Products such as smartphones, tablets or laptops will lie under many a tree this Christmas, and are some of the best gifts money can buy. But shopping for tech can be an expensive business, full of pitfalls for the wary. Here we offer simple tips to help you get the best value when you buy technology products, as gifts or for yourself.
Get the best price on tech: Research
It sounds obvious, but if you want to get value for money it is important to do some research. And the start of that process is researching which product is best for your needs. Remember, 'cheap' doesn't always equate to 'good value' in the technology space, especially when you are purchasing high-tech, personal items such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Consider tablets, for instance. Recently a reader challenged me over my assertation of a year ago that the iPad was 'well-priced'. Surely, he said, Android tablets were cheaper and product tear-downs had shown that the components were worth a lot less than Apple charged for the iPad?
But here's the thing. A tear-down of the components of a device will show how much those components cost, but it bears only a small relation to the value of that product. I do think the iPad is well-priced, still, although the argument is more nuanced than it was when I made that comment a year ago. Then the only products that came anywhere near the iPad weren't as good, and cost at least as much. And - a good example of where low cost of purchase can lead you astray - they ran an Android OS that wasn't fit for purpose on tablets, with nary a tablet-optimised app or decent source of music and movies to be found.
The market is very different now - with Nexus 7 and Nexus 10, Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble's new Nook tablet the hardware is getting close to iPad levels, and the price for those products is a lot less. The Microsoft Surface RT adds a decent Windows option - but at the same price as the iPad. And Android Jelly Bean is a proper tablet OS, with good music and movie options, although there is still a lack of apps for tablets on Android.
With regard to 'value', then, the Nexus devices, and the tablets from eReader makers, are subsidized. As such they are a good deal for consumers, but you are making a deal: the Kindle Fire is locked down to the extent that it is a useless brick unless you are happy to purchase content via Amazon. The Nexus devices are subsidized because Google's main customer is advertisers, and because it wants you to purchase apps and music, whilst delivering data to advertisers.
None of these things makes them bad products, but it does put the iPad price into perspective. They are different devices for different needs.
So before you decide on a product to buy, sketch out what you need it to do. Then read as many reputable reviews as you can from sites such as PC Advisor. Take in user reviews, but take them with a pinch of salt - every product ever made has some poor user reviews, and often the criticism is based on factors that won't be relevant to you.
You'll have a much better shot at getting a bargain if you enter the market knowing exactly what you want.
Get the best price on tech: Use price comparison
Price-comparison has a bad name in some quarters, and with justification. But used well it can unearth the odd bargain. And at the very least a visit to Google Shopping, PriceRunner, Reevoo and the rest will let you know what sort of price you should be paying for your selected product.
Don't limit yourself to price-comparison websites, either. Hit the high street with a smartphone and you can utilise a raft of comparison apps whilst physically checking out gadgets. One of the best is Skinflint, a price-comparison app dedicated to tech that is available on iPhone and iPad.
Using Skinflint you can compare the cheapest prices for tech products from more than 850 UK technology retailers. If you've done your research you can shop by specification and compare prices from major chains, online retailers and hundreds of independent retailers. And because Skinflint includes geo-location services and a barcode scanner, you can find out who has what offers in stock, wherever you are.
Reputable apps and sites such as Skinflint will endeavour to show you detailed information about vendors, as well as the total cost of purchase. But it is easy to be caught out, and there are limitations to price comparison. The business model of most comparison engines is that the company doing the comparing gets a small cut of any sale made. Given the already small margins most resellers make on technology products, and the relative ease of access to the market for online retailers, this can lead to some sharp practice. It's also why some big manufacturers and vendors make a point of saying 'we are not on price-comparison sites' in their advertising.
"It's still the wild west out there, with companies big and small using every trick they can to grab your attention," said Brian Trevaskiss of reputable technology reseller More Computers. He outlined some of the ways that companies mask the true price of their products in order to 'win' a comparison, and then charge you more in the final analysis, something More pledges never to do: "You'll find ex VAT prices, free delivery (but only when you spend over £1,000), non UK models and out of date sites with no stock.
"Sites come and go at a phenomenal rate. Un-scrupulous cowboys set up, sell goods at below cost, rack up debts and drive away in their expensive cars, with no intention of supporting their customers or paying their suppliers."
So by all means use price comparison as a reference, but don't simply plump for the 'cheapest' price you find. And if you must buy via price comparison, follow Trevaskiss' advice, even if it means paying a little more in the short term: "Buy from a retailer with a proven track record - and one that pays its UK taxes. It's worth it if your delivery doesn't turn up or your product goes faulty."
To which I'd add the following: find the best deal on price comparison, and then compare it to what is available from the manufacturer or vendors such as More or John Lewis from whom you have previously purchased, and who you know will be around to fulfil any support requirements. You will never get much of a deal on an iPad, for instance, so you are almost certainly as well off buying it from Apple as from anywhere else.
And bear in mind that some products are available only, or primarily, from their makers. So if you are looking for an inexpensive laptop, for instance, check out what you can spec out on the Dell website, and see how those specifications compare with standalone SKUs you can find on price comparison. The chances are Dell will compete well, and you know that it will still be around in a year or two if your PC requires repair.
We continue our guide to getting the best deal on technology good such as laptops and tablets with advice on ensuring you check all options.
Get the best price on tech: Check all options
eBay is no longer a flea market, Amazon is not just a book store. These days savvy online retailers will have a presence on eBay and Amazon Marketplace as well as the open web and price-comparison sites. Given the volumes that these market places drive they'd be foolish not to. The interesting thing from a consumer point of view is that the same vendor may have different prices and special offers accross all of its portals. So once you have chosen a product and worked out a price bracket, be sure to check all options.
Also look at deals sites such as HotUKDeals, in which users spread the word about time-limited deals and voucher offers, saving you the job of combing the internet to find them. This can be a good way of grabbing a bargain.
If you're buying a laptop, for instance, once you know what specification you want, you'll check out price comparison for an idea of the price you should be paying, then look at large commodity manufacturers such as Dell and HP to see what they can offer. At this point it is worth looking for deals and offers, because end of line laptops are often sold off cheaply.
Indeed, some vendors such as Lenovo-owned Medion make a virtue out of this, manufacturing only small numbers of a certain SKU, and selling them direct and through supermarkets. This keeps costs down so you can grab a bargain, but each model is available for only a small time. So check the offers sites: you may be in luck.
Get the best price on tech: Don't be upsold
So you've worked out the product you want, examined the market-pricing and selected a reasonably priced but reputable vendor. You're almost there: just don't be upsold.
Upselling is the art of adding on pay-for extras, or convincing a consumer to buy a more expensive product, at the point of sale. It happens all the time, and it can be expensive.
Retailers and manufacturers often make very little margin on tech products, so they'll try to claw back some profit by selling additional software, warranties, or next-day delivery. They can be good, but don't buy them if you don't want to.
Recently I advised a colleague's sister on the purchase of a laptop. We looked at what we she required, checked the market and eventually plumped for a basic, £359 Dell Inspiron laptop. In the end she bought a £499 product - the salesman persuaded her that a thin-and-light ultrabook was better, and sold her MS Office and a three-year AV licence. This didn't mean that she was ripped off: the product was worth more, and the add-ons where useful and well-priced. She got a good deal, but she spent a lot more money than she intended and that was avoidable.
Getting the best price: the final word
So there you have it: research the product, research the price, and shop wisely with care and imagination. Or, if you're a man buying Christmas presents: go to the petrol station on Christmas Eve and buy flowers and chocolates. Like last year.