A shiny iPhone 12 makes for a great gift, but you should do some research before buying one for someone else.
This story is part of Holiday Gift Guide 2020, CNET’s gift picks with expert advice, reviews and recommendations for the latest tech gifts for you and your family.
Gift shopping season is starting to wind down, so you’re going to have to hurry if you haven’t started buying presents yet. New phones, gaming consoles like the PS5 or Nintendo Switch, laptops, smart speakers and other electronic devices genuinely do make a great present. But if you are considering purchasing a tech gift for a loved one or far-away relative, don’t rush the decision. There are a lot of factors you’ll need to consider, beyond which color iPhone ($599 at Apple), Amazon Echo ($70 at Best Buy) or robot vacuum the person would prefer.
Gadgets can feel personal, and they come with a mess of unintended consequences. You might think you’re giving a nice gift, but the recipient could feel saddled with the cost of buying extra gear or a monthly subscription. You might be nudging them to share information with a company in order to use a device, or lock into an ecosystem that then influences or limits future purchases. The last thing you want is to give a gift that feels like a burden.
Before you buy, remember that privacy, security and compatibility issues will go a long way in helping you make sound decisions as you shop for others. Let’s take a closer look at some best practices you should keep in mind.
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Watch out for extras someone else will have to buy
No matter what type of device you end up buying as a gift, keep any extra accessories it may require in mind. Ask yourself — or the salesperson — if the device is ready to use right out of the box.
If you purchase some color-changing bulbs, do they require a hub to get them to work? If it’s a phone or tablet, does it make sense to also give a case, or to let your recipient pick one out later? Many phones have ditched the headphone jack, so a dongle to go from a USB-C or Lightning plug to a 3.5mm audio connection may be needed.
More examples to heed: For a Roomba, extra brushes, filters or virtual barriers are going to be items your loved one will eventually need. Odds are, if you gift a smart speaker, which also doubles as a voice-activated speaker for streaming music, a gift card for a subscription to Spotify or Pandora will be appreciated.
Another aspect to consider is if they’ll need to replace stuff they already have. Maybe that new phone requires a different kind of charging cable than what they already use. It may not be your responsibility to replace that, but be aware that your gift could have ripple effects.
Dongles are sometimes a necessary evil.
Pay attention to which devices they already own
The last thing you want to do is get Dad a present that he can’t or won’t use. Before deciding to get someone the latest Amazon Echo or an Apple Watch, make sure you find out what kind of devices they already use on a regular basis.
For example, if your giftee has an Android phone, they’ll barely be able to use an Apple Watch. Or if they have a house full of Google Home smart speakers, a smart home gift that uses only Amazon’s Alexa assistant probably isn’t a good fit.
Wireless earbuds are usually a safe bet, and smartwatches (outside of the Apple Watch) generally work with any type of smartphone. Streaming devices like Roku or Fire TV typically work with any TV, as well. Don’t get so caught up in what kind of products your friends and family members already have that you don’t make a decision, just remember to keep your gift receipts handy so they can make an exchange, guilt-free.
If you have a general idea of what kind of device (or devices) the giftee already uses around the house, we have a smart home compatibility chart that lays it all out for you. Here are more specific angles to consider when giving smart home gifts.
Knowing what the recipient already owns is a key aspect of gift shopping for tech.
The golden rule of buying a phone as a gift
If you’re buying someone a phone, pat yourself on the back for your thoughtfulness and generosity. Just make sure you’ve thought through all the angles.
The most important one is making sure that the phone you’re buying someone will work with their wireless carrier of choice. Wireless carriers use different technology that can prevent phones from working on competitors’ networks. The last thing you want to do is buy a phone that only works on Verizon Wireless for someone who’s entrenched in T-Mobile. Another aspect to consider is price plan, especially if you’re going to buy a 5G phone, with most carriers requiring a specific, and sometimes more expensive, plan in order to access 5G service.
Either directly ask the gift recipient which wireless carrier they use or consider buying an unlocked phone. Many phone-makers offer an unlocked version that will work on almost all wireless carriers. Just know that not every carrier feature might work, like Wi-Fi calling, which is tuned to specific networks. In a nutshell, know your audience.
Keep your receipt handy, and make sure to tell your recipient that there are no hard feelings if they ultimately want to return or exchange the phone. This gift is all about the gesture.
There are plenty of unlocked phones for you to pick from.
Juan Garzon / CNET
Watch for privacy red flags
Some products have privacy and security implications. Even if you’re OK with having an Amazon Echo and its always-on microphone in your home, a friend or loved one might not be as comfortable with the idea. And even though you may feel that Aunt Mary desperately needs to join the 21st century with an Echo Show 5, keep her comfort level in mind.
We store a lot of information on our phones and gadgets. Private information, such as banking info, frequently visited locations, our current location, photos and conversations are all things we blindly trust our devices with.
At the least, you should take note of companies such as Facebook or Amazon, which are constantly surrounded by privacy questions and concerns, if you’re considering buying a Facebook Portal or one of Amazon’s Ring smart doorbells as a gift.
If you’re looking at a product from a company you’ve never heard of, or even for companies you have, a quick Google search. Looking up “Facebook privacy issues,” for example, should surface any potential issues.
One option to consider when you aren’t sure if the gift will be a hit: Go ahead and get it as a sort of a placeholder. You can explain that you’re alright with helping them refine the end decision, and if need be, getting them something else.
For someone who’s uneasy with Facebook’s privacy practices, the Portal may not be a good idea.
Look into how long a company will support its product
Routine software updates are an important part of owning a tech product. Not only do updates make a product better over time, but they can fix and improve the security of a device.
As such, it’s even more important to have confidence that companies are going to continue to support a device through updates, especially when security issues are discovered (as they often are).
If you’re shopping for a phone, Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Pixel lineup receive the most consistent and timely updates. Outside of Google’s own phones, Samsung has a good track record for consistent updates to its Android phones, whereas Motorola has dropped the ball over the last couple of years.
Software updates for smart speakers and streaming devices such as a Chromecast are handled in the background, without you ever knowing. That’s ideal for those who aren’t all that tech-savvy.
It’s a good idea to look into how long a company promises to support a product with software updates after its release.
Lastly, there’s bound to be many great deals and promotions this shopping season. Don’t be swayed by a deal on a product from a brand you’ve never heard of. If the company doesn’t last, your gift could end up being an expensive paperweight.
Anki made some great products, but ultimately shut down last year.
Read multiple reviews
Even if you’re handed a list with a specific gadget gift idea, do your own research by reading reviews of the product. Read more than one review and look for similarities in compliments and issues.
For example, the DJI Mavic Mini — an entry-level drone — has a base package for $399 that includes just the basics you need to fly. For $499 you get two extra batteries, a carrying case and a few other accessories. If the Mavic Mini base bundle is on the wish list, is it worth it to spend the extra $100 for the additional accessories? Reviews are going to help you make an informed decision.
Reviews are an important part of researching new products.
The same can be said for products that were released earlier in the year and are likely to be upgraded and replaced shortly after the holidays. Take some time, do your research, and make an educated decision.
Still not sure where to start? Here are the best phones of 2020, along with our 2020 gift guide that includes items for different budgets, and gifts for different kinds of people, such as Star Wars fans. You can also check out our favorite selections for popular products like smart speakers, tablets and laptops.
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