Shopping for new tech goodies can be intimidating — digital gear is pricey, you're probably going to hold on to whatever you buy for quite a while, and the differences between Product A and Product B are often hard to recognize. Fortunately, all the information you need to shop with confidence is available free, if you know where to look.
Product Information and Reviews
Time invested in learning what separates the winners from losers in a product category, and then exploring the experiences of reviewers and users, will pay great dividends. Consumer Reports, both in the magazine and at ConsumerReports.org, is a classic resource here, and it continues to do a fine job testing and explaining tech products. There are a few limitations, though: It can take awhile between the time a product comes out and CR reviews it, the coverage doesn't provide the breadth and depth of a dedicated digital-gear site, and CR charges for its smarts.
Three good free alternatives for buyer's guides and product reviews are CNET, Techlicious and PCMag.com. Of the three, Techlicious is the most consumer-friendly and CNET the most comprehensive across product categories, while PCMag is particularly knowledgeable about computers (no surprise) and phones.
Online Bargain Hunting
A less obvious source, and one of my favorites, is Gizmodo.com. This popular tech blog may or may not offer articles that interest you — the content is definitely tailored toward tech-savvy enthusiasts. Everybody loves a bargain, though, and the staff really shines when it comes to scouring the Internet for genuine bargains. The regular "Best Deal of the Day" feature covers computers, software, gaming, home and portable entertainment, along with the occasional coupon for laundry detergent or free fries.
To find the most recent selections, search the site for "Dealzmodo."
Price comparison sites save you loads of time, and turn up vendors you'd probably never have found otherwise. It's often a good idea to try more than one, particularly for expensive purchases, since results can vary from site to site.
PriceGrabber is a well-established resource, with extensive listings for electronics and many other product categories. Most online vendors are rated based on user reviews, and there's a BottomLinePrice listing that includes tax and shipping costs in the final figure. You don't have to register to use PriceGrabber but, if you do, the useful Price Alert feature becomes available. Indicate the price you'd be willing to pay for a particular product, specifying a minimum Seller Rating as well if you like, and PriceGrabber will notify you via email when an offer meets your target price.
Google Product Search is another worthwhile comparison shopping resource. You start by searching for a specific model or a general category and can then fine-tune the results based on price, brand and features. Both sellers and products are user-rated, and while the result listings aren't as neatly organized as PriceGrabber, Google does include prices from nearby stores in addition to online vendors.
You don't have to be sitting at the computer to enjoy streamlined comparison shopping. Smartphone users can now find out whether there's a better deal available while cruising store shelves, using free comparison shopping apps. Often you won't even have to type in the product name — just shoot the bar code with the phone's camera.
Here again, you have several good options available at no charge. One of the best is ShopSavvy, available for both Apple and Android phones. It's easy to scan a product bar code if you can see one, or type in the product name if you can't. The results are neatly separated into online vendors and local stores, and user reviews of the product are provided where available.
Google Shopper is another worthwhile free download, for both Apple and Android owners. While it doesn't break out local store and online vendor results as neatly as ShopSavvy, it offers superior search convenience. You can scan a bar code or enter a product name, but you can also scan the front of a book, CD, DVD or video game, or enter a product name using speech recognition by simply talking into your phone.
Cash for Trash
If you're replacing an existing product, there may be a better alternative to simply recycling your used gear (you were going to recycle, weren't you?). Several online services and brick-and-mortar retailers will buy used equipment in exchange for either cash or store credit. Among the retail stores, Best Buy lists eligible categories and gives a rough value estimate online, but you'll have to bring the product into the store for an actual offer. They pay much more if you take a gift card rather than cash, but it's your choice. Note that this is not the same as Best Buy's recently launched Buy Back program, which requires you to pay up front for the option to trade in your gear later — that offer is tough to recommend.
RadioShack, on the other hand, lets you look up offers for specific products online, at which point you can send your gear using a prepaid label or bring it to a local store, in exchange for a gift card. Costco, Kmart, Sears and Wal-Mart all offer gift-card buybacks in partnership with Gazelle, which also offers cash buybacks from its main site. Target has a similar relationship with Nextworth, offering both in-store and online service.