Buying a new flat panel high-definition TV is a good example and something that many people will be doing between now and Dec. 24. I'm not sure I can even list all the basic criteria but the ones that come to mind include screen size, audio quality, resolution, cabinet thickness, density of black images on screen and of course whether you want an LCD, plasma, rear screen or even front screen projection system.
One thing I can say about hi-def TVs is that if you spend enough time looking at them side by side, you will see some differences and be tempted to spend more to get more. But if you compare about any hi-def TV to the standard-def TV you already have, you'll be delighted - even if you buy a low-end set.
Anyone buying a new DVD player is also in for a challenge. Do you get a high-end version of standard DVD or opt for a high-definition DVD? If you're thinking of high-def, you have to make a nearly religious commitment to support either BluRay or HD-DVD. Whichever you choose, you'll only be able to watch hi-def DVDs from studios that support that standard, which is why I'm still not ready to recommend either camp.
Digital cameras are a little easier to comprehend but there are still a ton of options to consider, including whether to go with a pocket-size model or a larger camera with a bigger optical zoom.
There was a time when you could make that decision based on price - little cameras had littler price tags - but that's no longer necessarily true. Kodak's EasyShare Z1812 IS, for example, costs only $279. And it comes with all sorts of bells and whistles, including a 12-X optical zoom and image stabilization (which is a very good idea if you're using a large zoom lens). You can pay that amount for pocket-size cameras with small lenses. That isn't to say you should opt for a larger camera - there's a lot to be said about ultraportability - but that buying choices are a bit harder than they used to be.
There is no magic bullet when it comes to shopping for electronics but there are plenty of resources. The usual Web sites like Shopping.com, Yahoo Shopping and megastores like Amazon.com can often get you good prices and decent service.
But don't overlook the advantage of brick and mortar. If I'm not sure what I'm looking for, I still appreciate the opportunity to kick the tires on merchandise. If it's a relatively big-ticket item, I'm inclined to visit specialty stores, big box stores and surf online to be sure I know what's out there.
And if someone at one of those stores gives me great help, advice and service, I try to reward that with my dollars and not exploit their good work by buying elsewhere, even if it saves me a few bucks. But if I can find something online for a lot less than I find it in a local store, I'll print out that offer and show it to the local merchant to see how closely they can match it. Local merchants pay local taxes and hire local people. All other things being reasonably equal, that's a good thing to support.
Still, there is something to be said for using the Web for comparison shopping, detailed descriptions of items and both professional and end-user reviews that you won't get while browsing at a local brick and mortar store.
Once I know what I'm looking for, I typically search through Google Products (www.froogle.com) to find the best prices. But I don't necessarily pick the lowest price. Shipping rates, return policies and customer feedback about that merchant are important to consider.
If I'm tempted to buy from a merchant I'm not familiar with - especially one with low-ball pricing - I always do some further digging, including using Google to look for the merchant's name followed by the word "scam" or "review."
A new tool in the gadget shopper's tool kit at Retrevo.com uses what the company calls a value map to help consumers narrow in on products and merchants. Calling itself a matchmaking service for people and electronics, the service gives you a range of relevant criteria to help you choose a product and a place to buy it.
They only work with merchants that have been vetted by Yahoo Shopping or Shopping.com, so you shouldn't encounter any scammers. The company focuses on 40 categories of consumer electronics. The value map gives you an graphical way to compare products based on price and perceived value. The service uses information from across the Web including professional reviews and user feedback sites.
It won't give you instant gratification - you have to work to narrow down your criteria. You still might want to do some additional research to be sure you're getting the best value for your money, but it's certainly a good place to start.
A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."