NEW YORK (Money Magazine) - Better. Faster. Sleeker. Cheaper? In the world of technology, time, it seems, brings better and better deals to consumers.
Cell phones get more multifunctional (it's a camera, a personal digital assistant and, oh, yeah, a phone); TVs get thinner and boast higher definition; computers do more and more -- store more apps and work as home-audio storage systems as well as plain old word processors.
All the while, prices keep dropping. Here's how to get the best deals in an ever-shifting environment.
Avoid the cutting edge -- Right now, the fastest Intel chip runs at 3.2 gigahertz, but if you buy a computer with a 2.8GHz chip, you can save $500. "Most people can't tell the difference between a 3.2 and a 2.8 chip," says Bill Howard, a PC Magazine columnist. "They're both more than adequate for applications like word processing, spreadsheets and going online."
Buy factory-refurbished -- These units directly from the maker can save you 15 percent to 20 percent. These are practically brand-new computers -- they've been opened, even booted up -- but the first owners quickly decided they didn't want them or couldn't afford them. Dell, Gateway and Micron sell refurbished computers with full warranties on their websites.
Try a bid or two -- Several brand-name computer makers, like Dell and IBM, also have their own stores on eBay. There you can bid on new and refurbished goods directly from the manufacturer.
Timing is everything -- January and June are usually the best sale months for consumer electronics, as retailers clear out inventory and make room for the next round of upgrades.
In January, for instance, when new digital cameras came out with five megapixels instead of four, prices of older digital cameras dropped 10 percent to 15 percent.
Waiting can pay -- Before you buy, it's important to bear in mind how prices are moving, as well as what improved features come with new models.
With PDAs, digital cameras and camcorders, the combination of stable or falling prices and the enhanced features that come with every latest version often makes waiting around for new models worthwhile.
But when it comes to audio equipment -- since improvements don't come every year and prices are somewhat steady -- wait for the big electronics sales that arrive every New Year's Day and Fourth of July to pocket the biggest savings.
At 120 gigabytes -- twice the size of the average hard drive sold today -- the LaCie d2 120GB FireWire holds roughly 2,400 CDs, 240,000 digital photos or eight hours of digital video. It's also known for its cool case, which is made of aluminum. We found it for $187, or $32 less than retail, at TechWarehouse.com.
Apple's iPod isn't the only happening MP3 player in town: For $299 -- $100 less than the iPod -- the 20GB Nomad Jukebox Zen from Creative is slightly heftier than the iPod but just as slick in design. Plus, it can store 8,000 songs. Available at Circuit City, Staples and Cambridge SoundWorks.
- Sharp Aquos 30-inch LCD flat-panel TV
If you're in the market for a TV set with a screen that's less than 40 inches, go for LCD rather than plasma. At this size, a liquid crystal display's picture quality is just as good as a plasma screen's, and the LCD is far easier to repair. The 30-inch Sharp Aquos costs $4,500 -- a 44 percent discount from its $8,000 price last year. But you can pick it up for less online -- about $2,899 (shipping and taxes may apply) -- if you comparison shop at PriceGrabber.com.
Palm's Zire 71 personal digital assistant is the only PDA that combines a digital camera and typical PDA features with a high-resolution color screen for $299. (Others, like the Sony Clie, go for about $500.) Throw in a 64MB memory-expansion card ($60), and it's suddenly an MP3 player. Naturally, we found it for less: At TechBargains.com, a price comparison site that links you to dozens of online retailers, Compuplus.com was selling it for $249; the expansion card for $50.
We found the best price for Nikon's ultrahip 3.2-megapixel Coolpix 3100 digital camera (Nikon's smallest model) via TechBargains.com. In August it was selling for $279, plus shipping and taxes, on Best Buy Digital. That's 20 percent off the $350 retail price.
A must-have since its debut last spring, this cell phone-cum-camera costs roughly $300 by itself, but at Buy.com, if you pair it with an AT&T plan, you can get it for $150 after a $150 mail-in rebate. Or pick it up on Amazon.com with a T-Mobile plan for the same price (also a mail-in rebate).
Deepdiscountdvd.com guarantees the lowest prices and offers free shipping and handling. Plus, it'll match prices found elsewhere online. Preorder soon-to-be-released hits like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Platinum Series Special Edition), a four-disk set for the film's true fans. At $29.47 (normally $39.95), it includes extra scenes and commentary.
Pick up a few of these play critters now, before they become this year's Tickle Me Elmo of stocking stuffers. The two-inch interactive electronic toy from Japan responds when you say its name -- by moving around, laughing, singing, even snoring. Save 10 percent on the $12 price when you buy one (even the ultra-popular Siren and Chumsley) at iqkids.com. Shipping is free for orders above $100.