Best Places to Buy

Sooner or later it's going to happen. You'll decide that you can't watch another pay-per-view movie without a wide-screen HDTV or download another MP3 without a wireless digital sound system. Or maybe your work PC will go AWOL and you'll need a bigger, beefier replacement. Whatever the reason, eventually you're going to have to go shopping.

And while using tech gear may be getting easier, buying it has gotten a lot tougher. The convergence of PC and entertainment technologies can be terrific--just ask anyone who has a high-definition wide-screen TV, a TiVo, and a comfy chair. But it also means that you need more information than ever to make the right buying decision. And it means that stores are broadening the categories of products they sell. These days, CompUSA hawks plasma TVs, and The Apple Store and Staples sell digital cameras.

Web sites, user reviews, and even humble technology magazines are critical tools for smart shoppers. But sometimes there's no substitute for an informed salesperson. Suppose that you've carefully researched HDTVs, but you can't find a local store that carries the one you want. If you don't have time to wait, you need to be able to ask a store employee about alternatives. And if you're buying a type of product you're unfamiliar with, a well-informed salesperson can bring up issues you might not have thought to research.

We decided to test the tech savviness of retail sales staff and Web sites, to find out how helpful they are at giving you the information you need. So we surveyed customers, interviewed store managers and employees, studied retail sites, and did some undercover shopping. Our goal? To help you locate the advice you need to make an informed decision--without quitting your day job or resorting to prescription painkillers.

But buying advice isn't the only critical factor to consider in deciding where to shop. So we also tracked prices, product selection, and return policies at five national retail chains and at ten popular Web stores to help compile our ratings of the best places to buy.

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