a different motherboard.