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.

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.)

Also watch for the operating system the machine is running. Most of the models on the market now come installed with Windows XP. This is fine, but if you hold off for a bit, you'll be able to pick one up with Windows 7, which is far better than XP. Don't get a netbook running Windows Vista—that OS is too bloated to work well on these small devices.

Expensive home theater cables: Hey, you're in luck—on Black Friday, Best Buy will sell this $70 4-foot Monster HDMI cable for only $50! At Sears, meanwhile, you can get 15 percent off Philips brand HDMI cables when you buy a TV—meaning you can pay $50 for this 4-foot cable rather than $60!

Don't fall for it. Unless you're buying a cable that's 15 feet or longer, you shouldn't pay more than $10 to $15 for an HDMI connection. It's true that HDMI cables—which give you a purely digital connection between your home theater components—come in different specifications and that the cheapest cables might not suit all needs.

For the most demanding applications—if you've got an HDTV with 1080P resolution and you want a great picture from your Blu-ray player—you'll want an HDMI cable labeled Version 1.3 and Category 2. But you don't have to pay anywhere near $50 for these cables! You can get a 6-foot HDMI cable from Amazon for $10, and a 15-foot version for $14.

But aren't some brands of cables better than others? Yes, but not enough to justify the price. Gizmodo tested cheap HDMI cables against Monster's HDMI cables in 2007 and found that for cables 6 feet or less, the cheap ones are just as good. Audioholics found pretty much the same thing in its tests. The only reason to worry about being cheap is if you're buying cables that are very long or that you plan to install in a wall, and therefore plan to keep for a very long time. That's because cheap cables seem to fail at lengths of 15 feet or longer or for input sources with extremely high resolutions that might be found on home theater equipment of the future. But if you have no interest in future-proofing your home, you'll be OK sticking with a $10 cable.

Extremely cheap inkjet printers: Last year I recommended that people avoid cheap photo printers. When you add in the cost of ink, pictures you print at home cost about 25 cents to 30 cents each, far more than you'd pay at online photo labs. But photo printers are just a subset of a larger scam: cheap inkjet printers that quickly consume many times their price in ink.

Check out this Epson Stylus printer that Best Buy will sell for $25 on Black Friday. Sounds like a good deal—until you read the customer reviews, many of which point out that the printer runs through ink cartridges every month or so. The cartridges range from $17 to $34, so it won't be long before your cheap printer becomes an expensive boondoggle. (If you already have one of these printers that's always asking for ink, check out my guide for prolonging its life.)

So what should you look out for on Black Friday? If you don't have a widescreen computer monitor, now's the time to get one. You can pick up a 22-inch screen for as little as $100—and I promise you, the extra space will make every moment in front of your computer more enjoyable. Also, get an external hard drive. Your data are the most precious things on your computer, and it's never been easier to back all that stuff up. You can get a 1 TB drive—likely more than enough room to store all your music and photos—for about $70. That's a deal you can't afford to miss.

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