Anyone possessing both a pulse and a little disposable income has purchased some form of electronic device. They’ve become ubiquitous in nearly every aspect of our lives. Most households have one or more computers with Internet connections, digital cameras, printers, scanners, DVD players, PS2, XBox or other game sets, cell phones and TVs. The list goes on and on. Just 20 years ago many of these products didn’t even exist, never mind being within financial reach.

Today, thanks to the inexorable march (at double time) of technology toward smaller, faster and cheaper electronic consumer products, not only are such goodies within reach, they have the annoying habit of decreasing in price shortly after you purchase them. It’s as if it were programmed into the act of acquisition. Almost as soon as you leave the store you’ll see a more exciting widget advertised for less than what you just paid. And it makes coffee. It’s as if Moore’s Law has gone into warp speed.

Eventually you conclude, as many before you have, that you’ve purchased at the wrong time. Can that really be the case? Is there ever a “right” time to purchase the latest and greatest? If you feel, before buying that 40-inch LCD flat-screen TV that you’ve been lusting after, that it’s akin to leaping aboard a speeding maglev train, you’re not alone. It’s natural and right to want to spend your money wisely and to get the most bang for your buck. (Or in this case, the most megahertz, megapixels or gigabytes.) So, the questions become, “How do I know when the time is right? Should I buy now or wait a few months for a better model?”

Here are a few things to consider.

Do your homeworkSalespeople love customers with cash in their pockets. It means they’re ready to buy, and oftentimes they’re not even sure of what they want. So many of us walk in the door (or visit the Web site) and say “I need a new (fill in the blank), but I don’t really know what.”

Spend some time learning about the product you want to buy so you can make an informed choice. There are Web sites and magazines for just about every imaginable product; visit them to learn more.Reviews from consumers who have already purchased the product you’re considering are extremely helpful and will usually point out pros and cons that you’d never learn about in the store.Read buying guides. They help you focus on the important factors and features for a given product.Finally, Google is your friend. Use it to research your product category and you’ll come out ahead.Know what you needHere’s an analogy. Your mother-in-law has invited herself over for hamburgers. Do you buy ground sirloin or ground beef? You’re going to the commissary for 43 percent lean ground beef on sale that’s been frozen three times, right? The point here is that you don’t need steak to make hamburgers. The same principle applies to buying a new gadget. Separate what you want from what you need.

If, for example, you’re purchasing a computer for your child who is going to college this year, the latest and greatest $5,000 gaming machine is probably unnecessary. They’re writing term papers and sharing MP3s. They’ll need the basics: a plain vanilla processor, a CD/DVD drive for music and video, normal allotments of hard disk and memory, the operating system and some office automation applications and an anti-virus program. Last year’s models will do nicely, and they’re very inexpensive compared with what’s hitting the market now.

If on the other hand, you’re a professional photographer and the newest bazillion-megapixel digital camera will help you to continue or improve your livelihood, the extra money may be well spent. Only you can answer that question, but money spent on features that will go unused is money wasted. Doing some research will help you decide.

Shop aroundWe here in the overseas areas have three choices when it comes to purchasing: AAFES, the Web and the local economy. Use them to compare prices, models and features. I don’t mention printed catalog sales because I doubt there is a catalog company that doesn’t have a Web presence as well. Again, the Internet will return copious amounts of information. Once you’ve decided on what it is you want to buy, feed the brand and model into a search engine and let it do the window shopping for you. Find out who has the best price, shipping, is reliable and has positive votes from other buyers. Finally, make sure you visit eBay; there are often incredible deals. Your product will almost certainly be there and perhaps for a better price. EBay hasn’t earned the nickname of “America’s Garage Sale” for nothing.

Buy or wait?You’ve done your homework and have decided on the exact product you want and have a few comfortable options about where to buy it. Should you wait for the next, newer product to hit the market?

Unless you are in the unenviable position of absolutely needing certain bells or whistles and can wait for that precise feature or product, buy now. Here’s why …

Because of the ongoing rapid development, short idea-to-market times and tremendous competition, there will always be something newer, better, faster and cheaper just around the corner. This is especially true of electronics, and it has the happy effect of driving down the price of yesterday’s technology, which is often quite good enough for most of us. In many cases you won’t need the latest model to hit the shelves. Hey, it was good enough for everyone just a few months ago, right?

The downside of not buying now is that you will lose the convenience, productivity, fun or educational value of the item. If you’ve done your homework, have separated what you need from what you want, have shopped around for the best deal, buy it now and don’t look back. Yes, something new will come out to replace it soon, but you can’t change that. You can rest easy knowing you got the gizmo you wanted at the best price and that’s about the best you can do these days. And don’t forget to always use a major credit card at secured sites only when purchasing over the Web.

On the Web

Here are a few of the top purchasing portals.

Stripes in 7

around the web

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