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Technology Buying Guide for First-Time Users

Three simple rules to help you always find the right gadget for your needs — and comfort level

By Tony Donaldson | June 13, 2012
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Tony Donaldson is a professional photographer, writer for eticket.tv and others, and speaker based in Los Angeles, California.

Finally ready to buy a smartphone, tablet or digital camera? It’s a big investment, so you don’t want to pay too much or have it become obsolete within six months. With so many competing products on the market and such an overload of consumer information, how can you sift through all the hype and find the perfect one for your needs?

In my role as a writer at eticket.tv (a new website that reviews technology with graphics and videos), I’ve codified a very simple set of rules to help compare any type of product. Whether it’s a portable communication device or a new refrigerator, the same principles apply: Ask yourself the following three questions. How you answer them will point you in the right decision. And remember, we’re talking about the right decision for you—not your kids, parents or status-seeking colleague.

Three Questions to Always Ask Before You Buy

1. Can you use it? This is the most important determining factor in any purchase. If you've used something similar before (say that you're upgrading to a new Canon or buying an iPad when you already own an iPhone), you can be relatively confident you'll understand how to use the new one as the basic operating and programming rules usually apply.

There are two components to being able to use something: you, and the interface (how you interact with the object). When people say something is easy to use, it means the interface works for them: they could be referring to the size of the device, its menus, brightness, color, weight, and whether or not it's intuitive for them. 

Professional reviewers never say whether an interface is easy for you to use (or see, etc.), because we don't know who you are. All we tell you is that, for example, on a scale of 1 to 10, this product earns an 8 on a certain feature compared with all other products with a similar feature. Take the resolution of a point-and-shoot camera’s LCD screen. We would look at all the models and find that the highest resolution is x and the lowest resolution is y, and then we’d evaluate where this camera fits in.

With this information, you can gauge how appropriate a certain model is for your unique needs. A larger, higher-resolution screen is much easier to see and makes composing a picture faster and easier, no matter what your age. This may not be a priority for someone in his 20s with perfect vision, but if your eyesight isn't perfect, then brighter, higher-resolution screens with more contrast is likely a priority.

2. Is it a good value for the price? It’s hard to know the real value of things these days with so many retailers and discounters (like big box stores) slashing prices, but with enough research, you can narrow it down to a range. Start your research online at places like Pricegrabber, Bizrate or Google Shopping; this is where you’ll probably find your best deals. But remember, you still have to pay shipping (and possibly sales tax)—and if you have a problem, it can be more laborious and expensive to return items, especially large ones.

Use these prices as a baseline to check locally in brick-and-mortar stores (e.g., Best Buy, Target). If you have a smartphone or tablet (or have a friend who does), you can scan the barcode using a free app like Red Laser or QR Reader to give you more competitive local and online prices and even reviews. I do this all the time, as user reviews are often more candid. Even when the price at a local retailer is a bit more, it may be worth it in the long run: If you have any problems or questions, they’re more like to help you out. And in turn you’re supporting your local economy.  

3. Does it do what you want? Digital cameras are a great example of a device that comes with many options and features for different kinds of users. Let's say you like to take photos for your travel album. You'll probably want a camera that’s small, lightweight, easy to carry—and possibly one with a wide lens option for landscape shots. Unless you are an advanced amateur, you need good automatic features to take the guesswork out. Are you using it in water? Then you might want a waterproof model.

Resolution — the amount of detail a camera can capture — is not a big issue for nonpros: Most cameras on the market today have more than enough, and having less usually translates into smaller files, which means quicker importing time to your computer and the need for less hard drive space (and emailing photos will be faster).

On the flip side is something called "feature creep," in which manufacturers load up products with dozens of bells and whistles you don’t need. Sure, they sound impressive, but if you’re not going to use them, why spend the money on that fancier, and probably more complex, model? Do you need a really long zoom lens, tons of kitschy effects (e.g. "Miniature" or “Pop Color”) or more than, say, 12 megapixels? (When was the last time you ordered a poster-size print?)

The Bottom Line

Apply those three questions (Can I use it? Is it a good value? Does it do what I want?) to anything you want to buy. If you are a little more demanding of specific features, do a side-by-side analysis. Many test/review sites, like engadget or cnet.com, publish the full specs and let you do your own “apples to apples” comparison.

Take just a few moments to think about how you'll be using your new device. Make sure it does what you want. Make sure you either already know how to use it or can learn how to use it. Then find a good price on it. If you do those simple steps, you likely won’t be coming down with a case of buyer's remorse.