The pandemic has further tethered us to our screens. From board meetings to birthday parties, our computers are more essential than ever. If you need to replace or add a device, think hard about what you want, what you really need — and especially what you don't need. In order to have something to sell to a wide range of buyers, most manufacturers offer a dizzying array of options, with a wide range of capabilities (and price points) within each type.
Start by getting advice from experts. Several websites, including CNET, PCMag and Wirecutter, provide excellent buying advice, along with useful product overviews. Consumer Reports also rates various models of computers, tablets, printers, wireless routers, and some types of software. And big sellers such as Amazon and Best Buy provide hundreds of reviews by consumers.
You can also seek out advice from salespeople at local stores. Checkbook's ratings will help you find retailers that employ helpful sales staff. Until March 10, nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of local computer stores to Star Tribune readers via Checkbook.org/StarTribune/Computer-Stores.
If you are buying a laptop or desktop computer — because there aren't big differences in track records for reliability among the major brands — compare performance, features and prices offered by several manufacturers. Once you decide what you want, shop for price. You will find only modest price variation for some Apple products and most software. But for most purchases and brands, you will encounter substantial price variation among brands and considerable store-to-store price differences for specific models.
When Checkbook's undercover shoppers surveyed prices at popular online retailers for 36 devices, they found some outlets on average charge as much as 20% more than their competitors for the same stuff. Checkbook researchers most often found the lowest prices by searching on Google Shopping, Wikibuy, Yahoo Shopping, Costco and at some manufacturers' direct-to-consumer websites (Asus, Acer, Lenovo, HP, and Microsoft Store).
If you need advice, buy from a store with staff that can help you choose products that will serve you best, help you get started using new stuff, and assist with problems. You also want low prices. Unfortunately, Checkbook found the lowest prices are mostly offered by online-only retailers.
Checkbook's ratings show how computer outlets were rated by consumers it surveyed. Some stores received very high marks for important aspects of service, but others scored dreadfully low. The range of scores for a survey question on stores' "overall quality," for example, ranged from less than 40% to more than 90%.
When discussing options with salespeople, it's OK to maintain a degree of skepticism. Remember, it's a salesperson's or website designer's job to sell you merchandise that the store carries.
The best way to find out whether a product really meets your needs, of course, is to try it. Many stores offer one-month trial periods for hardware, which enables you to return products if you don't like them. Stores have much less liberal return policies for software. Since policies vary from company to company and from product to product, find out how much time you have, and ask specifically about restocking fees that may apply if you return a device after you have opened the box.
Although you can save a lot buying used tech vs. new, a lot of the secondhand stuff still comes with big price tags. While Checkbook's view is that buying refurbished devices sold by manufacturers is probably fine, buying secondhand items from other (even well-known) retailers can be risky.
Whatever you decide to buy, pay with a credit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act and policies of credit card companies enable you to refuse payment made with a credit card for merchandise that is unsatisfactory or undelivered.
Most retailers push extended warranties. Skip buying these plans. While you should buy insurance to protect against risks that could be financially catastrophic — house fires, auto accidents, medical care — you shouldn't bother paying to cover the risk of paying for repairs or to replace electronics. These policies are fantastic sources of easy revenue for the retailers that hawk them. But they are usually bad deals for consumers.
Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate.