PALO ALTO, Calif. — Black Friday is for suckers, I’ve always said. This quasi-religious American holiday is, at bottom, a terrible trick; retailers lure you in for super-cheap stuff that you want in the hopes that you’ll also be sucked into buying a lot of things you’d never otherwise buy. (Hey, is that a $700 meat grinder?)
For several years, I’ve cautioned readers to spend the Friday after Thanksgiving doing something much more productive with their time-like, say, writing emails to your favorite four-star general. Still, I always like to help out folks who simply can’t resist the siren call of a good bargain.
Here, then, is my annual list of Black Friday bargains to avoid and to indulge. Read it while you’re waiting in line. It’ll take your mind off the terrible shame you feel for succumbing to the madness.
•Do not buy an e-book reader without an illuminated screen, especially one that isn’t made by Amazon or Barnes &Noble.
In my 2009 Black Friday guide, I advised against buying any e-readers, which then sold for at least $250 and were still part of a maturing market for e-books. Amazon’s Kindle was at the top of the heap, then, but it wasn’t yet clear which e-book format would win out in the long run. Three years later, all that’s sorted out. If you’re in the market for a device that just does e-books (as opposed to an iPad-like tablet), there are only two brands to choose from: Get the Kindle or Barnes &Noble’s Nook.
The cheapest Kindle sells for $69, and you can pick up the entry-level Nook this week for $49 (it usually sells for $99). But I’d advise against getting either one of these cheapies. That’s because we’ve recently seen a revolutionary feature in more advanced e-readers: Illuminated screens that allow you to read your device in the dark. You can see the light in the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight or the Kindle Paperwhite, which both sell for $119. (You’re not likely to find any Black Friday discounts on these.)
Why am I telling you to pay $70 more for a small lamp inside your reader? Because I think illumination makes e-readers perfect. For years, my main beef with these devices was that I couldn’t read them in the dark. I’ve heard the same complaint from readers. Sure, you can always use a book light, but I’ve noticed they create a distracting glare around the e-reader’s display-defeating the main feature of these devices’ E-Ink screens, the fact that they’re easy on the eyes. The illuminated Nook and Kindle provide a beautiful, glare-free, even light that appears to emanate from within the page. The light is just bright enough to allow you to read, without being so bright as to cause eyestrain (as LCD screens do).
If you can’t shell out $119, you can always wait-illuminated e-readers are sure to be cheaper next year. But if you buy a cheap, unlit e-reader to save a buck, you’re sure to find yourself in the dark.
•Do not buy an iPhone/iPod dock.
This year, Apple created a new dock connector for its phones, tablets, and music players. The connecter is the little plug that you use to hook up your device to other things. In 2003, Apple created a big, wide connector for the iPod, and it became ubiquitous, sparking a boom in iPod-enabled accessories like clock radios. The new connector is smaller and like the original connector, it’s proprietary; you won’t find it on non-Apple phones and tablets, and accessory makers have to pay Apple a licensing fee to make stuff that works with iOS devices.
In September I howled at the injustice of the new dock. (I argued that Apple should have gone with an industry-standard connector). Because I love the new iPhone, I’m resigned to living with the connector. But I’ve vowed to minimize the chance of getting burned by Apple’s arbitrary dock policies, which means I’m never ever buying a device that relies on Apple’s proprietary connector. I think you should do the same.
Avoiding the connector is not as hard as it sounds: Many phone and tablet accessories now feature wireless connectivity, so you can hook up your iPhone (or most other phones!) without having to physically plug one thing into another. (See, for instance, Jawbone’s $130 Jambox or Logitech’s $100 Mini Boombox.) It’s true that these wireless accessories are more expensive than devices with physical docks, but remember that you’re investing in long-term compatibility.
In the same vein, whatever you do, do not buy an accessory that still uses Apple’s old connector (of which you’ll find many on sale this week). That’s just asking for trouble.
•Don’t buy a non-retina MacBook. Also probably the iPad 2. Oh, and the iPod Nano.
Apple put out a lot of new stuff this year: In addition to the iPhone 5, there were three iPads (first the third-generation iPad, which was later replaced by the fourth-generation iPad, and now we’ve also got the iPad Mini); a new iPod Touch; a wondrous new line of iMacs; a few nice upgrades to its MacBook Air line; and finally, it created two groundbreaking, if very expensive, laptops with ultra-high definition displays, the 13- and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pros.
What’s strange is that Apple didn’t bother to remove some of its older models from its lineup in order to make room for the new stuff. This has created a weird overlap in its catalog-some of Apple’s models now offer what seem to be the worst features of its best products.
Take, for instance, the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro, which normally sells for $1,199 but can be found for up to $60 less on Black Friday. Don’t fall for that discount-with its old-school technology (a magnetic hard drive and even a slot for DVDs!), the non-retina MacBook weighs a ton more than the comparably priced 13-inch MacBook Air, which Amazon is selling for $1,152. (OK, the Pro is only a pound and a half more than the Air, but it’ll feel like a ton.)
There’s the same problem with the iPad 2, which Apple is selling for $399. Yes, that’s less than the newest full-sized iPad ($499), but the iPad 2 lacks that model’s amazing high-resolution display. If you want to save money, go with the iPad Mini, which is actually faster than the iPad 2, much more portable, and costs only $329.
And finally, there’s the $149 iPod Nano. It’s a stylish device, but it lacks what has become a basic necessity for music players-a wireless connection to cloud music services like Pandora or Spotify. The Nano depends on the most annoyingly ancient technology that Apple makes: iTunes. For $129, you can buy an 8GB iPod Touch, which does allow you to connect to the cloud. So the Nano is kind of pointless.
•Do buy a non-gargantuan TV.
Deep discounts on big-screen TVs make up many of the loss-leading, stampede-inducing “doorbuster” items you’ll find on sale this Friday. In years past, I’ve advised against buying a TV on Black Friday-the TVs that are on sale sometimes aren’t very good, and low prices can encourage you to buy a bigger, fancier TV than you need. And a bigger TV is not always better-if your TV is too big for the room, you may end up sitting so close to it that you’ll notice scan lines or other artifacts that you wouldn’t see on a smaller tube. (There are widely varying guidelines on a what size screen you should get for your room, but I like CNET’s ratio of 1.5-don’t get a screen bigger than 1.5 times the distance from your couch to your TV. For instance, if you’re sitting 6 feet away, your maximum screen size is 72 inches divided by 1.5, or a 48-inch set.)
The good news is that this year, you’ll find some amazing deals on TVs. For example, Best Buy is selling a 40-inch Toshiba for just $180, and Wal-Mart has a 50-inch Emerson set for $300. You can always find cheap TVs on Black Friday, because the price of large LCD panels has been falling steadily for a long time. But over the last few months these prices have seemed to stabilize, according to the research firm iSuppli. This could mean that we’re reaching long-term low prices for LCD TVs that are 60 inches and smaller. And that means it’s time to buy, because you’re not likely to get a much better bargain by waiting till next year.
What about the possibility that your bargain TV will suck? I suggest you always research your model before you buy. But TVs are generally much better than they used to be, so even the worst models will still have a great picture. That $180 Toshiba, for instance, gets pretty good reviews.
Also buy a second computer monitor (or a bigger first one). The logic here is the same as for the TV market-LCD prices are at rock-bottom, so you can get a great computer monitor today for not much cash. If you already have a good display, get a bigger one. If you already have a big display, get a second big one.
My feeling about computer monitors is that more is better. More screen space allows you to get around your computer with less scrolling and less hiding and unhiding of windows. Plus, a big screen is basically the only reason to be using a desktop machine anymore, so why not go as big as humanly possible?
At the moment, my main machine, a Windows 7 desktop, sports two big displays-one 27 inches and another 24 inches. But I can get another 27-inch display for just $200 this week. Even if I have to get a bigger desk-and maybe a bigger office-to house that much screen space, it will be worth it.
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Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter.