What Not to Buy on Black Friday

So many holiday gift choices, so much potential for mistakes

What Not to Buy

 Lifewire / Grace Kim

Between us? I haven’t started my holiday shopping. I procrastinate and ponder, often searching anxiously for clues about what my wife and children really want. I need hints. I need help.

Instead of shopping—which I’ll get to eventually—I like to spend my time helping others. You know the old staying: Those who can’t do, teach. That’s me.

According to the National Retail Federation, you’re queuing up to spend a grand total of $730 billion this holiday season. In fact, many of you started shopping months ago. If you’re patting yourself on the back right now, pleased that you completed the marathon before the race even started, I can’t help you and am not enjoying your smugness. For the rest of you, what follows is my yearly guide on what not to buy this Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and beyond.

Jingle All the Way
Holiday shopping is truly a contact sport. Jingle All The Way / Twentieth Century Fox

These are all consumer technology products and, in general, I do not dismiss any category outright. Instead, it’s a buying game of degrees. For instance, a computer for Christmas is awesome, but you better look at the specs. GPS is a life-changing technology, but it ought to be inside a wearable.

I compile this list in an unusual way. I could walk the aisles of your local retailers or spend hours scrolling through Amazon’s one billion (or something like that) deals that started showing up, I think, around the summer solstice. However, I like to go old-school. Because, even in this modern, post-print day, national retailers are still delivering thick flyers full of “door buster” Black Friday deals.

According to the National Retail Federation, you’re queuing up to spend a grand total of $730 Billion this holiday season. 👀

This is the well I mine (some through online previews of these circulars). Over the years, they’ve been a rich source of near nonsensical holiday tech gadget gift options.

The good news is that I’ve seen real year-over-year improvement, especially as excellent, powerful, and portable technology has gotten cheaper and more ubiquitous. Looking across these paper sheets (unfolding them in the office did draw a few stares), I was struck by the deal similarities. They all have the same Google, iRobot, and Amazon gadgets. Almost all have the same TV sets. But there are still many head-scratching treasures, ones that I’m about to warn you about. Ignore my advice at your holiday peril.

Don’t Buy: 1080P HDTVs

1080P HDTVs
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I still own a pair of big-screen 1080P TVs, which were the height of display technology in 2012, and a $98, 40-inch “2K” TV sounds awesome, right? It’s not. First the “2K” refers to the 1920 pixels as measured horizontally. Vertically, the display still offers just 1080 pixels. Second, there are an astounding number of amazing holiday deals on 4K TVs of every size and from virtually every single TV manufacturer. I’ve also spotted a handful of spare-change 32-inch 720p TVs. No. Just no.

Do Buy: Any 4K Smart TV of almost any size.

Don’t Buy: Knockoff AirPods

Fake Airpods
No on knock-offs. Maybe on the $5 headphones.   Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Apple AirPods and other Bluetooth earbuds are sure to be among this holiday’s hottest gifts.

Please beware of $15 AirPods look-alikes that I promise will be larger than you expect (meaning less comfortable), less effective for voice calls, and won’t offer intelligent features like hands-free Siri access. I’ve noticed that ONN is flooding the market with ultra-low-priced consumer electronics gadgets. I have no issue with the term cheap, but I have no patience for companies that purposely try to sow the seeds of consumer brand confusion. Apple’s products are never cheap, but the technology and workmanship are always in evidence.

Maybe Buy: $5 Bluetooth headphones for someone you know who either will be destroying or losing them 48 hours after the holidays.

Do Buy: Real AirPodsAmazon Echo BudsSamsung Galaxy Buds.

Don’t Buy: 3.5 MM headphones

3.5 mm headphones
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’m going out on a limb here, but most new smartphones no longer feature this port. You’ll be handing people legacy technology with a very short shelf life. See above for proper audio guidance.

Don’t Buy: Low-Powered Computers

Cheap computers
Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

One of the richest veins of what promise to be frustration-inducing gifts is computers.

Every year, I find ultra-affordable laptops and desktops running Intel’s slowest CPUs. An Acer Aspire3 Notebook with an Intel Core i3 will not only struggle to perform basic productivity task but could struggle with multiple browser windows. It might, though, fare somewhat better than HP’s $149 14-inch Celeron-laptop. The Celeron CPU is often paired with ChromeOS and I would not rely on it to ably run Windows 10 with multiple apps and browser windows running.

Gaming Rig
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I almost laughed out loud when I came across this ad for a $579 “Gaming Desktop.” It's not often you hear of a gaming rig based on Intel’s Core i5 CPU. The pairing of a discrete, and quite decent, Nvidia card helps, but if you plan on handing your teen a gaming system—someone who likely knows more than you about technology—you better start with a Core i7 (and discrete graphics).

Do Buy: Systems with specs that match your needs and budget. Core i5 systems are good for most tasks. Gaming, video and photo editing will benefit from a Core i7.

Don’t Buy: A Cheap Printer

Cheap Printer
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Okay, this is a bit of a fake-out. There are tons of great deals on printers from HP, Canon, Epson, and others. This $19 Canon Pixma is not surprising. However, a combo package of color and black ink cartridges for the printer costs roughly $36, and you will be buying ink for that printer every few months.

When you look at these “almost free” printer prices, just understand you’re also signing up for a pretty intense ink habit. It might make more sense to shop for the longest-lasting ink cartridges first and then grab the printer that works with them.

Do Buy: Ink, lots and lots of ink.

Don’t Buy: A Router for Christmas

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Seriously, when did a router become an acceptable holiday gift? I’m sure this Netgear Nighthawk router works fine but gift wrapping a router is like putting a bow on a loaf of bread. The bread is useful and filling but lacks the requisite joy.

Do Buy: A consumer-friendly mesh network system like Eero or Google WiFi.  Both technologies are dead simple to install and use and can instantly improve any home wireless broadband experience.

Don’t Buy: Crummy Drones

Crummy drones
Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

There are still so many cheap and terrible drones like this $39 Sharper Image quad copter. My experience with small, lightweight, and often poorly made drones is that they usually lack the sensors for decent outdoor flights. In addition, they probably won’t survive more than one or two crashes.

Do Buy: Save up to buy a $399 DJI Mavic Mini. It’s small enough to fly anywhere and easy-enough to fly that even novices can handle it.

Don’t Buy: A Blu-Ray Player

Blue-ray player
Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

If your gift recipient has a massive library of Blu-Ray discs, then I guess this $129 model from Sony is a good (if pricey) replacement. Otherwise, the world is moving far, far away from physical media. Don’t waste your gift-giving good will on something that will soon be gathering dust in the basement.

Do Buy: An Apple TVRokuGoogle Chromecast.

Don’t Buy: A DVD/Tablet Combo

Tablet-DVD player
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This is just so much legacy technology in one package. Better to buy a cheap Android tablet and sign up for a streaming service like Amazon Prime Video.

Don’t Buy: Disney DVDs

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I’m old enough that VHS tapes of classic Disney films were once among my children’s favorite gifts. All those tapes are now in a box in the attic (eBay sometimes thinks they’re worth something). Later we bought DVDs. Most of them are in drawers, untouched for years. These $15 Disney titles look enticing but there is now this service called Disney+. It includes these titles and thousands of others. Disney’s Vault is now digital and available for $6.99 a month.

Do Buy: Disney+

Forget the Blu-Rays and sign up for that service instead.

Don’t Buy: Cheapo Cables

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In my house, cables can last for years, unless my daughter has them and then they survive roughly six months. I don’t know what she does with them, but I do not enjoy shelling out $20 twice a year for new cables.

A fresh cable as a stocking stuffer makes sense for me, but not one that costs $4 and does not include “Made for Apple” logo. Without that Apple nod, I worry that the cable will not work consistently or even cause issues on the iPhone side

Do Buy: Any affordable cable with the Made for Apple certification.

Oddities and Uncertainties

Here’s a few products and categories where I’m still on the fence:

$99 Hoverboards

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I remember when these rideables cost hundreds (some even more than thousands) of dollars. Now they’re cheap commodities with, at least, UL certification, which means they will not catch on fire. They’re no longer cool, but your child might still enjoy one. Just be sure to invest in a helmet and some hand, wrist, and knee protection.

Big Arcade Games

 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

These nearly five-feet-tall single-game arcades offer a certain degree of nostalgia for parents but considering the space they consume and the limited number of gaming options, I wonder if kids will use them after the New Year. And if they don’t, you’re stuck with that giant box.

Local Storage

Hard drive
 Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I back up my world in the cloud (actually, many clouds) and rely less and less on local storage. I’m not sure that’s a smart decision. Look at this Western Digital 5 TB external USB drive. It’s just $89.99. That’s sub-$100 for five terabytes of storage. I might buy two.

So What

Holiday shopping is an intensely personal effort and you’ll make decisions based on your perception of the products, the size of the deals, and the needs of your gift recipients. My advice is just that, guideposts to help you avoid the worst mistakes and, I hope, make the best choices. Following it could make you, in somebody’s eyes, a holiday hero.

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