The Financiapocalypse can't stop Christmas, but it can sure as hell suck some of the joy out of it. At the very least, it's probably making you reconsider just how much you wanna spend on toys for yourself and others this holiday season. You're probably looking to cut corners here and there, on dollar-store Christmas lights, iPod knockoffs and the like. That's all fine and dandy, but we've made a list of things you can't afford to cheap out on, because doing so will bite you in the ass later. Still, since we like you, we're also sharing how to save a bit of money in the process, so the whole not-cheaping-out thing doesn't hurt as much.
When you're configuring a laptop online, you get a ton of options unless it's a Mac (ooooo burn). Anyway, the popular wisdom is that juicing the processor is always the best way to allocate your dollars to boost performance, since more megahertz is more betterer, right? Wrong. Take this Dell Studio configuration here. Spending $75 on the discrete ATI Mobility Radeon is a way better buy than $50 200MHz upgrade to the processor.
The performance difference those couple hundred megahertz buys you is negligible, while a discrete graphics card from ATI or Nvidia will deliver serious performance benefits over Intel's integrated graphics crap. This is especially true if you do even light 3D gaming, HD video playback or anything else mildly graphically intensive like running Vista's Aero interface (oooo another burn). Also, if you plan to keep a laptop for more than two years, buying the graphics card makes it more future-proof, since Windows 7—and many resource-intensive apps—will grab hold of graphics cards for extra computing muscle, too.
Memory (aka RAM) is another place to sock your computing dollars instead of blindly bumping up the megahertz. Adding RAM almost always gives your computer a more noticeable performance boost for the same price (especially if you're going from like 1GB to 3GB), allowing you to multitask more and run crazier programs without dragging your computer down. And really, you shouldn't even try to run Windows Vista on anything less than 2GB. (If you can get 4GB and run Vista 64-bit, that's really magical.)
There is a trick to this, however. You don't buy the extra RAM as part of the computer configuration process, since your computer maker of choice will charge you by the arse-hairs for it. Instead, if you're comfortable doing an at-home installation, buy a laptop with the lowest amount of RAM, then buy it separately from Newegg, who even has a helpful tool to pick the right RAM that won't blow up your computer. Crunch the numbers first, of course, but chances are, in big RAM jumps, you will save money.
Another memory tip for those taking the not-as-hard-as-it-sounds cost-cutting step of building their own desktop PC: DDR2 memory is significantly cheaper than DDR3 memory ($60 vs. $120), and at equivalent speeds, the performance difference isn't very noticeable. Your best bet—following our not-skimping guidelines—is to get twice as much DDR2 memory for the same price.
The secret about DSLRs that Nikon and Canon don't wanna tell you in the middle of their arms race is that what really matters is the glass—the lens. A Canon 20D—or hell, an XT—with an awesome lens will take better pictures than a 40D with a crummy lens every single time. Besides, if you really want to maximize your DSLR's potential, you're going to need to expand beyond the kit lens that came in the box. It's literally like getting new glasses after a decade of avoiding the eye doctor. Unfortunately, like glasses, camera lenses are one of those things where price really does tend to be commensurate with quality. Don't expect fire sales.
Don't go crappy, instead go used. A used or refurbished lens is always cheaper than a brand new one. Of course, you should always buy from a reputable retailer with a good warranty and return policy, in case there's something wonky with it. (That applies for new lenses too, really.) Here's a list of places to buy used Canon glass. With older lenses, there might be a few caveats like the lack of autofocus, but as Charlie at Gadget Lab notes in his account of using some more "antique" Nikon glass, the experience with those limitations can actually be rewarding, and help you learn about more photography in the process. (And isn't learning why you got a DSLR in the first place?)
If the used route frightens you, another approach is to go with a cheaper camera, and spend the extra money on quality glass. And guess what? Just because a new camera model pops out every six to nine months, it doesn't magically make the older models take less excellent pictures.
Portable GPS Navigation Devices
What? The GPS navigation in your phone isn't enough? Okay, it probably isn't if you actually get behind a wheel to go places. There are lots of GPS navigation devices, and some of them look pretty good for pretty cheap. We're gonna get real specific with our advice here: Get a Garmin Nuvi. Every. Time.
We've road-tested pretty much every navigation device out there, from the smartest cellular connected machines to the dumbest WinCE systems falling off the truck from China, and time and again, we come back to the Nuvi. That's not to say you have to spend $200 more on a navigator. Maybe you could track down last year's top models that are now on sale. The maps wouldn't have changed that much in 12 months. Regardless, even if the Garmin is $25 or $50 more than the TomTom or Magellan on the shelf next to it, get the Garmin. The product will last longer and be more simple to use, resulting in your happiness and the happiness of the people stuck in the car with you. It's worth the extra scratch.
Like liquor, strippers and accountants, when it comes to headphones, you get what you pay for. In this dimension there's no such thing as good $2 headphones. You might tolerate them because you know don't any better (or you are simply a knowing masochist) but I guarantee you, they sound like the Tin Man's rusty ass.
You may recall that our amazing, extensive no-BS headphones battlemodo breaks down the best and the worst in every price category worth considering, and is a great place to start. The trend of the piece, you might notice, is that you can't go wrong with Shures, which don't cost as much as some audiophile earphones, but generally have list prices starting at $100. Good news, my favorites for the money, Shure's E2c sound-isolating headphones, now can be had for $60 easy, or as low as $40 on sale. Some people prefer those to their current replacement the SE110 (the E2c's are slightly bassier), that list for $100 but sell for $75 at Amazon at the moment. I know that a few editors at Gizmodo prefer the SE110s, but either way, the "hundred dollar" headphones stomp the cheap-skate models.
That's the real point: The extra $40 for a good pair of headphones delivers such a fantastical world of difference—especially to those commuters and workout buffs who spend a decent amount of time wearing them—that it is very much worth the extra cash. The only "catch" is that you will finally hear how bad your MP3s sound if you ripped them at a super-low bitrate. MP3s under 192Kbps might need to be re-ripped, since you will hear actually, at long last, hear the compression.
Alright, that's five from us. Surely you guys have got advice on other gear and accessories you should never skimp on. If so, though, you better be prepared to share ways to buy them cheaper than list price. Retail is for suckers! Come on, let's hear from you in the comments.
More Advice for the Black Friday Fray:
• The aforementioned Ultimate Survival Guide.
• 5 Gadgets You Can't Skimp On (And How to Save Money Buying Them)
• <a href="Best of Black Friday Deals Complete Roundup">All the best deals in one place
• Plus these late breaking ones from Cupertino: Apple Black Friday Deals Include Some Decent Third-Party Discounts
• Warnings: 7 Crappy Black Friday "Deals" That Aren't Really
• How To Choose an HDTV on Black Friday (or Any Day)
• How to set up that new HDTV you just got.
• Brutally Honest Black Friday Ads Showcase Retailers on the Brink
Why You Might Want to Avoid Shopping on Black Friday, altogether:
• 10 Reasons We're Doomed: Black Friday Edition
• WalMart Worker Trampled to Death by Deal-Crazed Black Friday Shoppers