How to find the sweet spot when buying electronics

by Torley Wong on 23 January 2009 11 comments

The "sweet spot" is the ideal point where you get the highest performance (and quality) at an optimum price. It can refer to many types of goods, but electronics are of particular interest because of their phased lifecycles and planned obsolescence. There's the old joke that by the time you've bought a computer, it's already an antique — and while that's not quite so true in an age where even a low-end PC can do basic 3D gaming, sweet spots still exist.

The word "ideal" here isn't without context, as technology keeps moving forth, and it's always worthwhile to refresh yourself every quarter to be aware of what trends are coming down the line, and what previously unattainable electronics are no longer such a distress to your pocketbook. So keep that in mind, keep moving, and here's some tips to keep close:

Search Amazon.com, eBay, and Newegg to discern the best price-per-part

There're other sites, but no matter where you end up buying from, you'll go right using this trinity. Let's use a solid example: Secure Digital cards, which once were specialist forms of memory, but thanks to their proliferation in digital cameras, MP3 players, and other gadgets, they're common. Sizes go up to 32GB, but which size is the sweet spot?

First, a little research: the higher-capacity ones are specifically known as SDHC (Secure Digital High Capacity, which makes sense). So you'll want to search for that. And what gets revealed?

  • Amazon.com - Their search engine has iterated from one generation to the next. As of this writing, simply typing in "sdhc" will autocomplete and reveal the 2nd-most popular search is "sdhc 16gb", a useful clue. If you just search for "sdhc", among the top matches are 3 Transcend-brand cards for 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB.
     
      
     
    32GB cards exist, but they're upwards of $100, which clearly puts them out of the running, since you could buy a stack of 16GB cards @ $30/each for that price. From initial inspection, you might think the 4GB is the "sweet spot", since it tends to have the lowest cost-per-gigabyte. However, that isn't the only factor; the sweet spot is largely about finding the price point before a sharp spike to the next-highest model. Thus, we have tentative confirmation on 16GB.
  • eBay - Highly-useful feature here: many categories, including electronics, are subdivided sensibly. Try searching for "sdhc 16gb" and you'll see something like this on the left-hand side:

     

    (Something similar also shows up for RAM and hard drives.) Wow, look at how many 16GB cards there are compared to the others. Evidently, there's market demand. Sometimes it isn't so clear, but in this case, we have a winner. Looking at eBay's own "Buy It Now" prices shows 16GB SDHCs to go for about $25-30, around the same as Amazon, so you know short of a surprise deal, this is a choice price.

  • Newegg - This is perhaps the geekiest of the 3, because it focuses on electronics. A quick search here can reaffirm what you've also already learned on Amazon.com and eBay. Also, note that like Amazon, Newegg's search shows "Best Match" (sometimes known as "Relevance") by default, so scanning the first page of matches is a helpful overview to establish you're on the right track.

The "sweet spot" is also about quality

An component of quality is "convenience". No one wants to save their money on unusable junk. Continuing on the SDHC trail, further reasoning why 16GB is generally the best choice here: it gives you convenience to pay a few extra bucks, rather than be annoyed by swapping smaller-sized cards repeatedly. Some devices have limitations which can't use higher-spec cards so be sure to consult the manual, but for the sake of simplicity, it's a good guideline.

In other words, don't skimp on several dollars if spending them will save you time & trouble. Which can't be replenished, unlike money.

Browse popularity lists

Yes, the "sweet spot" is amidst a popularity contest. Why? High-volume sales facilitate lower prices. A wonderful example of this is the Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600, the first "quad-core" processor to break into the mainstream. I remember hearing a rumor that the prices would be slashed 50% in mid-2007. I didn't buy after the drop actually happened. Thanks to this and other factors, the Q6600 became a very hot chip. It wasn't the fastest at the time, but that's another lesson:

There's almost always a hefty price premium for the "best" model

Often, #2 is "deluxe-priced", too. Then, a steep exponential drop downwards. Whether that premium is worth it depends on your needs. The Q6600 adhered to this rule, with the Q6700 and "Extreme" X6800 costing significantly higher. But with all those Q6600 sales, the prices came down even more, and it kept topping the sales charts. It happened to be a very nice performer at a very nice price. From its debut at $850 to its current tag at sub-$200, that's substantial change in a year-and-a-half.

strong>Graphics cards are another area where #1 is loads more costly than #2 and #3. Like CPUs, double- or triple-price doesn't necessarily mean that much more raw results. There's a big leap between a great midrange performer like the GeForce 9800GT ($130 or less) and the GTX285 ($500, and graphics card numbering is seriously confusing, but that's another story). And by extension, whole computer systems containing "#1 parts" (which will soon be #2 in a few months, if not already) rack up the charges. Which is why you'll see the same "sweet spot" parts (like the Q6600) used in so many factory-built PCs.

If you can't wait because you believe purchasing now will give you a cumulative advantage in the long run, then go for it. E.g., if this gear is for business and will increase your profits. But if it's merely a mindset of wanting the "latest and greatest for its own sake", I encourage you to look deep within yourself before dispensing dollars.

HDTVs are commonly prone to this spenderlust, and I've held off on buying one because I don't feel the price/performance ratio at this time for, say, a 42" 1080p model justifies my entertainment. Yet.

Popularity lists (Part II)

Besides computer chips, digital cameras are another great gadget to trendify. If you're thinking of buying one, Flickr has a Camera Finder which graphs their popularity, as measured in pictures taken with those digicams over time. If you cross-reference this with Amazon.com and others, it's no surprise there's a strong correlation between the most popular and the best value. For example, the Canon Powershot SD1000 and its sequel, the SD1100 IS (which I own — I practice what I preach), which are #8 and #9 on Flickr's current list, right after the #1-7 domination of the much higher-priced DSLR models (which are arguably popular to a smaller, professional audience):

And don't forget Amazon's most popular electronics, which is one of the best overviews out there. (Remember: even if you don't buy from them, you can get info about the same products you'd purchase elsewhere.) Another plus: popular items also have a high amount of reviews, allowing you to make a more informed buying decision than obscure pieces which may be good, but aren't as supported — that's a risk you take. If there are undiscovered gems, speak praise loudly so others will be enlightened. Altho it's highly unlikely the manufacturer will give you a retroactive discount, helping your fellow WiseBreaders is an awesome thing to do.

Numerous other sites have their own popularity lists, and since no one is all-authoritative, running multiple searches and observing patterns will all bolster your knowledge.

Be aware of sales cycles

This includes not just "those times of the year" like holiday season when prices are lowered to make way for new stock, but also ties into industry events like the Consumer Electronics Show where the latest and supposedly greatest is debuted. For the Mac faithful, there's been Apple's presence at Macworld, although this year was their last. Still, I don't know a Macaholic who'd buy a new Mac days before an Apple event if that model hadn't been refreshed in a year. Become familiar with your preferred companies' sales cycles.

The end lesson is the same: you can't hold off forever, but if you're a couple of weeks or less from new products being announced, you can likely wait. Even if you don't buy the newest versions, you can save on an older model which is very capable — perhaps it was yesterday's "sweet spot" and no longer is, but may serve you just fine.

The above only contains Amazon affiliate links to "sweet spot" products I have bought and used extensively. I'm a strong believer in only recommending what I have direct experience with.

Do you have advice for finding the "sweet spot"? Let us know!

Additional photo credit: All other screenshots taken by Torley
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Torley Wong's picture

Note: The intro image (a really nice one!) somehow didn't make it through. Askin' Lynn for HELPS! ;)

Also, while the above is online-centric, even if you buy stuff in brick-and-mortar stores, the same base research applies. I'm eager to hear your experiences and learn from them... so, thank-you for reading and comment away!

Guest's picture
Guest

Nice post and your analysis and suggestions are on the money. A few observations of my own.

Sometimes, you can get fabulous deals that have low lifecycle cost by buying a high end model that has just been refreshed, that is buying the one that is replaced. I got a MacBook Pro for $1,600 a year ago that had been $2,500 the week before. The speed bump was relatively mild and not much more disk. Apple paid the dealer back for items in stock so everybody, except possibly Apple, came out on top. I expect the one I purchased to last a long time and have low life cycle cost.

Also, the idea of buying the second highest model is consistent with your analysis. It is overall life cycle cost that counts; not purchase price. Low ball a purchase and it becomes obsolete even years before a second level model. The result is that the low ball item usually has a higher life cycle cost.

Lynn Truong's picture

Torley: a-ok with the photo now

Guest's picture

With technology it is best to be a follower, not a leader. You should wait for the bugs to get fixed. Also, anything to do with technology gets rapidly cheaper over time.

Just look at what happened with early iPhone buyers; $600 bucks and no 3G!

Torley Wong's picture

@Guest: Yes! I've noticed a lot of marketing, esp. with tech gadgets, relies on conditioning people to believe that previous product generations are junk, and that you want what's "NEW!" Unless the newest has must-have features, the difference isn't so bad as many might perceive.

@Lynn: Yay!

@Stock Investing Guru: That's an interesting thing which relates to the mindsets of different people: "early adopters" are all too happy to beta-test and work through products hot off the assembly line, even if it means a lot of bugs.

I've found many of the gadgets I like didn't stabilize to my satisfaction until the 3rd generation. (And to mention another Apple product, the G3 Power Macs were a good example — hence the name!)

Guest's picture
Keeneye

I like to figure out what I need in whatever electronic product that I’m in the market for and then I factor in what I want and then determine if I can even afford the extras. This way I don’t get caught up in trying to purchase the product or brand that has the most features; many of which I may never use. Furthermore, shopping using this tactic increases the probability that I purchase a product that has all of the features I absolutely need. I also do a little research and read a few product reviews to check out the different brands. Once I decide on the model/brand I’m going to purchase, I comparison shop online using sites like Price Spider, Price Grabber, Shopzilla, etc. to find the best deal possible based on total cost, which includes shipping of course.

Guest's picture
mindows

Thanks for your great article. In addition to the websites you mentioned in your article, I'd like to suggest a website called Retrevo.com. Retrevo has lots of reviews from other experts and users, in addition to their "bang for the buck" charts.

Guest's picture
TheOtherShoe

All in all, a great article with good food for thought.

I think there is also lot of value to be gained in staying knowledgeable about your products AFTER you have made the purchase. For example staying on top of firmware updates, software updates, other types of fixes, product issues and warning, class action lawsuits, and even recalls.

To make it easier, I am trying out the new beta Owner Alert System at AllYourPrices http://www.allyourprices.com/owner-alert-system

All in all, you have given some really great advice. I do find it a bit daunting however. Its just that the number of factors to consider becomes quite high as soon as you move away from fairly one dimensional products like storage and processors.

I think at the end of the day, I'm going to stick to my previous approach of buying highly popular and well reviewed items (as you suggest), with middle of the road specs, a few months after they have come out.

Guest's picture
kyle5434

It's always best to be behind the technological curve a bit.

And in terms of memory cards for cameras, 2 GB is my sweet spot, because memory cards DO fail, and I don't want all my shots from an important event or trip on one card. I shoot RAW format with an 8 megapixel DSLR, and the RAW files are 13 MB each. I get 146 photos per 2 GB card, which is as many as I'm comfortable with being on one card before swapping out.

Guest's picture
blake

great article, although broadening the search can help, like the 1080 dpi screen tv isn't that expensive if you grab a front projector, I got mine for $250 and I love it. And I think ATM the top graphics card is also the best value(if you can afford it).