Timing is everything. And so it goes with buying electronics. Scouring the Web for bargains can get you the most immediate satisfaction, but knowing when to wait — or act quickly — can yield even bigger savings than you might imagine. You just need to know the ins and outs of a complex and sometimes befuddling industry. So mark your calendars: Here's when to scoop up the gadgets you've been lusting after for the absolute minimum price.
The TV industry pumps out sets so regularly it rivals the train system in Europe for reliability. Every winter and spring brings the announcement of new TVs, which begin to hit stores about six months later. According to Brent Butterworth, a contributor to Sound & Vision magazine, that makes the season prime time to jump in and save.
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"As the new stuff is coming in and the old stuff is headed out, they'll slash the prices on the old stuff pretty low," he says. "You can get some pretty incredible deals toward the end of summer and the beginning of fall." That means discounts as deep as 40 percent off list price, which can add up to hundreds of dollars on high-end models.
But not everyone will be content with a deeply discounted '09 model when the glitzy new '10 models beckon from store shelves. "If you want the newest stuff, you're better off waiting until Christmas time, or even after Christmas when they have end-of-year sales," Butterworth says. "If you buy a TV sometime in December," he concludes, "you're going to get a really good price on a recent-model set."
Home Audio Equipment
Because mainstream home audio equipment tends to come out of many of the same companies that produce TVs — such as Sony, Samsung and LG — the rules for scoring an affordable pair of speakers or an amp look a lot like the rules for scoring a nice TV. "The more mass-market you get, the more it tends to follow the TV-type timeline," Butterworth says. "They'll show the stuff in the spring, then bring it out in late summer, and you start getting really good prices at Christmas time."
And if you don't need the latest and greatest, that means massive savings toward the end of a product's relatively brief life cycle. For instance, Yamaha's top-of-the-line RX-863 sold for $1,000 when it debuted in 2008, but can now easily be had for under $600. And with the relatively languid pace of audio technology, older models don't show their age as much as an old computer or cell phone does. The RX-V863, for instance, offers three HDMI inputs, all the latest lossless HD audio formats, and even upgrades standard-def video to 1080p.
Bad news for audiophiles, though: Unlike the TV industry, boutique speaker builders eschew timelines in favor of simply releasing products when they're done. And even if you wait, there's no guaranteed discount at the end of the rainbow. "So much audiophile gear is sold at list price, as opposed to TVs, which are almost never sold at list price," says Butterworth.
Video Games & Systems
The intense competition for shelf space at game stores drives prices down before you'll even need another haircut. "You want to wait about six to eight weeks for the inevitable price drop," says Digital Trends' video game expert, Scott Steinberg. "You might be able to grab it for as much as 20 to 30 percent off. Pricing plummets."
Or try to score a used copy. Steinberg says they usually start cropping up just a couple weeks after launch. "It gives time for people to finish the game and trade it back in, so you can pick up a pre-owned copy." And you'll typically save $10 to $20.
What about the actual game system? "One of the best times to pick up a video game system is when a new model is announced and a retailer needs to clear out back stock of the old model," Steinberg says. For instance, Sony's introduction of a new, slimmer PlayStation 3 not only dropped list price by $100, it forced many retailers to go pile on even deeper discounts to move older units that weren't as hot.
And if you — or the kids — aren't quite as patient, online game distribution systems like Steam and WiiWare typically offer fairly consistent year-round deals.
Any time is a good time to buy a cell phone, as long as you keep your eyes open.
Jamie Lendino, a contributing editor at PC Magazine, recommends spotting three or four phones that suit your needs, then jumping on whichever one dives in price first. With the rapid pace of cell phone turnover, you shouldn't have to wait for long. "Remember that 'old' in the tech world could mean just a few months from now," says Lendino. Even the original iPhone, a high-demand handset which originally sold for $600, dropped a whopping $200 a little over two months after launch.
Of course, to take advantage of the most attractive cell phone deals, you'll need to agree to a two-year service contract with a carrier such as AT&T or Verizon. For potential buyers locked into existing contracts, this could mean riding it out with an older phone for a few more months in order to grab the massive rebates available upon renewal. Always call your provider to see if you might be eligible for an upgrade prior to an existing contract expiring. AT&T, for instance, allows customers with monthly bills over $99 to upgrade after just one year — as long as they're willing to lock into another two years of service.
No matter when you buy a GPS, the worst time to buy has already passed. "Personal navigation device prices have fallen through the floor," says Lendino. "Three years ago, $500 to $1,000 was common for high-end GPS devices. Today you'd be hard pressed to find one for above $300."
Since GPS devices don't follow the same regular release schedule as more major consumer electronics categories, like cameras, there's no specific release season to buy up all the old models. We've seen TomTom release new models at the cell-phone-oriented CTIA show. But that doesn't mean you can't score them for cheaper at certain times of the year. The holiday season has been particularly kind to GPS buyers in the past, and they frequently crop up with severe discounts on Black Friday. Since some of the best deals occur at automotive stores like Pep Boys, you won't have to play the 2 a.m. waiting game in front of Best Buy like the TV guys will, either.