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Avoid early bird remorse: 10 Black Friday gadget do's and don'ts

Lucia Valenuela uses a bullhorn to give instructions to crowds of shoppers lined up in the early hours of the Black Friday shopping day, Nov. 26, 2010, at Best Buy in Tacoma, Wash.
Lucia Valenuela uses a bullhorn to give instructions to crowds of shoppers lined up in the early hours of the Black Friday shopping day, Nov. 26, 2010, at Best Buy in Tacoma, Wash.AP file

With many stores opening Thanksgiving evening, this year you won’t even have to digest your turkey before you put on your elbow pads and line up outside your favorite big box store. But to make body checking your fellow shoppers worthwhile, you’ll need a plan. You don’t want to spend 12 hours wearing adult diapers to avoid losing a place in line, only to find out that the camera you snatched takes terrible pictures and costs $20 less on the Web. 

Don’t get early birds remorse! Use these tips make sure you really are getting a good deal on Black Friday gadgets. 

1. Do research online prices before you go out
On a normal day, retail stores charge a lot more for electronics than their online competitors. On Black Friday, you may find something that looks like a fantastic sale in the store, but is hardly less than the regular price you would have paid online. 

For example, Best Buy is selling a Windows 8 Professional upgrade disc for $54.99, but before you smash through the plate glass door, you should check and see that Microsoft has been selling the  same version of Windows 8 as online download for $40 for several weeks now. Target has a 6-foot HDMI cable on sale for $9.99, even though Newegg sells similar cables for $2.99 at any time of year.

More: Top 8 Black Friday Apps

2. Don’t leave the house for less than $200 in total savings
Let’s do some math to guestimate the cost of standing in line for the possibility, but not the certainty, of a bargain. Assume you will be spending a minimum of 5 hours on travel and waiting in lines for a single store, though for the good deals, you may need to wait in front of the store much longer. If you value your free time at even a low rate of $10 per hour, that’s $50 plus the cost of transportation to and from the store, which we’ll estimate at $4, the cost of one gallon of gas.

The worst part of this equation is that the $54 cost buys you a raffle ticket, where bargains are the prize, because even after spending that money, you could walk away empty handed. With stores often stocking less than a dozen units of their featured deals, there’s a very good chance that you won’t run fast enough or have good enough line position to get what you came for.

If you’re young and bored, maybe it’s worth gambling 5 hours of your life on the possibility that you’ll get a $400 TV for $180, but don’t do it if you’re going to save less than $200 in total on all purchases. When you have a family around, even that amount of savings might be too small and you might value your time at a higher rate. With my luck, I’d wait in line for 12 hours, the store would be out of TVs and my infant son would have taken his first steps while I was standing outside Best Buy.  

3. Do use bargain aggregrators to find deals online
Shopping online is a much more civilized and time-efficient way to buy gifts and fill out your gadget collection this Black Friday. With dozens of sites, including those for the major brick and mortar retailers, offering sales and coupon codes, it’s easy to miss the best sales. Fortunately, there are a number of deal blogs that do nothing but find and report on the best prices.

My favorite deal aggregators include LogicBuyTech BargainsBen’s Bargains and Fat Wallet. I usually check all four several times a day during the holiday season, just to see what’s for sale before it sells out.

4. Don’t buy an outdated phone
Many retailers use Black Friday as an excuse to dump outdated products from their inventories. When it comes to phones, just say no, because last year’s mobile devices have slower CPUs, lower-res screens and, in the case of Android devices, often have old versions of the operating system. 

Take for example, the Samsung Galaxy S II that Radio Shack is giving away for free with a two-year contract on Sprint. Yes, free sounds like a good price, but this 2011-era phone feels ancient in comparison to the Galaxy S III which will be available for $50 on Sprint at the same store.  Not only does the newer model have a sharp 720p screen and a faster processor, it also provides an NFC chip and custom software that lets you transfer files justby tapping phones.

Since you’ll own this phone for at least 20 months before you’re eligible to upgrade, you want a device that’s as current as possible.  How dumb will you or your giftee feel in 2014 when everyone else is running Android 6 on 1080p screens while you’re stuck with a remnant from 2011?

More:Top Smartphone Gifts for 2012

5. Do buy hard drives, SSDs and other storage / memory upgrades
Whether you’re buying SD memory cards, more RAM, an external hard drive or an SSD upgrade, you can find some incredible deals online this Black Friday. We expect to see 128GB SSDs selling for $50 or less and 256GB models approaching the $100 mark. What better way to say “I love you”than with an upgrade that doubles or triples the speed of your most important tasks?

You should also be able to find external USB back up drives hovering around $50 for 500GB and $85 for 1TB, maybe less. SD cards and microSD cards make great stocking stuffers and you’ll find 16GB versions of each for under $10 with 32GB capacities for well under $20. RAM is getting a lot cheaper these days so expect to pay $60 for 16GB of laptop memory and around $25 for 8GB.  

6. Don’t buy a cheap notebook for people you like

Laptop advertisement

Want to punish your teenager for posting inappropriate things to Facebook? Still have a grudge against mom for recycling your comic books? Get revenge by purchasing them low-end Black Friday notebooks that will ruin their computing experiences. 

For under $300, you can find such clunkers as this $179 Compaq door buster from Walmart  that comes with a sluggish 1.3-GHz AMD C-60 processor, just 2GB of RAM and a low-res 15.6-inch screen. Put away your door busting pepper spray, because a computer like this will be bulky, slow and annoying, even though it can connect to the Internet and run basic apps.

If you’re shopping for a notebook for yourself or someone you actually like, accept nothing less than an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a speedy 7,200 rpm hard drive or SSD. Go for a 13 to 14-inch screen for maximum portability or, if you want a larger computer, look for one with a high-res screen (1600 x 900 and above) and good audio playback.

More: 5 Reasons to Spend More Than $500 on Your Next Laptop

7. Do use coupon codes to configure your ideal laptop for less
Rather than buying the cheapest piece of junk notebook you see advertised, look for coupon codes for vendors that let you configure a notebook to your liking such as Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba and HP. With the appropriate price reduction, you can build just the ThinkPad or Inspiron you need and get a hefty chunk off the list price. Find the coupon codes on deal aggregation sites like Logicbuy and Techbargains. 

For example, with the right coupon codes, you can buy the awesome Lenovo ThinkPad T430s with a 1600 x 900 screen and discrete graphics for just $806.

8. Don’t even consider buying a cheap, low-end tablet 
What’s the point of buying a tablet if it can’t run your apps and the picture is such a low resolution that all the pixels are so big that they look like Ben-Day dots. So please for the love of Jobs or the admiration of Android avoid low-cost craplets like the Ematic eGlide EGL25BL that Walmart sells. With its 7-inch resistive touch screen and 1-GHz processor, this sad slate is likely to send you screaming back to your PC.

Ematic eGlide EGL25BL tablet
Ematic eGlide EGL25BL tabletLAPTOP

Even some Black Friday tablets from reputable brands are a rip-off, because they’re way out of date. Take, for example, the $179 Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7-inch that Best Buy is advertising. Yes, we gave the Galaxy Tab 2 7-inch a rating of 4 stars when we reviewed in back in April, but back then a 1024 x 600 display, a 1-GHz dual core CPU and Android 4.0 were fine specs.

Today, you can get the Google Nexus 7 with a quad-core CPU, an HD screen and the latest Android 4.2 OS for $199, well worth the $20 splurge. 

If you can possibly afford it, go for a 7-inch tablet with at least a 720p screen (1280 x 720) or a 9- to 10-inch tablet slate with a resolution higher than 1080p (1920 x 1080).

More: Hottest Holiday Tablets

9. Do buy accessories and peripherals, especially monitors
On Black Friday, we often see better deals on gadgets you attach to your computer than on the computer itself. So, if you’re planning to purchase a mouse, keyboard, Wi-Fi router or all-in-one printer, Black Friday could be a good time to act. 

Because you can never be too rich, too thin or have too many pixels, an external HD monitor makes a great gift or splurge for yourself. You can grab a 23-inch, 1080p screen for well under $150. This $110 23-inch Dell LED monitor is a great example.

10. Don't make a major purchase you didn't plan for
That $279 10-inch tablet at Best Buy seems like a steal, but you didn't plan to buy a tablet for yourself this year. Stay away. The easiest way to blow your budget is to buy something you don't really need, just because it seems like a good deal. Make a list of major items you need before you look at the sales listings. Remember, the cheapest gadget is the one you didn't buy.