Netbooks, e-book readers, and other Black Friday bargains to avoid.

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Nov. 24 2009 12:02 AM

Black Friday Is for Suckers

Netbooks, e-book readers, and other post-Thanksgiving bargains to avoid.

Big box store on Black Friday.
Holiday shoppers on Black Friday

Black Friday is a treacherous time. Lured in by the promise of fantastic bargains, you flock to local big-box retailers, facing the threat of injury or even death to grab unbelievably cheap "doorbuster" gizmos. Even if you manage to get through the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza without physical harm, there's a good chance you'll suffer financial damage if you don't plan ahead.

As I pointed out last year, the biggest worry on Black Friday is that you'll buy stuff you don't need. For retailers, that's the entire point of Black Friday—they're hoping that, in your quest for bargains, you'll buy an electric toothbrush or radio-controlled rubber rat just because it's on sale.

Aside from that general warning to keep your head, there are some categories that you should avoid entirely on Black Friday. Keep this list handy when you're fighting your way through an early-morning stampede:

E-book readers: The market for electronic books sure is heating up. Barnes & Noble just unveiled the Nook, its stylish competitor to Amazon's Kindle. In December, Sony will add a new model to its line of e-book devices—the Daily Reader, which features a touch-screen interface and, like the Nook and Kindle, wireless book downloads. There's also a new reader from Irex and a slate of colored Cool-Er readers from the British company Interead.

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This isn't a good time to buy any of them. For one thing, e-readers are too expensive. Though you might see a few small discounts over the holidays, you'll pay at least $250 for a model with wireless access. (The Nook and Kindle sell for $259; the Daily Reader and Irex DR800SG are $399.) At those prices, an e-reader makes sense only for commuters and frequent travelers—yes, e-books are cheaper than print books, but you'll only make up the difference if you buy at least a dozen or so books a year.

What's more, buying any e-book reader now is a gamble. Every model has access to a different catalog of books, some of which are restricted by copy-protection schemes. This leads to a classic early-adopter format dilemma: Say you've got 30 e-books on the Kindle you purchased two years ago. Now you're in the market for a new reader, and you're leaning toward the Nook because it lets you share books with your friends. Tough luck—those Kindle books won't work on your Nook. Or imagine you buy the Nook today, but by 2012 Barnes & Noble decides to quit the e-book business because it can't compete with Amazon. Too bad—your Nook will be about as useful as an HD-DVD player. (For this same reason, I cautioned against buying Blu-ray players last year, and I'm sticking with the same advice this year.)

And there's one more good reason to wait on an e-reader: Apple. Nobody knows whether Apple will ever release a touch-screen tablet PC, and if it does, nobody knows whether the mythical device will function as an e-book reader. But it could! Apple seems to be close to announcing a big-screen iPod Touch-like device, and given Steve Jobs' history of discombobulating the media markets he enters, it seems wise to wait for Apple to move before going for any of the e-readers now on the market.

A netbook: These tiny, cheap, low-powered laptops were a big hit during last year's holiday shopping season, and retailers are pushing them this year, too—depending on the screen size and hard drive space, you can pick one up for $200 to $300 on Black Friday.

Netbooks are great, but buying one of these tiny machines during a shopping stampede is a bad idea. Though their specs are largely the same (the vast majority run on Intel's Atom processor), netbooks vary widely in physical design. Before you buy, I'd urge you to test out a specific model's keyboard and pointing device. And if you do buy one, make sure the store has a good return policy, because it's not uncommon to get sick of such a tiny machine in a couple of days' time. (I've got a Dell Mini 9 that I never use because its keyboard is less comfortable than the touch-screen pad on my iPhone.)

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