Holiday Gift Guide Buy This, Not That: Alternatives for 15 Trendy Products

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Photo by Ben Taylor

Big brands love the holidays — a festive season of inflated budgets, snap decisions and impulse buying. In the summer, a smart consumer might take two weeks to research a purchase decision. But who has the time in December, with family get-togethers, winter travel and a manifest of gift recipients twice as long as the weekly grocery list?

Given the busyness of the holiday season, SpecOut set out to do the research for you. Call it an early holiday bonus. We rounded up 15 popular tech products — the sort of brands some shoppers are tempted to buy on a whim — then found a better alternative for each one. In particular, we focused on the following factors:

Cost: Compared to the popular product, is there a lesser-known alternative of similar quality at a lower price point?
Quality: Compared to the popular product, is there a competing product at the same price point of significantly higher quality?
Key feature(s): Does the popular product lack a key feature, or alternatively, does the popular product force you to buy a pricey, mostly worthless additional feature?

Before we begin, note that we actually like several of the popular products on this list — in each case, we’ve simply found a better alternative when factoring in all of the above variables.

#1. High-End Camera

Buy this
Fujifilm X-T10 ($700)

Not that
A mid-range Canon/Nikon DSLR ($1,000+)

The standard point-and-shoot camera largely has been cannibalized by smartphones, but the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) is still the gadget of choice for professional photographers. With giant sensors, detachable lenses and more settings than a TiVo menu, DSLRs remain far more capable cameras than iPhone or Galaxy handsets.

All that said, if you’re simply a photo enthusiast — and not a pro photographer — you’re probably better off with a mirrorless camera like the Fujifilm X-T10. You'll love the portability, you’ll be taking amazing photos from day one and you’ll spend about $500 less. And yes, your photos will still make all your iPhone-owning friends jealous.

#2. Top-Shelf Headphones

Buy this
Audio Technica ATH-M50x ($150)

Not that
Beats Pro ($225)

Beats by Dre headphones have gotten a bit better since the early days, when a $500 pair was indistinguishable from the $80 bargain selection at Best Buy. Despite some improvements, however, Beats headphones remain overpriced. For a studio-quality pair of over-ear headphones, try the Audio Technica ATH-M50x instead, typically available for less than $150 on Amazon. You’ll get all the same sound detail without the overaggressive bass.

#3. Athletic Headphones

Buy this
Plantronics BackBeat Fit ($100)

Not that
Beats by Dre Powerbeats 2 Wireless ($145)

The BackBeat Fit headphones offer a secure, wireless sound solution for your workout, run or visit to the gym. Once again, the Beats’ alternative marches in with worse reviews at a higher price. Don’t fall for the hype.

#4. Android Smartphone

Buy this
Google Nexus 6P ($499)

Not that
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus ($799)

Samsung dominates advertising when it comes to Android phones, but Google’s Nexus 6P sports a cleaner interface and a cheaper price point. Throw in more than 12 hours of real-world battery life (compared to just nine hours on the Galaxy), and you’ve got a better smartphone almost all the way around.

#5. Laptop-Tablet Hybrid

Buy this
Surface Pro 4 ($899)

Not that
Surface Book ($1,699)

Don’t get us wrong: We like the Surface Book — a bonafide laptop that can transform into a tablet.

But dollar for dollar, the Surface Pro 4 (“the tablet that can replace your laptop”) is a better deal, with similar specs and a price tag $500 cheaper. Just note that the Surface Pro is a tablet first, and a laptop second. If you’re a serious photo or video editor, a fully fledged laptop will still be the better choice.

#6. Big-Screen, Home Theater TV

Buy this
Vizio M65-C1 ($1,200)

Not that
A $4,000 Samsung TV, like the UE65JU70000T ($4,299)

In today’s TV market, 60 inches is the new cutoff between “mostly affordable” and “eye-poppingly expensive.” But don’t assume that a 65-inch set has to set you back $4,000.

Try the Vizio M65-C1, a 4K* TV at a reasonable price point of $1,200. It doesn’t have 3D capabilities like its Samsung counterpart, but three dimensions is more "passing fad" than "critical feature." Save the money.

*4K is a popular shorthand for describing super high-resolution TVs. If you want to get technical, the name comes from the approximate number of horizontal pixels on a 3,840x2,160 TV — traditionally the base-level resolution required to count as "4K."

#7. Mid-Sized Family Room or Gaming TV

Buy this
Samsung UN48JU6400F - 4K Ultra HD ($600)

Not that
Samsung UN48J6200AF - 1080p standard HD ($498)

For TVs over 60 inches, you can save thousands by only getting the features you need. For TVs under 50 inches, however, we’re flipping our advice on its head: splurge. For just $100 more, you can often get a smarter, crisper, more future-proof TV. You’ll be glad you spent the extra money two years from now.

#8. Small Dorm or Bedroom TV

Buy this
Vizio E32-C1 ($248)

Not that
Samsung UN32J5003AFXZA ($218)

If you’re buying a 32-inch TV, we’re going to bet the set is mostly for quick Netflix and Hulu TV shows, in between classes or just before bed. Do yourself (or your gift recipient) a favor, and make sure you choose a set with “smart” functionality built in. If space is already at a premium, it will be nice to have the technology included in the set.

#9. Cheap Fitness Tracker

Buy this
Misfit Wearables Flash ($15)

Not that
Xiaomi Mi Band ($24)

While some people want fancy, $200 fitness trackers, many others just want a cheap tracker to see what the buzz is all about. If you’re going under $50, grab the Misfit Wearables Flash, not the Xiaomi Mi band.

Both retail for less than $25, but the Flash has better battery life, tells time and is fully waterproof, none of which the Mi Band accomplishes.

#10. High-End Fitness Tracker

Buy this
Fitbit Charge HR ($135)

Not that
Fitbit Surge ($225)

Fitbit makes the best fitness trackers in the business, and the Fitbit Surge is the best of the best, with a price point of $225. After comparing the Surge to the more affordable Charge HR, however, we don’t think built-in GPS and exercise tagging are worth the extra $90 (the Charge retails for $135). Stick with the Charge HR and spend the money you saved on a Crossfit membership.

#11. Top-Rated Smartwatch

Buy this
Samsung Gear S2 ($300)

Not that
Sony SmartWatch 3 ($164)

Let’s face it: If you’re an iPhone user and you want a smartwatch, you’ve already bought the Apple Watch. So we’ll focus on the Android users for this recommendation.

Both the Samsung Gear S2 and Sony SmartWatch 3 are solid devices — in our minds, the two best Android-compatible smartwatches. If you want to save, you’ll go with Sony, but if you want more features and a better display, you’ll splurge on Samsung.

In the end, we had to give the nod to Samsung. Great features make the smartwatch, and the Samsung Gear S2 simply has much more to offer, between notification features, fitness tracking and overall speed. In this case, it’s worth the extra $130.

#12. Cheap, Basic Tablet

Buy this
Lenovo Tab 2 A8 ($130)

Not that
LG G Pad X8.3 ($300)

The LG G Pad X8.3 does have better specs than the Lenovo Tab 2 A8 on paper. But at $300, LG’s device is more than double the cost (Lenovo’s device retails for about $130). Given the devices have identical battery life and very similar screen sizes (each is around eight inches), save the money and pick up the Lenovo Tab 2 A8.

#13. High-End Tablet

Buy this
iPad Air 2 ($499)

Not that
Microsoft Surface 3 ($499)

In the battle between the iPad Air 2 and Microsoft Surface 3, it’s important to look past the basic specs. When it comes to real-world performance, the Air 2 wins on almost every count, with better battery life, better performance in third-party tests (ex: Geekbench), a lower weight and better review scores all around.

Microsoft has a lot more to offer at even higher price points, but in the $500 to $1,000 range, Apple dominates the tablet space.

#14. High-Performance Apple Device

Buy this
MacBook Pro (from $1,299)

Not that
iPad Pro (from $799)

The iPad Pro is a nifty device: powerful, slim and significantly bigger than any iPad to date (at 12.9 inches, it’s the same size as a standard MacBook display). But for all the appeal of the iPad Pro, we still recommend the MacBook Pro. You’ll get way more storage, better performance and tons of productivity, and we guarantee you (or your gift recipient) will still be using the machine in three years’ time.

(The one exception here? Artists. The iPad Pro’s pencil accessory has gotten rave reviews, and for the especially creative sort, the new iPad might be the best choice.)

#15. E-Reader

Buy this
Kindle Paperwhite ($110)

Not that
Kindle Fire HD ($150)

The Kindle Fire HD is a fine device: a 10-inch tablet with apps, games, smooth Amazon integration and a bright, colorful display. Meanwhile, the Kindle Paperwhite (2015) has no games, no apps and only a black-and-white screen designed solely for reading books. So why are we recommending the Paperwhite?

It turns out there’s nothing quite like the Paperwhite, while there are plenty of tablets just like the Kindle Fire. For avid readers, the Paperwhite is the best option besides a physical book, and the Paperwhite technology really is easier on the eyes. Meanwhile, the Kindle Fire is nothing special compared to the iPads, Galaxies and Surfaces of the world. In other words, it’s just another tablet.

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