Ken Colburn: Retailers and manufacturers know that because most consumers can't decipher the technical details when making a decision, most default to the price. In technology especially, often times the price you see advertised is not what it will actually end up costing you.
Q. What are some of the traps we should watch for when shopping for technology items this year? - Ben
A. The holiday shopping season brings out the bargains and the gimmicks, especially when it comes to the confusing world of technology.
Retailers and manufacturers know that because most consumers can't decipher the technical details when making a decision, most default to the price. In technology especially, often times the price you see advertised is not what it will actually end up costing you.
Here are my top five tech shopping "gotchas" that you should be aware of:
Be cautious of the "cheapest." In order for any item in technology to be the cheapest in any category, corners have to get cut. In some cases, those corners aren't important on the surface, but the biggest games are played with the cheapest items in tech. So be suspicious and do your homework. If it sounds too good to be true, there's probably a catch.
Beware the battery. Batteries are a profit center for manufacturers and retailers. Low-cost technology often comes with low- capacity batteries. For instance, a cheap laptop may run for less than an hour on the battery that comes with it, forcing you to buy the upgraded battery at a premium. Always ask if an "upgraded battery" is available for any device you are buying, and compare the difference. This can quickly expose any tricks being played in this area.
Avoid the "premium cable." Cables are another big profit center for retailers, which is why you will see really cheap printers advertised that don't come with a cable. Unlike analog cables (like speaker wire), there is no improvement when buying "premium" cables for connecting digital devices. Digital signals are either on or off; there is no quality improvement possible.
Bypass the "B.S." (bundling and subsidies). A very common ploy in recent times is the use of "bundling" or "subsidies" to attract customers who aren't paying attention. Bundling is the practice of requiring a customer to purchase the "bundle" to get the price on the base item. For instance, you may see a digital camera advertised at a really low price, but the fine print disclaims that only a handful of units are available at the price unless you also buy the optional carry case, memory card and spare battery bundle along with it.
Subsidies are how the cell phone industry has tied their customers to long-term contracts for years, and now we are seeing computer deals, especially in Netbooks, that are using the same tactic but with caps and overage fees if you use the Internet too much!
Eyeball extended warranties. Extended warranties continue to be one of the most confusing purchases for tech buyers because the "what's covered and what isn't covered" issue isn't clear at the point of purchase. Let's be very clear on this: Extended warranties are a big profit center for retailers.
To make things worse, the salesman who sells you the warranty has nothing to do with executing the warranty and probably won't even be working there anymore when you try to make use of it down the road.
That is not to say that all extended warranties are bad. After all, it's like any other insurance policy: It's great if you have a problem and a waste if you never end up using it.
In computers, extended warranties typically cover the hardware but not the most common problem you will likely have: operating system corruption, infection or other software-related issues.
Expensive laptops are one of the few exceptions to the rule, because laptops are proprietary, expensive to repair and more likely to suffer physical damage because of their portability. But make sure you understand the details.
Bonus tip: Don't get flogged!
The Internet is a great resource for researching your potential purchases, and getting recommendations from others is a great help. The popularity of blogs has created a new category of informational sites known as "flogs" (fake blogs). What appears to be a personal recommendation for a product or service is nothing more than a clever marketing strategy by some organizations.
One of the easiest ways to spot a flog is if the only topic being discussed in any of the postings is this one product or service - especially if there is only one post. Most bloggers generate new posts on a regular basis and discuss a variety of topics.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show, which can be heard at noon Saturdays on 92.3 KTAR-FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org