Electronics Shopping: Should you buy online or in a store?

Consumer Reports

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Should you buy electronics
online or in a store?

If you’re in the market to buy an electronics product this year—and our holiday shopping poll says 62 percent of you plan to give a gift from that category—it’s plenty early enough to think about buying online. For some products, that’s fine—but not for all. .

Regardless of what you’re buying, you can often find better selection and prices online. And many Web retailers scored very high in our recent Ratings of places to buy major electronics and computers. But the hottest products this year—tablets, smart phones, and 3D anything —are relatively unfamiliar. Many buyers will benefit from experiencing them first-hand. That’s where brick-and-mortar stores hold the advantage.

More from ConsumerReports.org: 

TV reviews and Ratings

Blu-ray and DVD player guide

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Cell phones: Try before you buy.

No matter how many reviews you read, there’s nothing like holding a phone in your own hands. Is it bulky or flimsy? Do you need a physical keyboard? Make sure that you can comfortably use most major functions such as phone calls and messaging with one hand. Make a test call and access menu items. We've found that flat or virtual keypads make dialing more difficult without looking. Other call clunkers include keys that are small, oddly shaped, or arranged in unusual patterns, especially if you're trying to dial a number in dim light.

TVs: Online is fine.

We’ve found that watching a TV in a store bears little resemblance to watching it at home. It’s best to do lots of research to find the right set for you.

Our TV tests are based on settings that you would use at home, with content that reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a given set, so you can use Consumer Reports TV Ratings to get an accurate assessment of picture quality. It's harder to judge TVs well for yourself in stores. That's because TVs are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. Also, retailers often display sports programs, which tend to have super-bright lighting and vivid colors that minimize any flaws in the picture.

If you’re buying an LCD TV, though, there is one thing you can check in-store: the set's viewing angle.

Digital cameras: Try before you buy.

As with phones, personal preference for size, controls, and feel play a big role in choosing the right camera. The smallest, lightest models aren't necessarily inexpensive cameras. And the biggest and heaviest aren't necessarily found at the high end. If possible, try cameras at a store before you buy. That way, you'll know which one fits your hands best. In our tests, some of the smallest didn't leave much room even for small fingers.

We also warn of in-store sales pitches: It's not unusual to receive misleading or even incorrect advice. Go in armed with knowledge of the basics, and choose some specific models you’d like to try.

Blu-ray and DVD players: Online is fine.

You’re mainly concerned with such features as whether the player offers video-streaming options, audio capabilities, and a tuner; and especially, whether it’s a Blu-ray or DVD player. If you have an HDTV, go for Blu-ray. It's worth it, in our opinion, to get the improved picture quality, especially as prices have dropped to $130 and are likely to head lower. A Blu-ray HD disc contains more picture data than a DVD, so images look more detailed and lifelike.

Headphones: Try before you buy.

That’s if you can get to them! Inexpensive headphones are often packaged in blister packs that stores may be reluctant to let you open, but some stores have demo models you can listen to. You’ll want to hear the sound quality and make sure there’s sufficient volume for you. Also important is how comfortable different models are.

Like speakers, headphones might emphasize different parts of the audio spectrum. Sound quality can vary greatly between models and your preference will be highly personal, so it's recommended that you try them before buying. Online shoppers should check out return policies to make sure that purchases can be returned or exchanged for another model.

Computers: Online is fine.

In this category, there’s no contest. Shop at an online retailer. Our subscriber surveys have found them generally superior to walk-in stores for selection and price. You can also save money by using coupon and forum sites.

Check out our other buying guides for major electronics categories. The included shopping tips will guide you as to whether it’s best to buy online or to visit a store. If you’re shopping online, keep yourself safe. And wherever you go, don’t be afraid to haggle—it really works.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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