In addition to testing lots of gadgets and electronic products I actually also buy a lot of gadgets and electronic products. Yes, I sometimes experience the same problems you do: items that break or are "dead on arrival" right out of the box. Over the years of writing a column for MSNBC, however, I have formulated a set of guidelines that I use to help avoid some of the most common problems involved with selecting, buying and living with a new device.
Here are some of the rules I follow for my own purchases. They’re easy to follow and hopefully will work for you too. Keep them in mind as you face the holiday tech shopping blitz:
1. Do your homework
Decide what you want. Read everything you can on the subject. Read what people have to say. Do your research on the Internet and in local stores. Double-check to see which models are current and which might contain older technology. Make sure any items you're considering include all the features you're looking for.
Next, try to look at the item in person. Actually pick it up. You might not like the way it looks or feels in your hand. Ask questions, someone might have had good or bad experiences with a similar device. Take your time and choose wisely. The time you spend in making your decision could assure your future happiness.
2. Accessorize ahead of time
Decide in advance what else you need. It might be extra batteries, a fitted case or an AC adapter. You might need special cables or a mounting bracket or maybe a high-capacity power strip. How about a CD or DVD for that new player or recorder. You get the idea. Prepare ahead of time to buy everything you need. There’s nothing worse than a holiday gift that can’t be used as soon as it is opened.
3. Check costs
Find the best price for what you want. Check a number of shopping portals on the Internet. But go offline, as well: Check the circulars and flyers tucked into the Sunday newspaper. Then check with your local stores. Make sure you add local taxes and shipping before making your comparisons. Your neighborhood retailer might match a low price on the Web to make the sale. Don’t be afraid to bargain. Remember: Never, ever pay more than you have to.
4. Just say no to extended warranties, except ...
Buying an extended warranty means you're basically betting that the item you’re buying will break. So why are you buying it, then? For the most part, forget about them. Extended warranties are usually pure profit for retailers for the simple reason that electronic items usually work. Notice I said usually. There are times that no matter how positive the reviews and the word of mouth you still get the one in a million item that doesn’t work.
In my experience, I would consider buying an extended warranty only for laptop computers. That's because I’ve had trouble with both Sony and Apple laptops in the past –- plus others I’ve bought seemed to deteriorate rapidly the day after the warranty expired. If you think you’ll probably replace a newly purchased item within 2 to 5 years you don’t need this expensive insurance. Any item over five years old probably doesn't need an extended warranty -- even if you could find someone to sell you one.
5. Know your limits
If you just bought a cell phone, getting it home is not problem. A big-screen TV, on the other hand. ... Factor the cost of delivery into the purchase of large items and let someone else do the heavy lifting. Either way, have your home prepared for your new tech item. Once again, small is easy –- and easy to hide if it’s a secret. If it’s something big – make sure there’s physical room for it. What could be worse than buying a large TV, home theater, computer and not having room?
The other factor to consider is that you might need a neighbor or two to help lift a very large, heavy item out of its box and onto a table. Items can be deceptive. Plasma TVs may be thin enough to mount them on a wall, but they still weigh upwards of 100 pounds. Don't hurt yourself. Plan ahead.
6. Keep sane during set-up
Almost everything these days needs at least some adjustments. Whether it’s a computer, video game or a PDA, you’ll need to do some sort of installation and setup of the device. If nothing else, you're going to want to make sure there’s enough air circulating around and through your newly purchased device. Cooling is very important for modern-day electronics.
The more complicated the item the more set-up is needed. In those cases I believe it’s worth paying for an expert to help. It’s especially true if you’re thinking about one of those new HDTVs. I strongly recommend that you engage the assistance of a trained video engineer to make all the adjustments you’ll need for years of enjoyment.
7. Season well
Here’s one of the big secrets I use when I’m testing: Plug in your new device and leave it on. For a couple of days. In my experience, most major problems occur between the time you press ON for the first time and the next 48 hours.
Everything from computers and PDAs to large projection TVs should not be turned off for the first two days. Let all the internal components and circuits warm up and stay warm. You don’t have to keep the sound turned up -– and computers can go into sleep mode –- just keep the device turned on.
If everything passes muster after 48 hours, turn it off. Leave it off for at least eight hours. Twelve hours is better; 24 hours is best. You’re letting it rest.
Then, turn the gadget back on. If it starts up again with no problems you’re likely to spend a long time with a problem-free device.
8. Problems don't fix themselves
If you do find something amiss, stop everything. Turn the gadget off and unplug it from the wall. Then call for help. Don’t be afraid to call: Nearly every device has a help number on the warranty card for just these situations. Follow the instructions you get on the phone to try to fix any problem. If that doesn't work, ask how you can replace what isn’t working.
Remember, if it’s broke, it’s broke. It won’t suddenly begin working on its own at some magical point in the future.
9. Long-term care and feeding
Read the user’s guide. If a company tells you to do something to prolong a device’s life, it’s probably a good idea to do so. Manufacturers usually tell you what to use when you clean; make it a habit to take their advice.
Cleanliness isn’t just something that your mom told you about, it’s really your best "anti-repair" tool. Just like you dust your furniture and (hopefully) clean all your appliance filters, you periodically need to pamper everything else. Dust and grime are the prime reasons for device failure. Ever wonder where all those little scratches on your cell phone/PDA/MP3 player’s screen come from?
All appliances, plus everything from stereos and TVs to PDAs, cell phones, computers, monitors, keyboards and mice -– will benefit from an occasional dusting and cleaning.
10. Sit back and enjoy
If you've followed all my suggestions and weren't unlucky enough to get a dud in the first place, you should now own a reasonably priced, perfectly working, wonderful piece of equipment that will hopefully provide you with years of pleasure.