For several years, I’ve crusaded against Black Friday, a terrible institution that suckers otherwise rational, frugal people into spending the holidays trapped in ugly, deal-hungry mobs scavenging for dubious deals on things they probably don’t need.
For retailers, Black Friday is a con game. They lure you into the store with “door-busters” that sell out in minutes and then count on you to pick up many regular-priced items as a consolation prize. As I wrote last year, if you really want to get ahead on Black Friday, you’ve got to do your research and resist any distractions. Get to the store early to nab the best deals, and once you get what you came for, leave immediately—the longer you linger, the greater the chance you’ll end up negating all your savings.
This year, as always, there are a bushel of items that you should be certain to avoid on Black Friday. I’m also happy to report that there are two great deals available this week that you should consider taking advantage of. Keep this list handy when you’re braving the post-Thanksgiving madness.
Do not buy a 3-D television. Manufacturers have been pushing 3-D TVs for the same reason that Hollywood went gaga over 3-D films: It’s a cash stream. The television business is a ruthless enterprise for manufacturers, one in which the prices for TV sets is always plummeting. The industry offered up 3-D as the next HD—a feature for which customers might pay a premium. But that hasn’t happened; sales of 3-D sets were initially lackluster, and even though they’ve been rising slightly in the last few months, most people who buy 3-D TVs aren’t using them to watch 3-D programming.
Why not? Because to watch stuff in 3-D, you’ve got to wear those ridiculous glasses. Many 3-D sets come with a set of “active-shutter” glasses, bulky, battery-operated specs whose lenses turn lighter and darker as the picture changes. Some newer 3-D sets can be viewed with “passive” glasses—the ones you get at the movies—but these TVs tend to be more expensive. And even the passive glasses have their downsides; they’re uncomfortable if you already wear glasses, you can’t do anything else while you’re wearing them, and they’ll eventually give you a headache.
The final nail in the 3-D TV coffin: Hollywood’s 3-D machine is crashing. And if 3-D films are no longer much of a box-office draw, how much longer will studios keep making them? Don’t bet your money on it: Wal-Mart will sell this 42-inch Vizio 3-D TV (which features passive-glasses viewing) for $598 on Black Friday. That’s a steep discount (it normally goes for almost $900), but there’s still no reason to buy. Those old warhorses of in-home entertainment, 2-D televisions, can be snapped up for $100 or even $200 less.
Do not buy a cheap tablet computer that isn’t called Kindle or Nook. In the wake of Apple’s iPad, dozens of tech companies rushed to create tablet computers of their own. They all failed, some spectacularly. Now their corpses are littering Black Friday circulars—Best Buy is selling an Acer tablet for $189, Kmart has an Archos tablet for $219.99, and Staples is one of a few retailers offering the BlackBerry PlayBook for as low as $199.
These steep discounts might have been a good offer a few months ago, given that Apple isn’t going to offer any major price breaks on the iPad (it starts at $499). But both Amazon and Barnes and Noble are now selling cheap tablets of their own, and their devices are more attractive than the also-runs you’ll find at Black Friday. It’s true that I didn’t love Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire, but if you’ve absolutely got to have a cheap tablet this year, there’s no better one on the market. That’s because the Fire isn’t going to be discontinued tomorrow—Amazon will keep offering lots and lots of content for the device, and it will likely offer software upgrades that will fix some of the problems I had with it. This is true of the Nook Tablet, too, although at $250 plus tax, it’s not nearly as good of a deal as the Fire.
Do not buy a Blu-ray player that doesn’t include Internet access. In 2008, just after Blu-ray crushed HD-DVD in the high-definition disc wars, I warned people to skip buying a cheap Blu-ray player on Black Friday. The players were then selling for about $200, which I thought was too much for a risky technology. Blu-ray had to compete with regular DVDs and with streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu, and it wasn’t clear that it would make it.
Blu-ray has survived, but it hasn’t thrived. Sure, sales of players and discs are increasing, while sales of DVDs have been declining. Overall, though, the sales of physical discs—regular and Blu-ray formats—are on the wane, while digital sales and rentals are shooting through the roof. This confirms what everyone in the entertainment industry believes: In the long run, discs are dead.
This year you’ll find Blu-ray players going for next to nothing: There are several models for around $75, and a few for $50 or less. Go ahead and buy one if you’ve got to play discs, but if you do, make sure to future-proof your purchase. Many Blu-ray players include Wi-Fi, which allows them to access streaming content from Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Some of the very cheapest models—like this $50 Magnavox player at Fred’s—don’t have that feature. Even if you don’t watch a lot of streaming video now, it makes sense to spend $20 or $30 more to get access to Internet content, since that’s how we’ll all be watching in a few years.
Do not buy a netbook. These small, cheap, underpowered machines made my don’t-buy list in 2009, and I’m happy to report that these turkeys have since been rendered all but extinct. (The iPad probably had something to do with it, but I’m sure my column was a major factor.) Alas, a few netbooks are still hanging on; this year you can pick one up for as little as $80.
Don’t bother. Odds are you’ll quickly grow to hate your cheap netbook, which won’t have enough power to run any programs very well. Although it’s more portable than a laptop, its cramped keyboard and generally cheap build will make it a pain to use. Plus, if all you’re looking for is a device to watch movies, send emails, and browse the Web, why not get a Kindle Fire? That device may be flawed, but it’s a joy compared with just about any netbook you can find.
Buy a better wireless router. If you bought your current wireless router several years ago, there’s a good chance it features a Wi-Fi signal known as 802.11B or 802.11G. In the last few years, manufacturers have moved on to a newer standard, known as 802.11N. These N-class routers won’t speed up your Internet browsing, but they will make it faster to transfer data between devices in your network—if you’ve got one of these, for instance, it will be easier to send files wirelessly to a backup drive. More importantly, an N router will improve your wireless signal’s range. If your Wi-Fi cuts out in certain parts of your house, this could be your ticket. And it won’t cost you very much at all: You can pick up an N-class router for about $20 this Black Friday.
Buy a solid-state hard drive. These devices use transistors rather than spinning magnetic discs to store your data; as a result, they can access your data much, much faster than traditional drives. When I installed an SSD in my computer last year, I confirmed what many hardware hounds have observed: A solid-state drive is one of the best ways to give your machine a significant speed boost. But SSDs are expensive—I paid about $400 for a 128GB model in 2010 (that drive now sells for $250). On Black Friday, though, you can get some good deals on SSDs. Newegg.com is selling one 60GB model for $70 after a manufacturer’s rebate. You need a bit of expertise to install one—you’ve got to set it as your main system drive to house your operating system and your most-used programs—but if you’re the tinkering type, there’s no better gift for the holidays.