Holiday Gadget Buying Will Be More Confusing Than Ever: Three Tips to Make Shopping Easier

I have three guidelines to suggest as you tackle the holiday tech buying season in search of the perfect laptop or tablet.

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

In the world of technology, the concept of buyer’s remorse is not new. For decades, companies have rolled out new TVs, stereos, PCs, laptops and, more recently, tablets and smartphones. And as soon as a person buys one, a new model or something better comes to market.

One of the reasons Steve Jobs moved his product launches to a full year apart was because of this issue. When he updated products every six months, he got highly negative feedback from customers who were mad that the product they just bought was obsolete so quickly. PC and consumer electronics vendors still hear this lament all the time. The world of technology has become so competitive that these companies feel compelled to update their products often, thus creating some buyer’s remorse within their user communities.

I suspect that we are about to enter a period where laptops, convertibles, two-in-ones and tablets will offer so much choice — with new models coming out almost monthly — that we may potentially have buyer’s remorse for at least the six months after a purchase, if not longer. For the first time in my memory, when a user goes out to buy a laptop or a tablet, the amount of products they will have to choose from will be enormous. I believe this will make it even harder for consumers to figure out what to purchase during the heavy tech-buying season that’s fast approaching.

In the past, if a person was going to buy a laptop, the key criteria included screen size, processor speed, hard disk space and price. Except for Apple laptops, brand loyalty was low on the buyer’s list. Laptops all pretty much looked alike: a clamshell with a screen and a keyboard and not much more. But this year, users will also have a plethora of products like convertibles and two-in-ones to chose from. These are products in which the laptop screen can either be folded under and used as a tablet, or a clamshell design where the screen pops off the keyboard base and can be used as a standalone tablet.

At the same time, users will have access to new lower-priced Ultrabooks, which are Intel-based laptops that are very slim and lightweight. Also up this year, will be products called ultralights, which are similar to Ultrabooks but are much cheaper and not as high-powered. And we also now have non-Windows laptops called Chromebooks, which run Google software, to pick from as well. The bottom line is that users will have dozens of new designs to choose from when buying a new laptop.

Things get even more interesting if you want to buy a tablet. Seven-inch tablets will cost as low as $79, but the bulk of the really good ones will run $149 to $249. Some will be Wi-Fi-only, while others will have 4G wireless radios in them. Some will have screens with medium resolution; others with very high HD resolution. And the 9- to 10-inch models will be more powerful than ever, something that suggests they could be used much more as alternatives to laptops or PCs. In fact, one thing that we see happening with a lot of families is that the tablet, in most cases, has now become their digital work horse in the home, and the laptop is relegated to being used less often and usually just for tasks like paying bills, long emails, document creation and writing school papers.

There is a great book on the market called The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less written by Barry Schwartz. In the book’s description it states, “We assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis, anxiety, and perpetual stress.”

Or in the tech world, this can lead to perpetual buyer’s remorse, as the product a person buys may not actually meet their needs or may be one that has a new, updated version of it coming out weeks after they buy it. I have talked to a lot of people who need to upgrade their laptops but are actually dreading going out and buying a new laptop, given the amount of choices they face and the fear that they will buy the wrong thing.

For those facing this problem, I have three guidelines to suggest as you tackle the holiday tech buying season in search of the perfect laptop or tablet.

First, take time to really evaluate what you want or need to do with that tablet or laptop. This may seem very obvious, but I talk to a lot of PC dealers who tell me that people come in to buy a laptop or a tablet and what these people really want or need these devices for is often quite unclear. This will become even cloudier for some this fall, as they will see laptops that can be also used as tablets, which give them a duality of purpose. However, two-in-ones are not for everyone. Most two-in-ones or convertibles have screens under 13 inches, while a lot of people like larger screens on their laptops. A 13-inch pop off screen for use as a tablet is really large and hard to hold. The ideal screen size for a convertible that pops off is 11.7 inches to 12.1 inches, at best. When buying a new laptop, convertible or tablet, think of it as hiring a device to handle the tasks and needs you have, knowing full well that with prices so low, you’re most likely hiring it for a one- to three-year period, and with the understanding that you’ll want to upgrade faster than you have in the past.

Second, be clear on the price you want to pay. While some two-in-ones will be priced as low as $349, most will be very underpowered and struggle to deliver a great computing experience at that price. Even some of the clamshell laptops are in this price range, but be sure you understand whether or not these lower-powered machines can meet your needs before buying them. From what I see coming, all of these laptops and tablets will be offered in what we call good, better and best designs, with good being quite functional and best delivering the most powerful computing experience. My personal suggestion is to go for the ones in the best category you can afford, but know that products in the midrange or better category may be more than enough to meet your needs. I personally like the concept of two-in-ones, but I prefer having a more powerful laptop paired with a 7- or 8-inch tablet that I use mostly for content consumption and think of as a companion device.

And finally, make sure you can exchange whatever you buy for a different model within the first week so you can make sure what you get is exactly right for your needs. While vendors and dealers hate this, the reality is that with so many choices facing users, actually buying the right laptop or tablet on the first try — at least this holiday season — could be difficult unless you really do your homework.

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

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