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Getting Good Info Before You Buy
When you're in the market for a new PC or gadget, naturally you want to get the most information you can about it before you hand over your money. Product information Web sites are a great resource any time you're planning on getting a big-ticket item. First, they show you every detail you might want about a product category or a specific device, often providing links to spec sheets and technical data that won't fit in printed reviews, such as the frequency response range of a speaker or whether a cable will be long enough to meet your needs. Second, and more important, they help you set your price expectations when you're ready to pull out your credit card. Finally, they can present similar products you might not have considered, so you'll be able to see whether your "perfect" digital camera has been one-upped lately.
When you're looking for user reviews, a good first stop is the venerable ConsumerReview.com, which has a good selection of user-written reviews of consumer electronics, PCs, and even automobiles. ConsumerReview will often have dozens of evaluations for a product when major comparison sites and retailers have none at all. Epinions.com, which pays users to write reviews, is a decent second choice for user commentary, though the site has faded in usefulness over the last couple of years as fewer users rate products and those that do have tended to provide more spec sheets and less analysis of the gear in their write-ups. A promising alternative is the relatively new AskAnOwner.com, which lets you poll people who have hands-on experience with products you're interested in.
For quick advice, check out ConsumerSearch.com, which digests reviews from 18 expert sources (with categories covering everything from routers to juicers to moisturizers), presenting amalgamated top picks on a single, easy-to-understand page. And PC World is not a bad source for expert product reviews, either. (Just a suggestion.)
Once you've settled on a product to buy, you should spend a bit of time scouring the Web for the best price. Even if you plan to make the purchase in person, this way you'll know how much you should expect to pay, and whether you're getting ripped off. (For big-ticket items like HDTVs, it's not uncommon to see retail prices ranging from $2000 to $5000 for the exact same product.)
Google's Froogle service has become a sophisticated comparison shopping engine that takes a lot of the pain out of punching in model numbers on site after site. Good old PriceGrabber is also useful, but generally feels less thorough. (Full disclosure: PriceGrabber links to PC World reviews, and powers PCWorld.com's price-comparison engine, Product Finder.) Finally, be sure to make a quick check at eBay to see what new or like-new products are selling for: Even if you expect to buy your gear at retail, you'll know what you can sell it for if you decide you don't like it after all.