Gadget guide: Which electronics are 'in season' and which to avoid

Thinking about some major gadget purchases this summer? It may be the right time to pick up a new TV. An iPhone? It's probably best to wait a bit.

By , Staff writer

Just like fruits and vegetables, electronics have seasons – months when they're ripe for the picking or well past their prime. Sure, new TVs are available year-round, but good prices and fresh features often bloom just a few times a year. Good thing that television-set season is right around the corner.

"Certainly, some things are seasonal," says Brian Lam, editor of TheWirecutter.com, an ever-updating list of specific tech recommendations. Mr. Lam digs into devices – tablets, printers, juicers – and awards a "best of" for each group.

He says that several gadget categories stay dormant for long periods of time. Early in that phase, shoppers can make well-informed decisions about which item is right for them. But as the months roll by, most people are better off waiting.

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"For certain items, it's worth saying, 'Don't buy this stuff rightnow,' " says Lam.

With spring winding down, here's a buyer's guide to which gadgets are in season and which to avoid.

Televisions: Nearly ripe. TVs are one of the most seasonal devices. Prices dip during the winter holidays and rise right before the Super Bowl. But if you're in the market for a TV now, Lam says that you should wait until the end of May.

By then, most of the 2012 lineup will be on store shelves and in the hands of reviewers.

Overall, 2012 seems to be a good year to buy a television. "The price of TVs has never been better," says Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association.

Now that most families have already upgraded to high-definition TVs, Mr. Koenig says that manufacturers have seen a dramatic slump in sales over the past few years. In an effort to boost their bottom lines, companies are packing in more features and cutting prices.

"For the same price as last year's mid-tier model, you're getting something that's better than last year's flagship," says Lam. "These engineers are doing their job."

Laptops: Out of season. In the next few months, both Macs and PCs will receive major upgrades.

This summer, Intel will release its next generation of processors, code-named Ivy Bridge.

Processors "make up the heart and soul of the computer, and Ivy Bridge will be an efficiency leap," says Lam. "A little bit faster. Better battery life. And a little cooler [for the same price as Intel's current chips]. Really, there are no drawbacks."

The new processors will likely go inside many Apple and Windows computers.

This year also brings new operating systems for both PCs and Macs. Windows 8, due this fall, represents a major overhaul. Microsoft says that it designed the new software to run well on both desktops and touch-screen tablets. For example, it stripped out the Start button, a Windows staple for more than 17 years. In its place stands a new full-screen grid of large, colorful icons that display Facebook updates, report the weather, and provide quick access to applications.

Apple's new operating system is a much smaller step forward. Mountain Lion continues Apple's trend of integrating features from iPhones and iPads into traditional computers. It will debut this summer.

iPhone: Past its prime. Predicting Apple's release schedule is a favorite parlor game among the tech press. Forecasts point to everything from June (Apple's usual iPhone release window) to next October (when the last one came out).

Since the current model is a minor improvement over the now two-year-old iPhone 4, Lam expects that the 2012 iPhone will be worth the wait.

Other smart phones: Always fresh. Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phones don't stick to an annual cycle. New phones debut all the time.

Some people may want to wait until their hometown gets upgraded to a speedy 4G wireless network, but the rollout differs from carrier to carrier and city to city.

Tablets: In season. Both of Lam's preferred tablets remain fresh today.

His personal favorite, the Apple iPad, received a major update in March. The new model features powerful hardware, an unsurpassed catalog of applications, and a super-crisp screen that rivals the detail of magazines.

TheWirecutter recommends Amazon's Kindle Fire as the "best cheap tablet." It's a modest tablet compared with the iPad but sports a fantastic price tag: $199.

E-readers: Evergreen. E-reader hardware doesn't change much year to year.

New models introduce tiny improvements, but the real decision comes down to the Amazon Kindle or the Barnes & Noble Nook.

"You're not buying a device. You're buying an ecosystem," says Lam. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble save your library of e-books online, so past purchases follow you from one device to another – but not from one brand to another.

Without some serious finagling, Kindle e-books won't work on a Nook, and vice versa.

Now that both companies have priced their black-and-white e-readers under $100, Lam says that shoppers need not stress over whether the devices are in-season. They're evergreen.

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