Let's face it, it's a marketing-driven world out there, and companies will use what they can to sell something – and they'll keep using it if it turns out to work!
The list below is not of scams exactly; the companies aren't lying or anything. But they are making a mountain out of a molehill in some cases.
Let me put some of these claims into context for you, so you can buy your gadgets with a little more clarity.
1 The Retina display
A fine example of Apple's marketing genius. (You don't get to be the most profitable company in America by slacking off.)
A Retina display is a nice display, certainly, but the old ones weren't exactly sliced liver. The company crams more pixels into each square inch, to the point where it claims our retinas can't see them any more - hence the name. In reality, it's just a welcome but modest upgrade to a single component in a complex instrument, whether it's an iPhone, an iPad or a Mac computer. (Some Android offerings have even higher densities.) If you are buying a tablet or a desktop, have the money to throw away and you like the looks of it – grab one. But the rest of us can save a few hundred dollars by living with ordinary and quite decent screens.
2 Camera megapixels
We see the branding for 16- and 20-plus megapixel cameras all the time now. The fact is, camera image quality is the result of a balance of a number of factors. Don't get conned into choosing a camera solely on the megapixel number. The really high numbers – like that top-of-the-line Nokia smartphone with 41 megapixels – are for pros who produce large-scale prints.
For everyday shooting, anything with eight megapixels or more is fine. If for some reason your smartphone camera isn't doing it for you, go ahead and get a standalone camera – but look for features like optical zoom, range and fast shutter speed. And make sure it's Wi-Fi enabled, too. Forget the megapixels.
3 3-D HDTVs
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
I'm glad I don't have to manufacture and sell HDTVs. The low and medium ends are tough, price-driven markets, with razor-thin margins for the manufacturers. So how do they make money? With new-fangled features they use to justify a slightly higher price.
While we're waiting for the ballyhooed 4K HDTVs to come down in price where mere mortals can afford them, we're stuck with paying extra for the current add-on, 3-D. Here's the problem: Who wants to sit around with friends watching a game or a movie with those dorky glasses on? Most TVs only come with two pair, and additional ones are extra – a lot extra.
The result: Your vision-impaired guests are reaching around awkwardly for the nachos. Not too romantic for couples, either. Although 3-D might be fun for some family novelty nights, most families are going to have to shell out for a couple of pairs of extra glasses.
Lesson: Beware the ballyhooed new HDTV add-on. Here's a P.S.: Size on those TVs is relative, too. Get one that works best in the room you're going to be using it in. Here's a calculator to help you.
4 Those PC processors
Here's the straight scoop. Today's mid-line desktop or laptop processor was a super-processor 18 months ago. Do you need to spend hundreds of dollars extra for the latest and greatest dual quad core whatever?
If you're a dedicated gamer, by all means shell out for the top processors and graphics cards – but you knew that already. If you're editing HD video all day, ditto.
The rest of us are surfing the Web, streaming videos and writing emails. We should spend our money on increasing our broadband or Wi-Fi connection, not a processor.
When it comes to a new PC, however, RAM gets my heart racing. With the program bloat we've seen throughout the digital era – and the tendency of folks like me, and I bet you, to have 45 browser windows open at any given time – RAM is worth paying for.
If you're getting a deal on a PC with only four gigs of RAM, pay to have it upgraded to eight. And if it has eight gigs, consider paying another $100 to upgrade to 12; three years from now, your computer will be running faster than it otherwise would.
5 Pricey HDMI cables
A friend came home the other day with a $75 smart Blu-ray player – and a $43 HDMI cable to hook it up to her TV! If you're talking digital, you're talking ones and zeroes going through that cable. There aren't better ones and zeroes! Now, I wouldn't get a $2 HDMI cable in line at the drugstore; a shoddily made one might go bad. A decent cable from a legit company should cost you less than $10. And take a pass on those gold cables, too.
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