Some buyers don’t realize that many big-ticket items, such as HDTVs, don’t come with everything they need in the box. Even worse, retailers often price these minor–yet completely necessary–accessories in the stratosphere.
With that in mind, here’s our list of 10 tech accessories you’re paying too much for (it’s also our list of things that you should never have had to buy separately in the first place), and some thoughts on how you can still get all of the extras you require without breaking the bank.
You know those “free printer” offers you sometimes encounter when you buy a new computer? “That’s pretty cool,” you might think–until you realize that there’s no stupid USB cord to connect the “free” printer to your not-at-all-free PC.
No, instead you have to buy a cable separately. And some stores will try to stick you for $20 to $30 for the pleasure.
But you’re smarter than that. Instead of taking the bait, do a Web search for “cheap USB cables” when you get home. Basic USB printer cables are all over the Web at ridiculously cheap prices–as low as $2 or $3 with free shipping. These are perfectly usable cables, minus the flashy packaging.
Let’s be clear here: Antivirus software is a must for your new computer. We’re not suggesting that you skimp on security.
Sure, you can buy a boxed version and install it yourself–with good results. But you can also find plenty of great free antivirus software options. I’m a big believer in AVG’s free version, as well as Microsoft Security Essentials. For more alternatives, check out PCWorld’s Top 5 Free Antivirus applications. Any of these packages is a good choice, easy to install and offering good coverage. Remember, if you decide later on that you want even fuller protection, you can always ante up for a paid-antivirus app then.
One caveat: Before you install your free antivirus application, be sure to uninstall any trial versions of antivirus products lurking on your new machine. If you fail to uninstall those demo versions, the two products could conflict with each other and slow your new computer’s performance to a crawl.
So you think cell phones are pricey? Just try shopping for the useful accessories that go along with them–everything from cases and screen protectors to extra chargers. You’ll be in for sticker shock, that’s for sure. You’ll also be surprised by how little actually ships with the phone–no cases, car chargers, or belt holsters.
It needn’t be that way, if you follow this one, simple rule: When you buy a new cell phone or smartphone, don’t purchase all of the accessory bundles offered in the store. If you’re willing to wait a few days for those fancy baubles, you can save a bundle of cash by shopping online for accessories.
That means just saying no to $30 car chargers, $35 protective covers, and $50 cases, and seeking out lower-priced alternatives online from sources such as Accessory Geeks, CellPhoneShop, and Wireless Emporium. There you’ll be able to save 50 percent or more on each item, often with free shipping. Not sure which case you want? Buy a couple and switch them up every few months.
A new computer is a big purchase; paying for an extended warranty to protect your new toy doesn’t seem like a crazy idea. High-pressure sales tactics, applied as you try to leave the store, make it even harder to resist the allure of an extended warranty. When I bought a new laptop from Best Buy this past summer, the salesperson informed me that “one in three laptops will fail.”
Well, here’s the inside scoop: Extended warranties are rarely a good deal. Instead, you’re better off buying the best brands or models (based on reviews and research that you conduct before you enter the store), and putting that extra warranty money into a repair fund in case something does go wrong.
If you put the extra $100 to $300 you would normally spend on an extended warranty into a catch-all repair fund, you’ll almost certainly have enough to cover the cost of fixing a product that does fail. This is of course assuming that your camera, iPod, iPhone, laptop, and desktop don’t all fail at the same time. But really, how likely is that?
Cameras make great holiday gifts–the gift of memories, as cheesy as that sounds. But get this: Practically none of the necessary accessories come with digital cameras nowadays. And yeah, they’re expensive.
Need extra lenses, filters, flashes, padded cases, and high-capacity, high-speed memory cards? You’ll need to pull out your credit card one more time. As you might expect, you can buy these items from the same place you bought the camera. Or you can take to the Net and find lower-priced, good-quality gear on Amazon or Newegg.
Remember to pick up a memory card to give with the camera. Digital cameras these days rarely have enough internal memory for storing more than a couple of photos (if that). It’s the holiday season, so a lot of high-capacity storage will be on sale at Best Buy, Office Max, and Staples.
So you’re going to buy a spectacular high-definition TV for your family’s viewing pleasure, as well as a high-quality Blu-ray disc player so you can watch movies in all their splendor? Prepare yourself: Just because you’ve dropped $300 to $4000 on the TV and another $100 to $400 on the Blu-ray disc player, that doesn’t mean the store will throw in any of the necessary cables.
That’s right–you’ll have everything you need, but no way to hook it up.
Here’s some advice: Do not–I repeat, do not–let the salesperson talk you into buying a superexpensive HDMI cable that will make a “huge difference” in quality (these can run upward of $100). Sure, they’ll work well, but so will HDMI cables that you can purchase on Amazon, eBay, or Monoprice for less than $5.
Cheaper cables are just as good as the $50, $80, and $150 cables you can purchase from Best Buy.
A note: If you’re buying cables for a 3D system, make sure they meet the HDMI 1.4 standards, which are more stringent than typical HDMI (1.3) standards.
As you run around purchasing all sorts of new high-tech gadgets to give as gifts, try not to forget the batteries that a lot of them will require. In many cases, the batteries are not included. So what kinds of AA cells should you purchase for digital cameras, remote controls, and other devices?
Consumer Reports magazine suggested several years ago that consumers buy whichever brand of alkaline battery is on sale, because the battery brands generally perform on a par with one another. Last year the magazine tested AA batteries, and found that lithium batteries–although they initially cost more–ultimately provide more digital photos per set than non-lithium batteries do.
Ultimately, Consumer Reports found that for devices drawing “bursts of power,” such as digital cameras and toys, rechargeable batteries make the most sense. But for devices that draw little power, such as remote controls, single-use alkaline batteries will be fine.
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.
2. Consider online sources such as Cyberguys and Newegg, which offer competitive prices on a wide range of extras.
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 MilwaukeeBraves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking. Write to him at toddrweiss (at) gmail (dot) com.