Six Black Friday Bargains To Avoid
Beware of the Blu-ray player and the digital picture frame!
How big of a television should you buy? TV experts offer this handy rule of thumb: Measure the distance in inches between your couch and your TV, then divide by 1.5. The number you come up with is the biggest widescreen TV you should get. For instance, if you sit 6 feet away from the TV—72 inches—you shouldn't buy a screen larger than 48 inches. Anything bigger and you may begin to notice too much detail in the picture—pixilation, scan lines, and other artifacts that you wouldn't see on a smaller set.
You should also pay attention to the resolution of your new TV. There are two main kinds of HD sets: 720p and 1080p. These designations indicate the number of pixels squeezed into the picture. A 1080p screen has almost three times as many pixels as the 720p screen, which salespeople will gladly tell you translates into a substantially better picture, thus justifying the 1080p set's greater price tag.
In fact, 1080p TVs are packed with a lot of extra pixels that most of us don't really need. For one thing, because 1080p signals require a lot of bandwidth, every cable company broadcasts high-definition TV shows in 720p, so you're not getting anything more by watching Lost on a 1080p set. (Dish Network and DirecTV said recently that they'll put out some channels in 1080p, but skeptics say that their signals will be too compressed to look as good as true 1080p images.) And even if you're watching a 1080p video—like a Blu-ray disc—the differences between 720p and 1080p are nearly indistinguishable on TVs smaller than 55 inches or so. Even videophiles have a hard time telling any difference. So if you can get a lower-resolution set for less money, go for it. You won't miss a thing.
Extended warranties: If you buy an expensive piece of tech this weekend, expect the store to guilt you into "protecting" your purchase with an extended warranty or service contract. Retailers love these programs because they yield very high profit margins (often more than 50 percent). By all means, resist!
Extended warranties are almost always a bad deal—there's a very small chance that your product will break down, and if it does, there's a pretty good chance that the repair will cost less than the price of the warranty. In surveys of customers around the country, Consumer Reportsfound that only a small fraction of flat-panel TVs, digital cameras, and camcorders need repairs after three years. Computers fail at a higher rate, but a typical repair costs the same as a warranty—so why not skip the warranty now and just pay for the repair when you need it?
Photo printers: These are selling for as little as $100 this year, but you'd be wise to stay away at any price. That's because they require constant feeding—the cheap printer you buy today will ask you to replace its ink cartridges within a few months' time. The cartridges can sell for as much as the printer itself. Accounting for ink and paper prices, you'll end up paying about 25 to 30 cents per printed 4-by-6 photo. Online photo labs like Snapfish charge less than a dime per photo; Wal-Mart's photo service even lets you order online and pick your snaps up at the store. For the price of a $100 printer, you can get 1,000 pictures from a lab. So why buy the cow?
Digital picture frames. I've never understood the appeal of these devices—why do you want yet another LCD screen for your house? You can already look at your pictures on your computer (play them as a screensaver!), your TV, your iPod, and even your cell phone. That's not enough for you? And, anyway, pictures don't really pop on a screen like they do on paper. Plus, as a piece of decor, digital frames smack too much of the Sharper Image catalog; perhaps you can put yours next to your digital weathervane and sleep sound generator.
But with LCD prices plummeting, these devices are now cheap enough to tempt even hardened cynics. Small 7-inch models are going for as little as $40. When I polled my Slate colleagues on their experiences with digital frames, several suggested that they make good gifts for grandparents who don't otherwise have access to digital photos. If you buy one for grandpa, though, make sure to get a model that's easy to use—many people reported that their grandparents didn't know how to change the pictures in their frames, or generally got so flummoxed with the devices that they stashed them away for good. As an alternative, you might consider investing a few hours of your time to make grandma a physical photo book using an online service like iPhoto, Picaboo, or Shutterfly. These books cost as much as a digital frame, and they look much classier on the coffee table.
FM iPod transmitters. It sounds like a good idea: These devices broadcast your music over an unoccupied FM frequency, letting you listen to tunes in the car. But they don't work. Trust me. Over the years I've tried several models in different cars, and none has ever produced a clear signal for more than a few minutes. Your tunes sound like they're being sent from a distant station while you're driving through a mountain pass. They're selling for $20 to $50 this year. For that price, buy some blank CDs and make a few playlists for your commute. Your ears will thank me.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.