Deal or no deal: scratch-and-dent and open-box items

A really bad gadget
Who really wants a fan, speaker, and microphone all in one product? (Photo courtesy of

Christmas has passed once again, and many of us will be heading back to stores to try to return gifts that just aren’t quite what we were hoping for. (Although the gift you’re returning probably isn’t as bad as this one.)

A lot of those items, if opened, can’t be put back on the shelf with their unopened brethren, so they become open-box items. Open-box items (and those with similar labels like “scratch-and-dent”) are taking up shelf space the retailer wants to use for newer products. So you can usually get a significant discount, and perhaps even the chance to haggle.

You’ll see more and more open-box items as you walk around stores over the next few weeks. Clearance, open-box, scratch-and-dent, floor model…what do these terms mean, and how do you know if you’re really getting a deal? Read on.

What’s in a name?

As Shakespeare once said, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, it may be true for roses, but not necessarily for discounts.

The meanings of these terms often vary from retailer to retailer. So it’s best to clarify with a sales associate exactly why a particular item you’re looking at is being discounted. There are four main categories, regardless of what each store calls them. I’ll detail each below, along with what “gotchas” to look out for in each category.


The most straightforward (usually). Clearance is a pretty universal term for items that are no longer being shipped to the stores by the manufacturer (usually because a newer model has been released). The product has never been opened, but just isn’t the latest and greatest model. This is ideal for products that you don’t replace often or without frequent innovation (laptop case, headphones, washing machine, etc.).

For bigger purchases, I’d recommend checking online to see when that particular model was released. Clearance items are usually at least a year old. I’d be more cautious buying clearance items in categories that change a lot from year to year, such as computers or cell phones. Clearance items have the same warranty and return window as non-clearance items, so this can be a great deal if you’re willing to get a year-old product (but new to you!)

Floor model

Floor model items often aren’t labelled as such; sometimes they’re simply called “Open-box”. Sometimes you can tell an item is a floor model because it has no box and has the manufacturer’s stickers on it pointing out features. I would always ask to make sure that is indeed the reason for the discount.

This is basically a product that has been used as a display in the store. Once the store needs that display space for a newer model, the display is often sold. This means the product has usually been on clearance, and has now sold out in the store.

So my advice on floor models is very similar to my advice on clearance items, but with a couple additional caveats.

First, consider the way the floor model has or hasn’t been used while on display in the store. For example, items like speakers or TVs are often on at all times the store is open. If the TV has been on display for a year, that’s probably close to 4,000 hours the TV has already been used by the time you take it home. That’s probably more than you’ll use it during your first three years with it!

Our Electrolux vacuum
This was a great deal for us at 60% off. (Photo courtesy of Electrolux)

On the other hand, my wife and I bought a floor model vacuum recently for 60% off the original price. After looking in the vacuum aisle, I realized there were no outlets nearby, so I doubted this particular Electrolux vacuum had been operated much, if ever. In addition, I confirmed with a sales associate that their floor models had the same return policy as new items. We bought it, and have been extremely satisfied so far.

Second, make sure that you check as I did to make sure of the return policy. Since the product has been on display for months, there may be no box and you may find other parts missing or not working when you get it home to use it. For example, floor model TVs sometimes have missing remotes.


There can be some overlap between open-box items and scratch-and-dent items (the category below). When I refer to open box items, I’m thinking specifically of items that have been opened and returned, but have no visible damage.

Products are returned for all kinds of reasons, and most of the times sales associates have no way to tell you what the reason was for the return. This time of year, many products are returned not because of any defect, but because they simply didn’t quite meet the needs of the gift receiver. Maybe the Bluetooth speaker wasn’t loud enough, or was blue instead of red. You get the idea.

Sometimes the product is returned because the quality isn’t satisfactory or there’s a defect of some sort. Instead of contacting the manufacturer to solve the problem, it’s easier to simply return it to the store. And so these problems can pop up in open-box products on the shelf.

I recommend two things. First, check the ratings and reviews on the product. This will usually tell you if the product is usually of quality construction, or if there are common flaws people are noticing after purchase. Second, check on the store’s return policy. (Sound familiar yet?) If there’s a problem you didn’t notice in the store, you’ll want to be able to return it.


By scratch-and-dent, I refer to items that are discounted because of physical damage or cosmetic defects. This damage or defect shouldn’t affect the function of the product, otherwise it shouldn’t be for sale and you shouldn’t buy it. Most often, this appears in the form of a scratched refrigerator that was damaged in transportation, or some similar scenario.

First, talk to an employee to verify exactly what damage is causing the discount, and make sure it is documented on paper. If you have to return the item for some reason, you’ll need to be able to show that every bit of the damage was there when you bought it.

Second, check to make sure that the damage isn’t inhibiting any normal functions of the product.

If you’re satisfied with both of those checks, then the only question is whether you are willing to live with seeing the cosmetic damage on a regular basis. If the damage is to a side of the product that won’t be visible, all the better! If you’re willing to accept cosmetic damage, you can get fantastic discounts on great products this way.

Final thoughts

If you haven’t yet picked up on this theme yet, double-check with a sales associate or manager to make sure of the return policy before you plunk down your money.

For obvious reasons, all of these items (except clearance) won’t have the same inventory from store to store. Some stores (like Best Buy) have begun allowing you to search their open-box inventory online, specifying by stores near you.

Do you have a topic idea for me? Let me know below!


Amazon Prime: Is It For Me?

“10 to 14 days?!? I don’t have 10 to 14 days!!!”

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when an item you buy online with free shipping probably won’t get delivered before Christmas. So do you pay extra for the expedited shipping, or do you hope Uncle Larry is okay with getting his Indianapolis Colts Santa light-up hat a few days after Christmas?

If you do any of your shopping on Amazon (and who doesn’t?), you’ve surely seen the option in the checkout window for “FREE Two-Day Shipping with Amazon Prime.” As you finish your Christmas shopping, it looks very tempting. (And you can actually try it free for 30 days, which might help you get those last gifts delivered on time.)

But Amazon Prime is actually a lot more than just free two-day shipping. What does it include? And most importantly, is it for you?


Amazon Prime logo
Amazon Prime checkmark logo (Image courtesy of

The first and most well-known benefit to Amazon Prime is free two-day shipping on countless items on the Amazon website. Not every item is eligible, but most are, and they’re clearly indicated with the Prime checkmark icon you can see here. If you’re used to waiting over a week to get a package, you’ll be amazed how quickly your packages from Amazon arrive (and frankly two-day shipping across the country is a logistical marvel).

If you own a Kindle, you’ll also have access to borrow from Amazon’s collection of over 500,000 Kindle ebooks.[1] You can borrow a book per month, with no due date. Once you return it, you can check out another next month. (There are ways to borrow Kindle books and other ebooks through your local library, as well.)

Amazon Prime also gets you access to stream unlimited movies and TV shows through Prime Instant Video. This is similar to Netflix, so there are some well-known titles and plenty of titles you’ve never heard of. Also, there’s some content overlap with Netflix, so be aware of that if you subscribe to Netflix.

In addition to on-demand video, a Prime subscription also gets you access to Prime Music, a service that gives you access to unlimited music without ads. This is very similar to Spotify, although with a much smaller selection of music (for now) and you do get the ability to download music for offline listening.

Need more? How about unlimited cloud storage for all your photos? Prime Photos is yet another service Amazon includes for all Prime members. It allows you to upload unlimited photos to an Amazon cloud storage account. Photos add up to a lot of storage space, especially if you take them with a smartphone. Storing them in the cloud allows you to access them from anywhere you have Internet access.


These many perks aren’t exactly free: Amazon Prime costs $99 per year (a recent price increase from $79). So as you consider the many benefits mentioned above, weigh them against the up-front cost to decide if Prime is worth purchasing for your family. This works out to $8.25 per month. In comparison, a standard subscription to Netflix costs $8.99 a month.

If you’re a student, you can get some of the great benefits of Amazon Prime free for six months, namely the free two-day shipping and unlimited photo storage. After that (or instead), you can get all the benefits of Amazon Prime for half-price ($49).

Ease of use

Amazon shipping boxes
Amazon shipping boxes (Photo courtesy of

Free two-day shipping is easy to take advantage of with Amazon Prime. Once you’ve signed up for Amazon Prime, just buy stuff like normal and choose free two-day shipping at checkout.

Kindle books, video, music, and photo storage will depend on your familiarity with similar services. Amazon has a very helpful support section of their website, and this can ease your transition as you learn the ropes of downloading ebooks, watching movies, etc.

Is it for me?

Amazon Prime might be great for you, if:

  • You frequently purchase from
  • You would often watch movies or TV shows or listen to music through Amazon’s streaming services
  • You take lots of photos, and often run out of storage space
  • You own a Kindle

You should probably stay away from Amazon Prime, if: 

  • You rarely use
  • When you shop online, you are fine with free shipping that takes longer than a week
  • You have little interest in Amazon Prime’s non-shipping perks

If you have Amazon Prime, what’s been your experience?

Do you have a topic you’d like to know more about? Let me know below. Thanks!


1 – Kindle ebook borrowing only applies if you have a Kindle device. It won’t work with the Kindle app on an iOS or Android device.

Google Chromebook: Is It For Me?

Welcome to the first of a recurring series here on my Making Technology Simpler blog: “Is It For Me?” I’ll explain a product or technology, then help you figure out if it meets your needs. This week’s subject is the Google Chromebook.

Chromebook laptops
Google Chromebooks (Photo courtesy of

Google Chromebooks are a series of inexpensive laptops with great battery life, strong integration with Google, and little maintenance needed.

Chromebooks use an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS…the whole operating system is basically the Chrome Internet browser that many people use on Windows and Mac computers. The computer hardware is made by companies like Acer and HP.


Here’s another thing that makes Chromebooks unique among laptops: the whole operating system is designed to be used with Internet access, and the hard drive in the computer is tiny.

Google intended for these computers to be used in conjunction with Google’s cloud storage, so photos will need to be stored in Google+ and documents stored in Google Drive. (I wrote about cloud storage here.) With everything stored in the cloud, there’s no need for a big hard drive. The benefit of this is the computer will boot up very quickly.

This reliance on cloud storage has a couple other ramifications. On the positive side, no data backups are needed, since almost everything is in Google’s cloud. And once the computer needs to be replaced, you can sign into your next Chromebook with your Google account, and all your emails, documents, etc. will be available immediately. No file transferring necessary.


On the flip side, you will be limited in what your Chromebook can do without Internet access. You can do some document creation, for example, and the document will save to Google Drive when you connect to the Internet again. Internet access is becoming more widespread, however, and some Chromebooks will allow you to also connect to a 4G network through a carrier like T-Mobile.

Because almost everything you do on a Chromebook involves Internet access, the speed of the computer itself will be heavily influenced by the speed of your Internet connection. If you regularly use a slow connection, be prepared to pay for faster speeds to really enjoy a speedy Chromebook experience.

The other main limitation of Chromebooks is that you can’t install PC or Mac programs on it. So if you really need the full version of Microsoft Office or some specialized accounting program for your work, a Chromebook isn’t for you (unless it’s as a secondary computer). You’re limited to using Google’s apps and others available through the Chrome web store.

Ease of use

Chromebooks are low maintenance devices, partly because they update automatically and Google says they’re very secure and have no need for antivirus software.

Setup is also easy, to the degree that you’re already part of Google’s services. If you already use Google for email, documents, photos, and music, your new Chromebook will be ready to go as soon as you open it and sign in with your Google account.

If you use iTunes for your music and store documents or photos on your current computer, you’ll want to transfer all of it to Google’s appropriate online service before you make the switch to a Chromebook. (And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, know that they won’t sync with music on your Chromebook.)

Remember, third-party apps like iTunes or Microsoft Office can’t be installed on a Chromebook. So you’ll need to use a Google service or a third-party service that can be accessed online (such as Pandora for music streaming or the online version of Microsoft Office).

Is it for me?

A Chromebook might be great for you, if:

  • You use Google for all of your email, documents, photos, media, and calendar (or are willing to move all those things to Google)
  • You have Internet access almost all the time
  • You need a very portable computer with a battery that lasts all day
  • A low up-front cost is important to you

You should probably stay away from a Chromebook, if:

  • You need an application that only runs on a PC or Mac, like Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, or iTunes
  • You prefer to store your documents, photos, or media locally (i.e. on your computer’s hard drive)
  • Your computer needs to handle intense tasks, like games or video editing

Have you seen or heard about another device or technology that’s made you ask, “Is it for me?” Let me know below, and I’ll write about it soon.



A week for giving thanks

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know I love helping people find technology products that meet their needs and their budget. This Friday is “Black Friday” here in America, meaning lots of normally sane people do relatively insane things like standing in lines for hours in freezing temperatures…to get awesome products at awesome prices.

That’s the idea at least. But before you go Black Friday shopping (or Cyber Monday shopping for that matter), check out this warning from The Wirecutter about Black Friday “deals”. Your purchases may not be the awesome steal you think they are.

If you need help finding the right purchase for you or a loved one, check out my TV buying guide and my computer recommendations.

And finally, let’s all remember that even without the biggest TV on the block or the newest phone in the office, we each have many things to be thankful for — and the greatest of these don’t run on electricity. So let’s linger on thanksgiving this week, and appreciate all the blessings we have around us this week and every day.


Brands and deals – Television buying guide part 3

Note: this is the third and final part of my TV buying guide, 2014 edition. In the first part, I talked about high definition options and 3D. In the second part, I discussed the pros and cons of smart TVs.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, if you’re buying a smart TV, make sure the user interface is easy-to-use and all the apps you want are available. You’ll want to try out your options in person, like in a store or at a friend’s house. As you do, I think you’ll find that the brand name makes a big difference.

The importance of the brand

The biggest brand names in the TV market these days are Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. These four brands make up the vast majority of Consumer Reports’ top 2014 TV sets.

Sony and Sharp are also very popular TV brands. Vizio is a newer, American brand that’s become popular by offering TVs with premium features with a lower price tag.

There are a few names, such as RCA, Philips, or Westinghouse, that are recognizable but still definitely budget options in the world of TVs. Other budget options include store brands, such as Best Buy’s Insignia line, and newer Asian brands, like Hisense and Seiki.

So what’s the difference between them?

In general, the picture quality of your TV depends more on the settings you select in the menu than the manufacturer of the TV. In fact, the LCD panels in many off-brand TVs are actually manufactured by big names like Samsung.

You’ll probably find that the menus and settings options are easier to use and understand on the higher-end brands. For example, many of their TVs come with “picture modes,” which can adjust the settings to various presets. I’d recommend looking for a Cinema or Movie mode.

If you’re upgrading from a TV that’s more than 5 or so years old (and especially if it’s the old tube-style CRT TV), you’re likely to see an impressive improvement in picture quality with a new TV from even the cheapest manufacturer.

When it comes to smart TVs, though, the brand name can make a HUGE difference. This is because the quality of your experience depends largely on the software the manufacturer has designed for the TV. The ease of navigation and search, plus the pleasantness of the visual layout, are very different between a top brand and a budget brand. There are certainly exceptions, which is why I recommend trying before you choose.

Looking through Consumer Reports’ 2014 TV ratings, there’s definitely a pattern: Samsung has by far the most recommended models (32), with Panasonic (18) and LG (12) coming in next. Sony (6), Vizio (4), and Sharp (4) are the only others with multiple recommended models. That’s pretty top-heavy, and if you know Consumer Reports, you know they don’t recommend products based on brand name but rather on testing the product itself.

Samsung logo
Samsung gets my recommendation for best TVs.

In my limited experience, Samsung also leads the pack in smart TV features and ease-of-use. (Again, take that with a grain of salt and try them for yourself.)

Samsung is easily my top recommendation for a smart TV.

When to buy?

The most advertised TV sales are almost certainly during the week leading up to the Super Bowl and Black Friday. According to Consumer Reports, the best times to buy a TV include January (pre-Super Bowl) and November (Black Friday), but also March and December.

Black Friday line at Best Buy
Black Friday shoppers wait in line at Best Buy

Why? December coincides with holiday shopping and the related sales. March is actually the time of year when many TV manufacturers release new models. So if last year’s model will suit your needs, you may be able to find the best deal in March (if you get to your choice before it sells out). Plus, you won’t have to wait in a crazy line for hours.

Keep in mind, though, that there are sales all year round, and if your research reveals a particular model that fits your needs and budget, you probably won’t have to wait months to find a deal on it. There are websites that can track the price of a certain product and notify you when it goes on sale.

Extended warranty?

Whether you buy in a physical store or online, you’ll more than likely be offered the chance to purchase an extended warranty or protection plan. I’ve previously discussed why I don’t feel these are worth adding on to your purchases, and my thoughts are no different on TVs. In fact, Consumer Reports’ research shows that most TVs encounter problems within their first year, or not until the end of their lifespan. The manufacturer’s warranty should be enough for you.

Deeper discounts available?

I mentioned earlier the best times of the year to get great TV deals, including March, when last year’s models go on clearance. Even deeper discounts can often be found in open-box items.

If you’re thinking about getting an open-box TV, make sure to check whether it was purchased and returned, or a floor model. If it was purchased and returned, feel free to buy it after checking the store’s return policy. The customer might have brought it home only to find it was too small or the wrong style for his living room. If by chance he wasn’t happy with the quality of the TV, you should have a chance to try it and return it if you’re not happy. With TVs, most manufacturing problems will be noticeable right away.

On the other hand, stay away from floor model TVs. The bulbs in a TV have an expected lifespan, and that floor model was probably running on full brightness for at least 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even with LED TVs, whose bulbs should last a long, long time, that’s a lot of time those bulbs have already been burning by the time you bring the TV home.

Final thoughts

  • As I mentioned in part 1 of this buying guide, look for an LED TV that’s 1080p HD if your screen size will be around 50″ or above. 720p is fine if your screen is smaller than that.
  • Make sure it has enough ports for what you’ll connect, especially HDMI ports.
  • In part 2 I explained why I’m skeptical of smart TVs’ longevity, but the newest and best TVs are all smart TVs. If you go with a smart TV, make sure to get a top brand with an interface that’s easy to use.
  • Speaking of brands, Consumer Reports shows Samsung to be the best overall manufacturer, and LG or Panasonic look to be your other top choices.
  • Avoid extended warranties and floor model discounts, but a great deal can be found in a clearance model from last year or a returned open-box TV.

Let me know if this helped. If you have other questions, please ask me below!


Smart TVs – Television buying guide part 2

Note: this is the second part of my TV buying guide. The first post discussed TV resolutions and connections.

If you’ve been shopping for TVs lately, you’ve come across the term “smart TV.” So what’s a smart TV? It’s a TV that connects to the Internet and allows you to watch content from online: movies from Netflix, TV shows from Hulu, or (my guilty pleasure) YouTube compilations of cats falling clumsily.

Skype on a smart TV
Your family can literally be larger than life with video calls on a smart TV

The fact that the TV is connected to the Internet also allows for more unusual uses, such as Skyping with an attached webcam or listening to music through your surround sound speakers with an online music service like Pandora.

These activities used to be relegated to your computer. Now you can enjoy them in your living room on the biggest screen in your house. It’s fantastic to have those abilities.

But I’m still not sure my next TV will be a smart TV. And here’s why.

A potential downside: longevity

Ever since televisions were invented, they served as passive screens simply displaying the video signal fed into them. The video signals came from devices such as antennas, then cable and satellite dishes, then VCRs and DVD players.

A smart TV is different; it’s essentially an all-in-one computer, like an iMac. There’s a small, streamlined computer housed behind the screen, connecting to the Internet and serving you content from various online sources. It works well, and frankly I’ve been pretty impressed by how it works on demo units I’ve seen in stores.

But how long will that computer, and the “smart TV” experience it provides, feel quick and modern?

My suspicion is that the TV’s computer “guts” will feel slow and the software will feel outdated long before the TV screen itself seems inadequate. (This is the same reason I’m skeptical of cars with a built-in screen and computer system.)

Now, it could be argued I’ve kept using my current TV longer than the average person…but I doubt it. I won’t embarrass my parents by publishing exactly how old their TVs are, but both are much older than their computer. I suspect the same is true for most people.

If you tend to get a new TV every few years, this may not be much of a problem for you. But for those of you who don’t, there are other options for accessing online content.

Another option: streaming boxes

Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s new Fire TV streaming box

In fact, you may already own a device that can access online content. I’m thinking primarily of streaming boxes, such as a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Chromecast. Gaming consoles such as a Playstation or Xbox also have some streaming connectivity, and so do many Blu-ray players. And of course, your laptop might also able to connect to your TV when you want to watch something on it.

The benefit of a smart TV over these is simplicity (in theory). Instead of connecting another box and having another remote, it’s built into the TV itself. The ease of use may vary widely, depending on the TV manufacturer and the software it makes (more on that later). But in general, it means one less box to connect, one less cable to plug in, and one less remote to keep track of.

However, streaming media boxes such as a Roku or Apple TV cost $100 or less, and the Google Chromecast costs only about $35. I can live with having to replace one of those with the latest version every few years. I don’t see myself replacing my whole TV that often.

My worry is that when the computer components of your smart TV are out-of-date, you’ll be left with a screen that still works great. You’ll have three options: buy a new smart TV, use your smart TV with its slow or frustrating interface, or buy one of the aforementioned streaming boxes to do what your smart TV no longer can…which is exactly the thing you were avoiding by buying the smart TV in the first place.

That’s why I won’t be paying extra to get a smart TV. A dumb TV will still allow me to plug in my antenna, Blu-ray player (which streams Netflix, YouTube, etc.), and even my computer if I want.

If you don’t use or plan to use streaming video services, then a smart TV would probably be just adding an extra layer of complexity to your living room relaxation.

That being said, you rarely have the choice between a smart TV and a “dumb TV” these days. At the more expensive end of the TV market, almost every single TV is a smart TV. If you’re getting a TV above $1000, it will almost certainly be a smart TV, and even most TVs above $500 are smart TVs now.

Even if you don’t plan to use smart TV features, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with one, and you might be surprised how much you enjoy some of the features on it.

What to look for

So what separates one smart TV from another? The apps that are available and the televisions’ ease of use.

Samsung app store
Samsung’s smart TV app store

Almost every smart TV includes Netflix support, but if you want to use other streaming services or social media, make sure all those apps are either pre-installed or available through the manufacturer’s app store. If you want to use your new big screen for video calls, see if there’s an included camera or if you’ll need to connect a webcam on your own. Most smart TVs connect via Wi-Fi, but make sure yours does, because you probably won’t want to run an ethernet cable to it to provide Internet access.

The other big question: how easy-to-use are the smart services? A smart TV that’s frustrating to use defeats the whole purpose. If you stream content from multiple Internet services, see if the TV will show you results from all the services when you search for ‘Forrest Gump.’ Does the menu feel cluttered, or is it easy to find the app you’re wanting to use?

Samsung QWERTY remote
An example of a QWERTY remote

A key factor in ease-of-use is the remote. A full QWERTY keyboard on the remote will help you search much more quickly. Newer smart TVs come with remotes that let you move an on-screen pointer by aiming the remote at the screen (a la the Wii remote). Are there shortcut buttons on the remote for the streaming services you’ll use most often?


LG smart TV interface
LG smart TV interface

Differentiating between smart TVs is difficult to do unless you’re using them in person. If you’re looking at the latest and greatest sets, the manufacturers’ websites may give good demos of their smart TV features. For last year’s models or budget brands, you’ll probably need to try out the smart TV at a friend’s house or in a store.

Think of smart TVs as an all-in-one computer, one with an operating system you’ve never used before. You shouldn’t buy just based off the screen size and quality; you’ll want to see how it actually functions first.

In short, I don’t recommend you pay more for a smart TV, if a dumb TV model fits your budget and suits your needs. But if you do get a smart TV, make sure you’re getting one that’s easy to use and has the apps to meet your viewing habits. That will probably mean looking for a model from a top brand.

Speaking of brand names, next week’s post will cover which brands to look for, and how much brand name matters. Plus, what time of year is best to buy a TV, and more!


Got an idea for a future blog topic? Send it to me below. Thanks!

TV resolution – Television buying guide part 1

Family watching TV
A stereotypical family watching TV together…don’t they look like they’re having fun?

I recently heard from a reader in Boston who told me he and his wife are thinking about buying a new TV in the near future. What options are there in the TV market these days, he asked, and what should they look for?

The television market has seen a couple major shifts over the past decade or so, first from “tube” TVs to flat-panel LCD models (and high definition capability). Within the past few years, we’ve seen so-called “smart TVs” appear and become quite popular. It seems we’re starting to see another big shift that seems imminent: the arrival of “Ultra High Definition” TVs.

My wife and I are also thinking about a new TV, so I’ve been researching these options and I’ll break them down for you here.

This week, we’ll cover what to look for in TV hardware.

In part 2, we’ll look specifically at what smart TVs offer, and whether they’re a good choice for you.

In part 3, we’ll take a look at whether brand names are important, and I’ll give advice on how to find the best deals when TV shopping.

Let’s dive in!

A first warning!

TV wall in-store
Don’t compare the pictures among the TVs on the TV wall!

The first thing I want to mention (and I can’t stress this enough) is NEVER EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES choose a TV based on how the picture looks on the display wall at a store. NEVER!!!

Why? The lighting in the store is totally different than the lighting you’ll have in your house when you use it, plus the brightness, contrast, and other settings are cranked all the way up to make the TV wall as eye-catching as possible. You will never adjust the settings like that at home, so it doesn’t at all give you a realistic idea of what the picture will look like in your living room.

On the other hand, comparing options in person can be very helpful in other ways. For example, you get a good idea of how wide the bezel is (the frame around the edge of the screen) or how deep the body of the TV is. Plus, you can get a clearer perspective of how big a 32-inch or 65-inch screen actually is[1].

LCD vs. Plasma

The vast majority of TVs available today are LCD TVs. Plasma TVs are the main alternative, especially in larger screen sizes. Another description you’ll see often is LED TV. Let’s break those down.

An LCD TV weighs much less than a similar size plasma TV, is usually thinner, and typically uses less electricity. LCD screens also have less glare than plasma screens, so I’d recommend plasma screens only for people who will usually be watching in a dark environment. The main advantages of plasma TVs is that they have deeper blacks in the picture (again, great for dark rooms) and they’re usually a bit less expensive.

LED TVs are simply a newer kind of LCD screen, and LED TVs are lighter, thinner, and have deeper blacks than older LCD screens. If you happen to be comparing a TV that says “LED” on the box to one that just says “LCD,” the LED one is better. By now, almost all LCD TVs in stores use LED technology, so these terms are pretty much interchangeable.

For most people, I definitely recommend an LED TV[2].

Only look at a plasma TV if it’s going in a place where you’re always going to watch in the dark, and you don’t mind a heavier and bulkier TV.

3D or not 3D?

3D technology in TVs is fairly new, and it remains to be seen if it’s a lasting trend. My guess is it’s a fad. 3D movies are available, but more expensive, and 3D live television doesn’t seem to be catching on.

That said, I’ve only watched a 3D TV in a store, never someone’s living room, so it may be a much better experience than I know. Many high-end TVs include 3D capability anyway, so if you’re getting it, why not use it?

I advise you not to pay more for a TV simply to get 3D. If you do go with 3D, you’ll also need a 3D Blu-ray player and 3D movies, plus perhaps extra 3D glasses.

HD, but which HD?

Just about every single TV available today is a high definition TV (HDTV). However, there are different “levels” of HD, and they affect how much detail you can perceive in the picture[3].

720p HD is high definition, but it has the fewest pixels of the HD sizes — in other words it shows less detail than the others. Many smaller TVs are 720p HD, but as I’ll explain in a moment, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1080p HD is also known as “Full HD,” and it’s the next step up from 720p. Until the past year or so, it was the best resolution you could buy, and it’s still the most common format you’ll see in stores.

TV resolution chart
This chart will help you see whether you’ll notice the difference between HD resolutions, depending on your screen size and distance from the TV. Click to enlarge. (Chart courtesy of Carlton Bale)

Whether you’ll notice a difference between 720p and Full HD depends on the size of the screen and how far away from it you sit. The chart to the right is from a very detailed article by Carlton Bale. From 10 feet away (the distance I’m guessing is in the average living room) your eyes probably can’t see the extra details of Full HD on screens smaller than about 50 inches. If you sit closer than that or watch a bigger screen, you’ll start to notice more detail in Full HD.

The newest level of HDTVs is “Ultra HD” (often also called “4K”). These TVs can show even more detail than Full HD, but again the difference you see depends on your screen size and distance from it. As the chart above shows, at 10 feet away from the TV you’ll need a screen larger than 75 inches to start noticing the difference between 4k and 1080p.

Plus, at this point, it’s still hard to find content to watch in Ultra HD resolution, and Ultra HD TVs are still very expensive. I think Ultra HD is the way of the future, but it’s a future that’s at least a couple years away. Don’t buy a 4K TV yet.

Bottom line: for TVs 50″ or above in a typical living room, make sure you’re getting a 1080p (a.k.a. Full HD) TV. For smaller TVs, 720p should be fine, but 1080p won’t hurt.

The right connections

HDMI port on a TV
HDMI port on a TV (in the red box)

The other main thing you’ll want to look for in TV hardware is connections. HDMI is the most common and highest quality connection, so make sure you have enough HDMI ports for all the peripherals you have or might get (such as Blu-ray player or Xbox). If any device can connect to the TV with an HDMI cable, do it. So the more HDMI ports the TV has, the better.

A USB port can be handy for viewing photos on a USB thumb drive. Also, if you have a standard definition device like a DVD player that connects via another connection (such as red, white, and yellow component cables), make sure the TV has those connections as well.

Next week: Smart TVs

The outside of the TV isn’t the only part getting changed lately — the insides of many TVs have also been undergoing a serious overhaul.

I’m referring to “smart TVs,” and next week I’ll explain what they are and whether you should get one. Stay tuned!


Let me know below if there’s a topic or question you’d like me to tackle next!

1 – TV screen size is measure diagonally from corner to corner. So if you’re trying to visualize how big a TV will be in your living room, break out the tape measure and hold it diagonally across the rectangle you’re visualizing. Make sure to add an inch or two for the bezel around the screen.

2 – One other option you may see is OLED screens, which are currently only found in a few high-end TVs. These combine the best of LED and plasma TVs, but they’re at least a few years away from being affordable for the average family.

3 – I need to point out that the detail you can see if affected by both the source and the screen you are viewing it on. For example, DVDs are NOT high definition picture quality, so if you watch a DVD on a high definition TV, the TV can’t show an HD picture — it won’t be showing all the detail it’s able to. The same is true with cable or satellite if you don’t have an HD subscription. On the other hand, if your source is HD, such as a Blu-ray movie, you can only see its high definition details if your TV is an HDTV.

Can a Tablet Replace Your Computer?

This blog’s been on hiatus for a few weeks. While I was away from the blog, my wife started another semester of grad school. I’d been getting used to using our computer while she was on break, but now she takes our laptop to campus with her every day.

That leaves me with our iPad as my primary “computer.” I feel very blessed to have a second option to use when our laptop isn’t available. I know many people don’t have access to one computer, much less two.

Microsoft Office on an iPad
Microsoft Office on an iPad (Photo courtesy of

But it reminded me of a question that I’d been thinking about earlier this summer: could I use a tablet as my primary computer? I’ve grown up using computers, first Windows, then Mac, and only within the last couple years have I been using a touchscreen interface on a tablet or smartphone.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, recently said he does 80% of his work on his iPad. A tablet is considerably cheaper than a laptop with similar power. But to have only an iPad in the house, no laptop, wouldn’t I need to be able to do 100% of my work on the iPad? 80% wouldn’t cut it.

Now, I’d be shocked if the CEO of Apple doesn’t own a laptop (along with every other device the company makes). But he hints at a trend that’s been happening for decades: computing devices have become more powerful while also becoming smaller.

Tasks that used to require a desktop computer can now be done on a tablet, such as writing a report or recording a song. But not every task is doable on a tablet, and some that are doable just aren’t as efficient.

For example, I’m a video editor by trade. While I can do a certain level of editing on my iPad through apps like iMovie, it’s still not comparable to editing on a full-fledged computer. The iPad doesn’t have the storage space for all the video files I use, and the touch interface makes precise edits more difficult than with a mouse.

That’s why, for me, a tablet won’t be able to replace my computer…not yet at least.

So what do you use your computer to do? Watching videos, reading books, writing papers, and sending emails are all tasks that can be done just as well on a tablet as on a computer.

If you use a computer and only do those types of activities, you probably could go with a tablet as your primary computer.

You may find that particular workflows that are familiar on a laptop are not possible or not as easy on a tablet. But I think tablets have caught up to computers on most basic tasks.

One last thought: if a tablet is going to be your primary computer, don’t make a hurried choice. Make sure you try different ones and find the right size, operating system, and power to meet your needs.

Do you use an iPad or another tablet? What activities do you find more comfortable on a tablet than a computer? What about vice versa? I’d love to hear from you below!

Do you need that much smartphone data?

Smartphone in use
How much data does your smartphone actually need?

If you have a smartphone, you probably know that your data plan is a big chunk of your monthly bill. But when was the last time you checked how much data you actually use? Are you paying for more data than you need?

What is data usage?

Data usage on a mobile device (most often a smartphone or tablet) is simply all information that is sent from or received by the device. (The exception is phone calls and text messages, which are counted separately from data.)

This includes text (emails, websites, etc.), audio (downloading songs, listening to online radio stations, etc.), video (watching Netflix, downloading a movie, etc.), and other uses (such as GPS navigation or downloading and using certain apps).

Here’s a good way to check what activities use data: put your phone in airplane mode. That way it can’t access any data at all. Certain functions will still work, like viewing photos you’ve taken on your phone. If a certain app or activity won’t work on airplane mode, then it needs access to data to work.

How much data do I use?

Now that you have an idea of what activities use data on your phone, you’ll want to find out how much data you’ve actually used in the past. Your monthly bill may show that, or you may have to log in to your phone carrier’s website.

Remember that many phone plans these days have begun counting shared data among all the devices on the plan. So if you have family members with smartphones, their data will also be counted toward the monthly limit.[1]

If you’re wanting to instead get an idea of what your data plan could be, or you want to know what activities use more data, check out one of these data calculators from the four major carriers. Pay attention to whether you are inputting monthly or daily usage for each site.

NOTE: data usage is the same regardless of which carrier you use,[2] so you don’t have to just use the calculator from your carrier. Feel free to try multiple ones; one might be more helpful than the others.

How can I limit my data usage?

If you’re interested in using less mobile data, I’ve got a couple of tips for you.

Remember that different activities use very different amounts of data (as shown by the data calculators above). Downloading mainly text, such as emails, uses a tiny amount of data. You could check email all day long and not come close to your limit.

Sending/receiving photos (such as uploading a photo to Facebook or sending as an attachment) uses more data. Streaming[3] audio uses still more, and streaming video uses the most data of all. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy those activities, but it helps to know the next tip.

Use Wi-Fi when possible. Data that your phone uses when connected to a Wi-Fi network (such as in your home) does NOT count against your data limit. So if you’re at home and your phone is connected to your home Wi-Fi network, stream all the music you want and download app updates at the same time; none of it will count against your total.

You will want to go into your phone’s settings and make sure that your phone is set to automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks it has previously used.[4] Also, check the status bar at the top of the screen to make sure that you see the Wi-Fi symbol before you start data-heavy activities. Below you can see it on Android and iPhone, marked with a green circle.

Android Wi-Fi symbol
Android phone with Wi-Fi connected (Photo courtesy of
iPhone Wi-Fi symbols
iOS 6 (left) and iOS 7 (right) with Wi-Fi connected (Photo courtesy of extreme

Restrict apps’ access to cellular data. When you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network, your data usage is considered cellular data, and counts toward your limit. You can restrict your phone from using certain cellular data.

Apple has made this very easy starting with iOS 7. You can tell your iPhone or just particular apps to only use data when connected to Wi-Fi. Apple has a customer support page explaining this.

As far as I’m aware, Android only allows you to limit data used in the background (explained here). This prevents an app to use mobile data unless you actually open it. The newest Android version also has nice visual charts of data usage.

Taking action

Now that you know data isn’t counted against you when you’re connected to Wi-Fi, are there changes you would make when filling out the data calculators above? If you save your data-intensive activities for when you’re connected to Wi-Fi, you may be able to use far less cellular data than you first thought. Maybe you can even downgrade to a less expensive data plan!


Do you enjoy reading this blog? If so, I’d love to hear from you! (If you’ve read this far but don’t enjoy it, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts, too.)

What topics do you want to learn about?

1 – Your total may be counted in gigabytes (GB), and lowest data tier from most providers is about 1GB. If your total shows up in megabytes (MB), remember that 1,024 MB equals 1 GB.
2 – T-Mobile recently announced that their customers can stream music through certain apps without affecting their data usage. That’s the only situation I see where data usage would be counted differently among the carriers.
3 – Streaming means watching or listening to something in real time, such as music on Pandora or video on Netflix or YouTube. The opposite would be downloading the audio or video file to your device, and then watching it. Both options use data, but more and more often people are consuming music, movies, etc. on-the-go by streaming them rather than downloading them.
4 – Keep in mind that you shouldn’t do any sensitive activity (such as online banking or sending confidential information) unless you are on a Wi-Fi network with a secure log in and that you trust. Not McDonald’s free Wi-Fi!

Extended Warranties: to Buy or Not to Buy

Extended Warranty seal
Are extended warranties worth buying? (Photo courtesy of

A reader from Peoria, IL asks, “What is the rule of thumb for when to buy a warranty for your electronics purchase?”

That’s a great question. I have some personal experience in this area, because I worked in sales for a large electronics retail store not too long ago. Extended warranties were one of the things we offered customers (and were told to offer to every customer making a major-ish purchase).[1]

Electronics retailers make a very high profit margin on extended warranties, which is part of the reason many people with whom I talked were very skeptical of extended warranties.

I personally don’t think you should avoid extended warranties just because retailers make a profit on them. After all, it’s a very similar business model to the one insurance companies use.

However, I do think you should avoid extended warranties, and here’s why:[2]

Why NOT buy an extended warranty?

Overlap in coverage: The extended warranty starts day one, not after the manufacturer’s warranty expires. If the manufacturer’s warranty lasts one year and you buy a three-year extended warranty, you are actually getting two extra years of coverage, not three. Similarly, if you buy a plan that covers accidental damage, it will also cover product defects, which were already covered by the manufacturer. Why pay for coverage you already have?

Products don’t usually break during the extended warranty window: Consumer Reports’ research indicates that products are most likely to break either during the manufacturer’s warranty or long after the extended warranty has expired. (Not the day after the warranty expires, as some believe.) So IF the product has problems before the end of its expected lifespan, it will most likely be during the first year.

Your credit card might cover you: Some credit cards will extend the manufacturer’s warranty past it’s original expiration. American Express is best known for this, but other cards may have similar benefits. Check the fine print on yours.

Here’s what you should do instead:

Find out how much the extended warranty would cost you, and put that amount of money aside into a dedicated electronics repair fund. After doing this for a few purchases, you’ll probably already have enough saved to cover an unexpected repair or replacement out-of-pocket – and without purchasing an extended warranty. In other words, you are your own insurance plan.

This plan of action may not be easy to implement and keep up, but it’ll allow you to sleep easier at night without spending money on an unnecessary insurance plan.

Leave a question or comment below! Thanks!

1 – Every product comes with a manufacturer’s warranty, generally anywhere from 90 days to 2 years. On major items such as TVs, computers, PlayStations, or cameras, the most common manufacturer’s warranty lasts 1 year. Manufacturer’s warranties essentially cover problems that are the manufacturer’s fault: manufacturing issues, defective parts, etc. Extended warranties are offered by a third party (examples include Best Buy’s Geek Squad Protection, and SquareTrade, which sells their extended warranties online). These typically cover the same things as the manufacturer’s warranty, but may cover other things such as accidental damage. The main distinction is that they last longer, up to 5 years (depending on the product covered).
2 – I based some of my ideas on two different resources: Consumer Reports and U.S. News and World Report

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