Have you started to put presents under the tree? Good for you. Are you ready for your family to return almost 10 percent of them? For the 2018 gift-giving season, the National Retail Federation predicts holiday sales between $717.45 billion and $720.89 billion, up almost 5 percent from last year. But if 2018 is anything like 2017, some $90 billion in retail goods will be returned.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Every year, I pore over the printed holiday circulars that still arrive to millions of American homes, identifying not the best deals, but the worst ones. I’m looking for the tech offers that sound good but will generate nothing but disappointment, which leads to those time-consuming returns.
There are still big shopping mistakes to be made across virtually all product categories, but none more so than in tech, where the promise of a good deal often ends in frustration.
Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen a marked improvement in the quality of products and deals offered in these flyers. It’s gotten so easy for so many companies to build high-quality technology that offering decent gadgets at great prices during the holiday season is no big stretch.
But there are still big shopping mistakes to be made across virtually all product categories, but none more so than in tech, where the promise of a good deal often ends in frustration.
Here’s what not to buy — and a little guidance about what to get instead.
There are quite a few excellent-sounding deals for TVs, including this one: $199 for a 40-inch TCL 1080p HDTV.
As recently as 2015, I would’ve been shouting, “Buy!” But no more. It’s now 4K or nothing, especially since you can get a larger 4K display for well under $500. Yes, that’s a lot more than $200, but 4K TVs are not just twice as good as 1080p—they offer four times the resolution, often with extra smart features like streaming apps thrown in.
Portable DVD and CD Players
Buying portable CD and DVD players as gifts is like sending someone a bunch of horses in anticipation of their future buggy purchases. According to Statista, DVD and Blu-ray sales dropped 14 percent last year, and the DVD rental business went into a 18 percent nosedive. Even as the most popular movies continue to rake in millions on physical media, the writing is on the wall for the format: It’s dying.
Buying portable CD and DVD players as gifts is like sending someone a bunch of horses in anticipation of their future buggy purchases.
A $39.97 portable DVD/CD player with an abysmal seven-inch LCD monitor may look like a fantastic lifeboat for neglected libraries of CDs and DVDs, but don’t buy it. These players are not the future.
Instead, spend $49.99 on an Amazon Fire tablet. It’s an undeniably more versatile product, and your gift recipient can connect it to their Netflix account and download their favorite shows before a big road trip. For music, you can help them rip old CDs into the tablet’s storage or connect it to a phone’s personal hotspot and stream tunes from Apple Music, Pandora, or Spotify.
Any company that’s still trading on Apple’s use of “i” before its product names is not worth your time or money. At $59.99, the iTouch Unisex Air Smart Watch is priced right, but it’s no Apple Watch replacement. To its credit, the iTouch does connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and can monitor sleep and activity; however, the screen resolution is only 128x128. The Apple Watch Series 4’s screen resolution is 384x480.
The more attractive and versatile Misfit Vapor is available for $199 (the newer Vapor 2 costs $249). It has a much higher resolution display and tracks sleep and exercise, and you can swim with it.
Suspiciously Cheap Computers
There are few bait-and-switches quite like all the computer deals I’m seeing. This HP Pavilion Touchscreen Notebook is a perfect example: $449 for a Windows 10 portable sounds good, but there are red flags aplenty.
Never buy a big laptop with a last-generation (seventh gen) Intel Core i3 or Celeron CPU. These low-powered processors can get overwhelmed by a dozen browser tabs. Plus, I’d reject any laptop that still features a DVD drive. Virtually all software is downloaded these days, or you run cloud-based apps like Google Docs.
When shopping for an affordable computer, try to balance performance with price. I know this $89 RCA laptop sounds like an incredible deal, but when you try to use it for any period of time, it’ll be an incredible pain in the butt. Just look at those specs: 2 GB of RAM isn’t even acceptable for the average tablet, and 32 GB of storage space will be gone before you can say “Why can’t I back up my smartphone photos?”
If you can find a Core i5 laptop with 500 GB of storage and 4 GB of RAM for $500, you’re doing well. If you want an extraordinarily inexpensive computer, look to some of the Chromebooks. At least their less-powerful CPUs are usually compensated by the cloud-based OS.
Expensive Home Printers
I came across this $199 deal for an Epson Expression wireless printer. You save $80, which sounds like quite a deal. It’s not.
I wouldn’t pay anything more than $60 for a new consumer printer, because over the life of the product, I will pay the printer company hundreds of dollars for ink refills. That’s where they all make their money. (Don’t assume you can use third-party refills. They will destroy the printer.) If it were up to me, HP, Epson, and Canon would be giving away their printers for free.
Decent drones—the ones people register with the FAA at a rate of roughly 5,000 per week—are not the ones I’m finding in these holiday circulars. A good semiautonomous drone will probably cost at least $500. Even the tiny DJI Spark starts at $350.
Which is why $29.99 drones like the Quadrone from Scarab are so popular this holiday season. But be forewarned: Virtually all of these sub-$100 drones will fly poorly. Most don’t have onboard cameras (or they include extremely low-quality ones), so you have to fly by dead reckoning. Plus, they’re usually so lightweight and have such weak motors that a strong gust can send them into the nearest tree or home.
Good robots don’t come cheap.
More expensive drones are so good because they pair powerful motors with an array of sensors (GPS, barometer, vision systems) and a lot of intelligence. They’re basically flying robots, and good robots don’t come cheap. If you’re still looking for a sub-$300 drone, I’d recommend a $249 Parrot Bebop 2.
I can almost get behind the idea of buying incredibly cheap headphones (either in- or over-the-ear models). If your kid loses or breaks them, you just buy another pair. But in my experience at least, they don’t last long enough to make them worth the initial $5.
A $50 to $100 pair will last longer, fit and sound better, and won’t need to be replaced nearly as often.
The Wrong Smart Devices
Smart speakers, internet of things, thermostats, lights, and home security cameras are easily some of the most popular gifts this holiday season. However, before you run out and buy someone an inexpensive Google Home or Amazon Echo Dot, find out what other smart devices they have in the home. Help them build their smart home ecosystem, not break it.
Also, beware products that use the word “smart” but don’t actually integrate with any of the popular digital assistants and smart home platforms. Look for products that work with Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Apple HomeKit.
Remember how hot hoverboards were a few years ago? Now companies can barely give them away. Still, I could see someone getting excited by a $99 Hover 1 Liberty hoverboard. My worry is that the technology inside this rolling robot will be as cheap as the price. Some of the original hoverboards burst into flames because of cheap batteries and shoddy workmanship. A rideable takes a lot of wear and tear—why put your kid’s bones at risk?
If you’re dead set on giving someone a rideable, take a look at the Segway MiniLite. It’s safer than a hoverboard, relatively affordable, durable, and built on reliable Segway technology.
You get it at this point: Stop buying these landfillers. I don’t care if they’re just $2 a piece. You can rent movies or own them digitally through Amazon, Google, Apple, or your cable company. Newer titles will be more expensive, but older ones are often $5 or less. They usually include extras, and some will upgrade to 4K versions for free when they become available.
If you still want to give movies and music as a gift, consider a gift card instead. That way, your giftee can make their own title choices. If you absolutely must hand someone a gift-wrapped movie, at least spring for a Blu-ray title with all the extras. It’s still a waste of plastic, but at least you get the joy of watching them open it, and you never have to worry about Apple or Amazon disappearing their purchased titles from their accounts.
You’ll still make mistakes, like buying a $34 256 GB thumb drive as a stocking stuffer instead of a 1 TB portable storage drive for $45. But if you follow my advice, I promise you’ll see more smiles than frowns this holiday season.