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Buying Upgrades: When to Save or Spend on HDTVs, PCs, Digital Cameras and More

Wii, PS3 Slim and Xbox 360

Wii, PS3 Slim and Xbox 360

Money PileVideo Game Systems

Verdict: Splurge

Our advice here is simple: Just buy the gaming console with the games you want to play – it doesn’t get much simpler than that. After endless months of price wars, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 now stand nearly toe-to-toe on price, and the Wii goes for only $100 cheaper. Considering you’ll drop $60 on a brand new game, that insignificant price difference should be the least of your worries. After all, who buys just one game? You’re effectively investing in an entire ecosystem of titles that will probably end up costing you hundreds of dollars, so make sure they’re the ones you want to be married to for weeks on end.

Money BagDigital Music (MP3) or Portable Media Player

Verdict: SAVE

Take headphones out of the equation, and virtually all digital music players sound the same. While nitpicking audiophiles can technically point to differences in the digital-to-analog converters they use, most people would find it impossible to spot them in a blind comparison test – especially with compressed MP3 files.

SanDisk Sansa Clip+

SanDisk Sansa Clip+

So why all the hubbub over who makes the best one? It all comes down to capacity, battery life, obscure file compatibility, interfaces, extras like FM radio players, and in Apple’s case, style. If you’re just looking to listen to music – and most of us are – pretty much any bare bones player will do, especially since 2GB is now pretty much the minimum capacity you can find on any new MP3 player. In fact, the MP3 player serves such a simple function that many cell phones will do the job as well, saving you the expense of buying one at all.

Just don’t be afraid to drop a little money on a nice pair of headphones. They make a far bigger difference in actual audio quality and comfort than the player itself does, and will never really become antiquated. Some of of us around the office have had the same cans for about a decade, and burned through about half a dozen MP3 players in that time.

As for portable media players, only spend for the extra features and storage space you need. The more multimedia you plan to enjoy, the more room for archival required (video takes up the most space, audio and photos much less), meaning you can cut costs if you keep your collection manageable. Similarly, when it comes to bonuses like screen size, think about practical real world use, and whether you’ll really make use of extra frills. After all, watching a quick 10 minute short’s a lot easier to stomach on a tiny 2.2-inch display than a 3-hour Hollywood epic.

TomTom One 140

TomTom One 140

Money BagGPS Navigation Systems

Verdict: SAVE

Within just a few short years, the GPS has gone from a toy for luxury car owners to a common replacement for the everyday road map you keep in your glove compartment. In the process, it has also morphed from a navigation device into an MP3 player, picture viewer, and Bluetooth speakerphone.

Unless you really want and need all those bells and whistles in a single device though, don’t waste money on a high-end model. All the bottom-of-the-line navigators from companies like Garmin and TomTom will guide you from point A to point B just fine, and in most cases, you can get one for under $100. Frankly, based on our experience, many do-it-all navigators end up tripping over themselves in the process of trying to juggle it all, anyway.

Insignia NS-L42X-10A

Insignia NS-L42X-10A

MoneyHDTVs

Verdict: SPEND

As the rise of companies like Vizio and the floundering sales of firms like Pioneer indicates, everybody wants to cheap out on television sets. And who can blame them? With prices routinely puncturing the $2000 level, an HDTV can quickly become one of the most expensive items in your home.

But don’t give in to temptation and buy the biggest screen with the smallest price tag. With some rare exceptions, the cheapest TVs we’ve looked at usually make significant sacrifices to reach that price level. A 50-inch 720p plasma doesn’t look like a 1080p, and considering you’ll be staring at it for the next five years – being quite conservative – another $200 or so to get the real deal might not be a bad idea. Unlike home audio equipment as well, where many folks have trouble appreciating the nuance of high fidelity, everyone can appreciate a crisp, blur-free picture with inky blacks and a sharp, stylish bezel.

And let’s not forget about reliability. Most manufacturers deal out a limited warranty when you buy a new TV, but if anything goes wrong later, good luck getting it repaired. Besides the near extinction of TV repair shops, if you actually manage to find one, the repairs will usually cost as much as a new TV. Meaning it’s doubly important to keep in mind that cheap sets don’t have a great reputation in that regard: One TV delivery truck driver once told us that he spends most of his days picking up defective Vizios on their way back to the factory. What happens when yours bites the dust a few weeks too late to send it back?

Of course, a Pioneer Kuro isn’t a necessity for anyone’s home theater, but when you’re buying a centerpiece for your living room that you’ll enjoy for years to come, clicking quality up at least a notch or two from rock bottom just makes sense.

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