Best electronics

Ratings of 448 products, plus news and tips for buying gear over the holidays

Last reviewed: December 2009
Netbook computer
 

This holiday season in electronics, pricey pizzazz is generally out in favor of keeping prices alluringly low. The record 448 products rated in this section include more models than ever that offer strong performance at an unusually low price.

Here's some overall advice to guide your gear shopping:

Check for early sales and monitor prices

Some analysts predict electronics retailers might begin cutting prices a week or more before Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which usually features the season's first (and often best) blowout sales. If overall sales fall short of retailers' goals, as they did last year, prices might also plummet in the final weeks of the year.

The upshot if you want the best possible deals? Track prices from early November on. If you do buy early, check the retailer's return and price-matching policies in case the price drops further or you see something better for less later.

Don't rule out multitasking models

For the most part, products that multitask don't perform their secondary tasks as well as the best stand-alone models. But some multitaskers are worth considering.

Leading the way are all-in-one printers, which also scan, copy, and sometimes more. But also consider a growing number of TVs and Blu-ray players that connect to the Internet. None has the full browsers that allow access to any Web site. But they allow you to go to YouTube to stream videos, access photo-sharing sites such as Flickr to view your photos in high resolution, and stream movies from Netflix and other movie services in DVD quality.

More digital cameras also now have the ability to shoot HD-format video. Even the best cameras for shooting video don't match a full-sized camcorder for image quality, but they do rival so-called pocket camcorders like the Flip. Such quality is good enough for many situations, and a camera might allow you to capture video you'd never get if you took the time to switch to a camcorder. And, of course, you have to buy only one device.

The best retailers overall are online merchants

Most people still buy their gear at walk-in stores, despite the recent demise of the Circuit City and Tweeter chains. Yet the best online retailers outscored the best walk-in stores in our Ratings (available to subscribers) of places to buy major electronics items and computers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

Beware of store policies with gotchas

Price was among the most important determinants of where survey respondents bought their electronics gear.

But price shouldn't be your only criterion. In particular, pay attention to return policies and not just the number of days they run. Some retailers allow any major electronics item to be returned, but others make certain product categories nonreturnable. Laptop computers are the most common exclusion, but sometimes camcorders, cameras, desktops, TVs, and other items are also excluded.

On the positive side, some Web sites with associated retail stores, including Costco.com and Sears.com, allow you to return items ordered online to a store. Some retailers charge so-called restocking fees, keeping up to 25 percent of the purchase price of a return. Restocking fees are most common for computers, though usually only if the box has been opened. But some retailers charge fees on other items, too.

One other gotcha: Most retailers will not accept returns on any item for which you've filed for a rebate from the manufacturer. So try to put off filing for a rebate until you're sure you or your gift recipient really wants the item.

Extended warranties still aren't worth buying

Seven in 10 respondents to our survey on buying major electronics reported they were pitched an extended warranty. However hard they're sold, extended warranties are generally bad investments. Most electronics products won't need a repair, especially if you choose brands that have fared better than others in the reliability ratings we include in this section. In the unlikely event they break, other Consumer Reports survey data has shown, the average repair bill is often comparable with the cost of a warranty.

However, buying a plan that includes accidental damage might be worth considering for a laptop or netbook that you'll use a lot on the go. And buying a computer warranty that extends tech support, too, might make sense if you or a gift recipient could use a lot of hand-holding.

In our survey, shoppers at P.C. Richard & Son, Fry's Electronics, and BrandsMart USA were most likely to report being strongly urged to buy a warranty.

Paying with your credit card might automatically double the manufacturers' warranty and offer other benefits at no extra cost; see Perks that come with credit cards.

Want to save $50 or more?

With electronics sales down, retailers are surprisingly willing to negotiate on price, our recent survey suggests. Of those customers who asked for a better price, more than half were successful. Average savings were substantial: $200 for those who dickered on the price of a flat-panel TV, $100 for buyers of audio equipment, and $50 for camera and camcorder buyers. Survey respondents had better luck getting a discount at independent stores and two regional chains, HH Gregg and P.C. Richard, than at Best Buy or Sears.

Yet fewer than one in five in-store shoppers tried to negotiate the price of their electronics purchase. How to ask? Be direct: "Is this the best price you can offer me?" "I saw this online for $200 less. Can you match that?" Many stores even have price-matching policies, though they usually apply only to the exact same model.