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Top 5 Tips to Get More Out of Your Gadgets

When it comes to mastering new technology, research, training and confidence equals success

By Tony Donaldson

You get a new gadget, let’s say a smartphone or a tablet, but it isn't as easy to operate as you thought it would be or doesn't do what it promised. What do you do: Give up and return it? (You wouldn’t be alone. Only 5 percent of product returns are because of defective products.)

Actually, there’s a much better solution, and it won’t cost you a plugged nickel. It’s called training, and there are many ways to get it, usually for free. There's no shame in getting training. Elite athletes, professional musicians, doctors, lawyers, educators, even cops and firefighters never stop their training even though they spend their entire work lives becoming more adept, so why should you?

Even if technology is a relatively new thing in your life, there’s no reason to fear it. While problems—or simply not understanding how to work something—is to some degree inevitable, that shouldn't prevent you from getting onboard with smarter phones, tablets or other electronic decides. You don’t have to figure everything out by yourself. The trick is knowing how to go about learning what you need to do to get started and gaining enough mastery to make use of the technology fun and empowering.

Top 5 Tips for Mastering Your New Gadget

1. Read the Manual: There’s a joke in the tech world that when you’re really stuck and you’ve tried everything else, as a last resort you should read the manual (RTM). That’s actually a great place to begin. So is reading a quick-start guide (both of which usually come packed with the product). If the print is too small on the manual, it's probably also available on the manufacturer's website as a PDF, where you can enlarge the type either on-screen or when you print it out. While on the site, look for a FAQ section (Frequently Asked Questions), which tend to cover most of the common questions that come up.

You can also call the manufacturer's tech support line (almost always toll-free) or look up a "how to use" video on their site or on YouTube. Manuals are also a great way to learn about cool features you might not have even realized you have. Take five minutes and read the first few pages of the manual or the "get started" guide and you'll be amazed at how much you'll understand about the product.

2. Educate Yourself: Elie Gindi, the 61-year-old founder of, started the website after trying to find a resource for technology information for the growing senior population. At first, if something on his computer didn't work out the way it was supposed to, he felt frustrated and defeated. The Los Angeles resident knew almost nothing about troubleshooting when he started using computers, but through repeated calls to various tech help desks, he’s come to learn exactly how to handle specific software or hardware issues. And even if he can't solve things right away, he can eventually figure it out.

Spend a few minutes reviewing the manufacturer's FAQs and product information and videos (all free-of-charge), and you'll quick go from novice to near-expert. Videos in particular can give you a wealth of understanding about how to use your new gadget—and sometimes they’re downright entertaining.

3. Stay Inside Your Comfort Zone: The fact that technology seems to evolve on a weekly basis doesn’t need to be a cause for alarm. My 70-something mother is not, shall we say, the most technologically savvy person you'll ever meet. But one day she up and decided she wanted a smartphone to replace her regular cell phone. She wanted something portable to check email and look up things online that she or her friends might want to know about. I helped her research phones with easy-to-use interfaces and the kind of internet connectivity she desired. We eventually chose an Android: Two plusses for her were the apps it offered and the fact that her main tech support (i.e., me) used a similar one.


Once she made the choice, she spent some time getting familiar with the basics, with the help of a knowledgeable salesperson. She was still a little shaky when she got it home, so I took out my nearly identical phone and worked alongside her, coaching her till she got comfortable with what we were doing. That first afternoon, she was checking email and looking up stock prices and playing Words with Friends.

4. Know All Your Options: A good way to limit the field is to survey close friends and family members and find out what they use and what they like and dislike about those products (including their experiences dealing with customer support). From there, you can widen your search by going online and reading a variety of customer product reviews. Then, go into the stores that sell the items that have grabbed your interest and try them out. Can you see the screen well? Is the gadget comfortable to hold and use and, if portable, is it easy to carry? Do you understand how to operate the various controls and buttons?

Apple has long been a leader not only in its products but in tech support. Apple gives you one-on-one assistance in the store when you're buying one of their products to make sure you understand it. Then they offer one-on-one care for a year for $99, which allows you to come in and work with them on anything—as often as necessary until you’re satisfied. You can come in and ask questions of their staff, call the company or attend group seminars and training sessions. I don't know of any other company that offers service that even approaches this.

5. Have Faith: If you do run into a seemingly insurmountable problem, remember (as I always tell my friends): You're not a unique little snowflake. Rest assured that somebody — more like gazillions of others — have had the same or a similar issue. And that means that someone else has likely found the answer and posted it online somewhere.

Type your problem into Google: Whatever it is, I'll bet it comes up on a forum or in a FAQ somewhere. Don't take a product back because it doesn't do what you expected without trying some of the suggestions I've mentioned. The bottom line is that with a little time and effort, you'll know whether that cool gadget does what you want it to. And if it does, you can learn how to use it so adeptly that your friends (and even your kids) may come to you for expert advice!


Tony Donaldson is a professional photographer, writer for and others, and speaker based in Los Angeles, California. He has been buying, using and recommending technology since getting his first computer, which had 16K of RAM and a backup system comprised of a cassette tape recorder. Read More
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