Getting the Most for Your Tech Dollar

Farai Chideya talks with technology expert Mario Armstrong about where to find the best technology deals and what questions to ask before buying new gadgets.

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ED GORDON, host: I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

You can get a great deal on wrapping paper the day after Christmas. But when is it the best time to score tech deals? Our tech reviewer, Mario Armstrong has some tips for getting great prices on new gadgets any time of the year. Here's Mario with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

When I want a little piece of technology, I just rush out and buy it and I'm not always the best at comparison shopping. Help me out here, how do you find sales in technology?

Mr. MARIO ARMSTRONG (Technology Guru): So a lot of people go through this type of feeling. The best times of the year, you can look for are obviously around the holiday seasons. That's always a great time. Right after New Year's is always a good time. But also, more increasingly, on line is where you can find the tech bargains. Places like thinkgeek.com, or overstock.com, and eBay, and other sites. Even sites of actual retailers, during the holiday season, will have Internet only specials that aren't available in the retail outlet.

So, there's plenty of time throughout the year, to find good prices. Many folks are saying, during the holiday season is when you'll find the best.

CHIDEYA: So, Mario, is it true that when you buy things on line, if the retailer is in a different state than you are, that you don't actually pay taxes - the same sales taxes - you would if you walked into a store?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: That is actually correct. And that's been through legislation quite some bit. And it hasn't been passed, so you can take advantage of no tax online for some purchases.

CHIDEYA: What are the pitfalls of buying online? You say that you can shop for good deals, but are there any pitfalls of the kind of selection you have, or whether goods might be damaged? And what about refurbished goods?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The hardest problem is not being able to do what I call, the touchy-feely test. You don't get an opportunity to go, say to the retail outlet, or the store. So, what I suggest to folks - my recommendation is go to the store first; test it out, feel it in your hands, view it; whatever the product is, give it some actual touch-and-feel time. And then come back to your home computer or Internet-connected computer, and make the purchase online.

Refurbished products, you can get great deals online for refurbished products. For instance, I was just on Cingular.com's website, looking for a Blackberry cell phone for a friend of mine. And if I bought the refurbished model, I was saving about $150 off the cost of a phone.

Refurbished products: if you go with an established, credentialed outlet, you'll be fine. I always still say, find out what the insurance program is, or what the return policy is, and always try to buy extra padded insurance on top of that purchase, when you buy refurbished.

CHIDEYA: Let's move back to traditional stores. Can you ever bargain with sales staff on big-ticket items. I mean, some people, I know, bargain all the time. Other people like me - I don't really have the stomach for it.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: I don't really have the stomach for it either, but I do hear of cases, of people that do. I mean even in places like Best Buy, of all places. I don't know what you can really lose out when you get into those negotiations, what you may be sacrificing, when you get into those negotiations.

I know you said traditional, in store, but really for me, it seems to push every one back to the Internet, looking at Web sites like Cnet.com, where you can review a litany of items before you go out and buy anything. Or even Overstock.com, where there's previously opened or returned stock that may be able to find good deals.

Although recently, Farai, on Overstock, I saw a great deal on an iPod video that sells on Apple.com for $299, on Overstock.com it was $50 less, so that was a pretty good deal. But then I was disappointed to find, they had a Kodak digital camera that they were selling for $319, and they were boasting this $129 savings. When, in fact when I went to the Kodak.com Web site, I found that really, all you're saving is $30. So, that kind of made me feel a little uneasy about what I thought was a perceived value of this tremendous savings - wasn't really there.

CHIDEYA: Now, how about companies that get into markets that they didn't start in? So Dell is known for computers, it's incredibly successful, but it's also making flat screen TVs and speakers. Should you look around to companies that may not be in an area of expertise? How do you make that judgment?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: A lot of folks, I think, just think about that particular manufacturer, or that particular industry's manufacturer; and they don't think about, wait a minute, Dell sells plasma TVs or LCD TVs. And maybe, because of how they're operation does so well selling other components and other electronics, maybe I can gain some better deals from those types of savings. And the fact is, you can. I have found some difference in pricing, not all the time, but enough for me to want to do that more often.

CHIDEYA: Final question. What must you absolutely have, whether or not you're buying in a store or online, in terms of, you know, protection - consumer protection?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Hands down, especially when you're looking at buying for consumer electronics, look at the warranties and the extended warranties. It usually makes sense to buy extended warranties on high-priced items. And the best mathematical ratio is, if the warranty costs more than the item itself, don't do it. So there are printers that you may buy for $149, but the extended warranty may cost the same amount. That's not a smart investment.

However, on a large-screen television, or a stereo system, or many other electronics that are in the several hundreds or thousands of dollars, absolutely. You have to cover yourself with an extended warranty. So, factor that into your budget before you go shopping.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Mario.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NEWS AND NOTES contributor, Mario Armstrong, speaking with NPR's Farai Chideya. Mario also covers technology for Baltimore member stations WYPR and WEAA.

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