I mentioned earlier that you should "just say no" to salespeople trying to pressure you into buying an extended warranty for your new computer. Well, once you've dodged that bullet, they'll come right back at you with another suggestion: For just $60 to $100, a store technician will create recovery discs and remove junk software (also known as "bloatware") from your new machine.
Again, just say no. You can create a recovery disc yourself, save a bundle, and even learn something in the process.
Creating a recovery disc set--which will allow you to recover the computer's original operating system in the event of a disaster--is straightforward, and you can do it by following a series of prompts from your PC. This is an important process. Don’t skip it, because many computers do not come with a factory set of discs. So you can either do it yourself or get a technologically inclined friend to help you.
Removing bloatware--the bulky, unwanted, and unnecessary software that often ships with new computers--clears out hard-drive space and may even free up RAM. It’s easy to eliminate bloatware using the standard Windows uninstall tool.
Gift givers are often thrilled when they're finally able to get their hands on one of the season's hottest video game consoles--thrilled, that is, until they learn that the $200 they just dropped on a Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Xbox 360 includes only one game controller.
For a Wii, Nintendo-brand peripherals will cost you a cool $20 for the Nunchuck device plus $40 for the actual controller. For the Xbox 360, Microsoft-branded controllers are $50 (wired) and $65 (wireless). Even older systems, such as the Sony PlayStation 2, will still run you $25 for an extra controller and $25 for a memory card (so players can save their games).
Before you drop your hard-earned cash on name-brand controllers, consider third-party options. These are often much cheaper than branded components and work just as well.
One more warning: Don't pay extra to have the store "set up" your new system. We recently found stores such as Best Buy trying to up-sell customers by suggesting they allow a technician to update the firmware on the Sony PlayStation 3 (for $30). On top of that, Best Buy also offered a $150 "home installation."
Don't be hustled. Ten-year-old kids can figure out how to update firmware and install video game consoles. You should be able to, as well. If not, we suggest you seek out the nearest ten-year-old for help.
E-book readers are a popular gift item this year, but the fact that they don't include appropriate cases in the box is unbelievably frustrating. After all, if something is basically just a screen, you can be sure that you'll need some sort of protection to keep it safe.
The third-generation Amazon Kindle goes for $190, but you'll have to spend another $35 for an official Kindle leather cover to protect it. The Sony Reader Daily Edition is $300, including an AC adapter and a USB cable, but no storage case. You can buy one, of course, for another $40. The Sony Reader Pocket Edition is $180, but it includes only a USB cable. Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader sells for $250, but you'll need to drop another $50 for an official Nook case, and $22 for a screen protector.
Again, take to the Web to find cheaper accessories. If you're sick of Amazon and eBay, Etsy is a great place to find e-reader cases that are not only considerably cheaper (at an average price of $20), but also unusual and handmade.
Stay Alert and Save Money
I could go on and on with examples of tech gifts that need careful scrutiny. Some come with add-ons you don't want or need, while others are missing crucial pieces. You can avoid most of these traps by following just three simple rules.
1. Do your research beforehand.
3. Be wary of high-pressure sales techniques, and of salespeople trying to up-sell you things.
If consumers take steps to shop smarter, retailers and manufacturers might get the message and stop hustling. Until then, Happy Holidays, and be careful out there when you're shopping. The dollars you save will be your own.
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking. Write to him at toddrweiss (at) gmail (dot) com.