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Buy electronic gifts the smart way

Jim Barry, CEA spokesman. Archived on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. | Jon Sall~Sun-Times Media

Chicago shoppers can think frugally and “green” this holiday – a holiday season decked out with the biggest variety ever of smartphones, e-readers, tablet computers and smart gadgets, a tech expert said Tuesday.

“Tops on people’s gift electronics lists this year are, in order, a tablet computer, notebook or laptop computer, television set and e-reader,” said Jim Barry, the “digital answer man” with the Consumer Electronics Association, a nonprofit electronics company membership group.

Since shoppers’ first priority this year is saving money, Barry suggests the following to ensure that you squeeze every penny:

†Best Buy stores in Chicago are among the first nationwide to sell a $50 energy-saving “modlet,” a plug-in that looks like a mini-power strip, that monitors the energy consumption of your plugged-in devices. The modlet, from New York-based ThinkEco, connects wirelessly to your computer’s USB receiver. The software “views” the real-time energy consumption, sets schedules for turning off and on the devices based on when they are being used, and keeps track of the electricity savings. Consumers may also buy “smart” power strips that turn off electronic devices when they are not being used.

For people who want to recycle electronics when they buy a new one, check out Enter your ZIP code to find retailers and other locations where you can recycle your electronics.

†Ensure that you buy a laptop, e-reader, tablet or notebook that does what you want. No need to pay $500 to $800 for an iPad if you want only to read a book on a $70 e-reader.

“Think of what you want to do, and once you figure that out, look at the device that will do it best for you,” Barry said. “If you want to read only books, the e-readers are designed specifically for that and don’t reflect glare when you’re outdoors. If you want to read newspapers, magazines and kids’ books in color, you might want to look at a tablet – and those prices are coming down.”

The single-duty e-reader can last for weeks on a battery charge, while the multipurpose tablets and other computers require frequent juicing.

†Figure out what you want among the wide variety of screens, operating systems, memory capacity, data-pricing options and other features. If you like smaller screens, Blackberry sells a 7-inch Playbook for $350, while Vizio sells an 8-inch tablet for $350 that can download a movie wirelessly and send it to a big-screen TV. Kindle e-readers start at $79, with the new color Kindle Fire selling for $199.

†Use your smartphone to scan bar codes on products in stores, and inquire with the store’s customer service desk whether the store matches a rival’s price. Retailers know that customers are using downloadable coupons and scanning prices with their smartphones, so they should have policies to deal with the new way of shopping.

†Don’t mistake price for value. Beware online shipping fees, especially when you can pick up the item at the closest store.

†Consider setting up the device or paying for tech service as part of the gift, especially for people who don’t know an electric plug from a USB drive. Go to the Consumer Electronics Association’s “Tech Enthusiast” website at for tips, or check out consumer reviews of electronics to see how complicated they may be.