By Kelli B. Grant,
Senior Consumer Reporter, SmartMoney.com
It's easy to succumb to the lure of a shiny new gadget replete with cutting-edge bells and whistles. But odds are that gadget you paid top price for probably has more power and features than you'll actually use.
"People over-buy on just about everything," says Alex L. Goldfayn, an independent technology analyst who hosts the nationally syndicated radio show "The Technology Tailor Minute" on WGN Radio, where he helps consumers find the right gadgets to fit their needs. After all, he says, it's in manufacturers' and retailers' best interests to up-sell you.
To avoid paying for more gadget than you can actually handle, do your homework first. Consider which applications or features you really need, then read expert and consumer reviews at web sites like CNET and Retrevo to find a model that does those things well. Next, shop around. Web sites like PriceGrabber or NexTag will scour the web for you, hunting for the best deals. (For web sites that offer great gadget deals, read our story.)
Here are five types of consumer electronics where, for most shoppers, basic is better:
In some devices, the technology has advanced well beyond the consumer's needs. This is especially true when it comes to laptop and desktop computers. Most offer more computing power and features than the typical user will actually need, says Andrew Eisner, director of content for Retrevo.com, an online electronics marketplace that offers user manuals and consumer reviews.
A basic Dell Studio 15 laptop ($599), for example, already comes with 3GB of memory and a 250 GB hard drive, a sufficient amount for the average computer user. So unless you're doing serious online gaming, web design or advanced photo and video editing, there's no need to pay $300 more for the version with an upgraded graphics card, faster processor and one gigabyte more of memory.
In fact, most consumers would find everything they need in an inexpensive netbook computer. These portable computers have screens of 12" or smaller and cost at most $400 -- yet still contain nearly as many features and power as a larger laptop, says Eisner. (For more on getting a good deal on a netbook, click here.)
2. High-Def TVs
Buy a pricey 1080p high-definition TV (HDTV), or ultra-HDTV, and you're not yet seeing the full benefit of that high resolution. Broadcast content hasn't caught up with the latest technology. Most channels transmit images at a lower 720p resolution, says tech analyst Goldfayn. It's even less useful to trade up if you're buying a set that's 37" or smaller, says Eisner. At that size, the eye can't distinguish the difference between 1080p and 720p no matter what the content.
A Samsung 32-inch 720p model costs $550 at Best Buy, while the 1080p model in the same size is $1,000. You'll save $450.
Most cellphone owners use less than 20% of their phone's features, according to a 2009 study from consulting group ABI Research. "If you're just going to use it as a phone, you don't need an iPhone," says Michael Carnell, the founder of Charleston, S.C., information technology firm Palmettobug Digital, which helps consumers select and set up technology.
Not only are such fully-featured phones more expensive, but they also require pricier plans. Verizon, for example, offers seven basic phone models for free to customers who sign up for a two-year contract. Opt for one of the carrier's smartphones, and you'll pay anywhere from $50 to $200 for the gadget, plus an added $40 a month for a data plan offering web access. (For more tips to keep your cellphone bill in check, click here.)
4. Digital Cameras
Breaking news for those budding amateur photographers: More megapixels don't mean better pictures.
Shoppers looking for a point-and-shoot camera won't need a model with more than six megapixels unless they're planning to make poster-sized prints or do professional-quality photo editing, says Eisner. Either way, it's tough to find a camera on the market with less than 10 megapixels these days. Opt for more megapixels than that and it will cost you handsomely: A 12-megapixel Nikon CoolPix costs $250 at Best Buy; the 10-megapixel version costs $150.
When it comes to GPS navigation devices simplicity should rule the day. Cost-conscious shoppers should look for a device that offers good maps and the ability to direct them from Point A to B, says Goldfayn. Added features, such as MP3 players, weather updates or a Bluetooth to reroute calls for hands-free talking, can double the price of the device. A Garmin nuvi 780 that includes all three, among other features, costs $230 at Best Buy. A basic Garmin nuvi 205 without those features costs $140.
For more road-trip-worthy gadgets, click here.
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