On cheaper TVs and buying less, but better

As a consumer electronics market matures, early entrants are typically challenged by cheaper competitors who are then challenged by increasingly cheaper competitors until products become commoditized and most value goes out of them. (Similar to premium software or services getting beaten by cheap getting beaten by free.) Inevitably the quality of the product suffers, trending towards the disposable, which is offset by the low replacement costs. When you add up all the costs and tradeoffs between quality products and cheap products, over the course of many years, there difference isn't great - you always pay somehow - but the up-front expenditure is so much less, it makes it tough to argue premium consumer electronic products have much if any place left in the market. Which is John Herrman's case for buying a shitty TV on BuzzFeed:

It has been, for the last few months, a good TV. Not spectacular, but good enough that I, as a budget-minded person, would feel stupid ever paying a premium price for a Sony or a Samsung or an LG again. Now my advice to TV shoppers has evolved: Consider the off-brands. Are you building the ultimate home entertainment system to show off to your friends? Do you take pride in that kind of thing? Then sure, shell out for the Samsung. But if you're not, and you don't, perhaps it's time to take a look at one of those sub-$350, 40-plus-inch TVs from TCL, the sixth-largest television manufacturer in the world (and a company to which Samsung has outsourced LCD panel production). RCA, once one of the largest tech brands in the world, is now a label for Audiovox and TCL hardware. Give the sets a chance! Read a few Amazon reviews of an oCosmo or a Seiki. Consider what your TV is really for, which is showing you pictures that look right, and what it looks like in your living room. Forget all the rest.

Herrman does point out that for some things, like phones and tablets that are harder to undercut and almost impossible to match in terms of usefulness, premium brands like iPhone and Galaxy still matter. Marco Arment argues, however, that they still matter for him with TVs as well:

Their size makes replacing TVs cumbersome and wasteful, so I don't want to do it very often, and I think this is a fairly common stance. Since good TVs aren't that expensive and last a very long time by consumer-electronics standards, and replacing TVs is so cumbersome, I don't think there's much reason to get shitty ones.

I'd even take it a step further - put your money where your experience is.

You'll spend a lot of time watching your TV. Is it worth saving what will amount to $10 a month over the course of a few years if the price is a poor experience every time you watch it? There are no IAPs (in-app purchases) TV quality boosts. You can't just tap a button an upgrade your viewing for $1 when you really want to watch something great. (I bet manufacturers wished there were - they'd make a killing.) What you buy is what you'll experience. For years.

It's the same thing with a bed. Is it worth saving $5 a month over the course of a decade if the price is quality of life? You'll spend a third of your life in it sleeping, and who knows how much recreationally... Investing money upfront pays off every day, week, month, and year. It's better economics in the long run. (And, hey, If you can get zero interest installments, even better...)

I went through a good decade, when I first moved out on my own, of buying the cheapest stuff I could find. I had cheap TVs that annoyed me every time I watched them and failed the day after their warranties expired. I had budget PCs and handhelds that made my face as blue as their screens of death. I had dollar store kitchen gear that snapped and splintered at the worst times. I slept uncomfortably for far too many years on a mattress that saved me only pennies a day in the long run. And I bought a lot of junk that added nothing to my life but the space it wasted.

Everyone's finances are different, as is everyone's pain points. If you really can't tell and don't care about the video and audio quality of your TV and sound system, or how easily your phone works, or how many great apps your tablet has, then there's no reason to spend money on them. If you sleep like a baby on a stone slab, why pay for more. If you simply have to put money into your family's food and shelter, then access to cheap extras is miraculous.

If not, however, then what something costs shouldn't be judged outside of the value it brings.

I don't buy a lot of things any more. I don't yet have a family to support, and when I whittled away the things that needed no place in my life, I was left with a rather short list of what did. Fewer things but better things.

Interestingly, the best way to beat cheap or even free is with quality. Apple says they don't know how to make cheap stuff that isn't crap. Having suffered through tons of might-as-well-be-disposable-crap, I'm training myself not to know how to buy stuff that's crap either. If it means I keep one good thing for 5 years rather than 3 crap things for a year and a bit each, it seems like just as good, if not better a deal. If I spend more money now on things I can one day hand down to my children, that seems like an amazingly good deal.

Source: BuzzFeed, Marco Arment

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Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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On cheaper TVs and buying less, but better

38 Comments

It makes no sense to buy "premium" in most technology purchases (like TVs). A "premium" TV today may last for 10 years, but you're still going to want to replace it in 2 or 3 when you can get a bigger 4K TV for the same money as a one-step-down-from-premium 1080p TV today.

That's not entirely true. It often takes great technology years to solidify. I'm only this year replacing me 6 year old LCD TV. I never went LED.

I'm unclear on your point. Are you saying your 6 year old LCD TV was a "premium" TV? If so, (based on 6 year ago premium TV pricing) you must have paid at least 2 or 3 thousand dollars for it? If you did pay that much for it, I don't see how it supports your point. It is quite normal for much less expensive LCD TVs from 6 years ago to be still working.

If you didn't pay for a "premium" TV 6 years ago, then I also fail to see how you have refuted my earlier point.

I have a 42" plasma TV that I bought in 2004. I paid $2400 for it and I'm still watching it today. While it was expensive, it was certainly not a "premium" TV purchase. Premium TVs at the time cost $3,000 to 4,000. Mine is a Vizio (unheard of, at the time, purchased on the cheap from Sam's Club). Definitely not "premium".

My plasma TV is a great example of why it does not make sense to buy "premium". My cheap (at the time, compared to other comparable) plasma TV is 10 years old and still going strong (not even any burn-in!). If I had had $4K to spend at the time, rather than buy premium, I would have done much better to buy the TV I bought, wait 2 years, and then spend the rest of the money on a new TV that would be better than the 2004 "premium" TV, and gotten 8 years of enjoyment out of the better TV - all for the same money.

And I suspect your 6 year old LCD is also an example, like mine, of why it does not make sense to buy "premium". Which is what I said in the first place (and you said is not entirely true).

Actually, I was making the case that whether his TV was "premium" or "commodity", either way, I failed to see how his post refuted my point. I.e. I failed to see how the rest of his post actually supported his opening statement (which was that my post was not entirely true).

You have succeeded in confusing the hell out of me too. In all of the double speak above, just what are you saying/asking? No need to write a mini novel just a few beief sentences will do. Thanks.

Rene, I am with you 100%. Big brand names have no hassle warranty support. I can't say the same about these RCA and TCL brands.

We're only now starting to look to replace our older Sony LCD we bought about 4+ years ago because the audio is going and it lacks the common connections like HDMI arc, optical, etc. We won't buy now, but we're just seeing what is out there when the audio goes completely, we will be better prepared.

@StuartV
This is definitly wrong! A friend of mine bought (2005/6) a Loewe from Germany :D this TV is absolutly great and now 7 or more years old: I would trade my 2013 LG fullhd 3d-TV (800€).

Kevin, if you bought a new TV in 2013 and it is not as good as your friend's 7+ year old TV, then all I personally would conclude is that, either your friend's TV was HIDEOUSLY expensive in 2005/6, or your TV shopping skills leave something to be desired. Or possibly some of both.

You are definitely not convincing me that it would have made sense in 2005/6 to spend however much your friend spent on a TV. USD$5000? USD$6000? More?

I bought a new 1080p 3D TV (Samsung plasma) in 2013 also and it is definitely bigger AND better than anything I could have possibly afforded in 2006. And cost half what my 42" plasma cost in 2004.

When your TV is top notch, you don't replace it every 2 or 3 years.

Yeah, I want 4K but I can wait until there's more content because my current TV is awesome. I want OLED but, for the same reason, I can wait until the price comes down. I bought a 55" high end Panasonic plasma last year and I currently anticipate replacing it with a bigger 4K OLED TV in 5 or 6 years. When you buy quality it takes more to impress you. From this perspective, many things are good but not good enough.

"I want OLED but, for the same reason, I can wait until the price comes down"

So, you didn't buy "premium", you just bought "really good". Because the extra expense doesn't really make sense. Exactly my point. I mean, you're saying, yourself, that you have a 1 year old TV (or less) and you already want to replace it - you're just not, because of the expense.

And if you'd bought a TV for half or one third the price (that had 95% the picture quality), you could probably justify (to yourself) that new OLED or 4K TV in 2 or 3 years, instead of 5 or 6.

Personally, I'd be pretty irritated with myself if I bought "premium" TV last year and there was already something out that I wanted instead. Fortunately, my new TV (from this year) was cheap enough that I won't feel bad at all in another year or 2 when (if, really) I demote it from "Main TV" to replace it with something even better - and still have a total cash outlay less than, for example, what a same-sized Panasonic plasma would have cost me.

No, I did buy premium. I think it was literally the best new TV in the world in 2012. I can wait for 4K and OLED to mature precisely because the TV I got was so premium. It's picture is so exquisite that I don't need to think about a new 1080p TV and I can just wait to get the substantial upgrade I'm looking for.

Oh, cool. For some reason, I thought 4K and OLED TVs were both available in 2012. Just uber expensive and hard to get. But, I'll take your word for it that they were not.

I read somewhere that 4K (I didn't come across OLED) that it's a waste of money. Your eyes won't be able to see the difference so you're paying for something, well....you get the picture :)

Or, to summarize more succinctly. Imagine that we each stick with our plans as stated. You'll have your TV for 5 or 6 years. I'll have my new TV (60", so a little bigger, and with, I'll say, 95% the picture quality) for half the time as you. Then I'll get a new TV that is even better than the one you have, which I'll use for the next 2 or 3 years. And we'll both have spent the same amount of money (though mine in 2 chunks, versus your all up front payment).

I guess if you like your plan better, that's good for you. Personally, I could only tell the slightest difference between my current TV and the high end Panasonic. And that, only when viewing them, essentially, back to back. Watching at home, I personally can't detect anything that my TV lacks that I would get from that Panasonic. Though I definitely CAN enjoy the extra 5" of screen size on my TV. So, I definitely like my plan better for me.

I replaced an old LCD TV with the plasma. It was a world of difference. Slight changes in screen size or slightly better picture on the margins doesn't appeal to me.

If someone bought an off-brand TV to save money, and the drawback was that it took 20 seconds to switch a channel, they would label it as crap and not recommend it.

That is why a cheap TV with a mediocre picture is acceptable to many, but a tablet does not fit the same decision tree- many people can't see the difference in a cheap TV, but if you buy a cheap tablet and it take 20 seconds for an app to even launch, you will be disappointed and not recommend it.

Somethings electronics be commoditized, some cannot.

Interesting personal finance discussion. I noticed you also had a personal finance blurb in your 2013 holiday gift ideas column as well. I think these types of articles are good for the imore community. Technology is wonderful obviously but don't put yourself in debt (or worse even more debt) just to keep up with the latest and greatest. Your personal finance is more important than keeping up with the latest tech trends. Great post Rene.

I tend to buy mid-range products - not the base model, not the top of the line. That way I'm (hopefully) getting decent quality without paying a premium for high markup items I don't really want or need. For me it's all about finding the best value (and that doesn't mean the cheapest) - a balance of quality, features, and price.

All that being said, you can spend a LOT of money on the best products and still end up with a lemon. The odds may be less but you just never know.

Same here.
I tend to do some research first before I buy something that's a bit pricey. That way, I'm pretty confident that what I would get would offer a balance of quality, features, and price.

I generally keep an electronic device 'til it dies. If my budget could support me affording premium products, sure, I probably would, but since it doesn't...
I don't always look at the lowest priced electronics because "you get what you pay for".
One factor missing from this equation is the ubiquitous "Extended Warranty" - something which in the past 23+ years I have used once or twice, so now I usually avoid them.

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I have a quick question, I love coffee mugs and that coffee mug with the matte look and the gloss edge is awesome. Where can I get one of those?

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What we all seem to be forgetting is that what something costs and what it's worth are not the same.
If I spend 20K on a BM when I could get a Ford for 25% less you may not be factoring in the point that in feel good factor, (which you can't measure - only I can), is difficult to put a price on. Yes it sounds material but if my premium goods improve the quality of my life have I overspent?

A case in point, the Fiat Multipla when released was deemed a brilliant family vehicle from versatility point of view. That didn't help it against the competition as it was widely accepted to be as ugly as hell. Point is we don't always but what's best objectively.

TV's have always been a hard item to shop for. I normally just go with the sony brand. I've been pretty happy with that product.

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Wow that all got really confusing really fast, but I think I'm on board, in principle, with Rene's point, and I think that many of the points that are made here offer some good additional insight into making informed and wise medium and long-term investments in consumer electronics. Ultimately it is just stuff be it expensive or not, and of course expensive is also relative, but in the end it all gets thrown away and/or replaced and every other decision-making process fits inside of that reality.

My advice is don't get caught up in the hype about 4K. Like I mentioned earlier, technology has come a long way now to the point where your eyes won't be able to see the difference between these new advances like 4K. Instead, focus on features of the tv like eliminating motion blur, color reproduction, input and output jacks, software (and it's upgradability), response of switching channels, audio quality, etc.

I learned this lesson long ago with my first car. It is always better to spend money the first time rather skimping to get the cheaper option. In the long term when you end up buying more of the cheaper one because it breaks more often. You replace other parts because the cheaper item is not built to the same specs, tolerances and standards. It just ends up costing more. Especially considering the used market is huge today with online services like ebay, kijiji, etc. If a person can't afford or doesn't see the value in the item get it used rather buying a unknown brand. I bought a Sharp aquos 50" plasma over 5 years ago. When I bought a new bigger flatscreen TV this year the Sharp was destined for another room but ended up at my in laws replacing their ancient CRT TV. If it was some obscure brand TV it would have probably died by now or it would doubtfully been able to carry on serving another use. Cheaper means cuts are made resulting in decreased life of components, decreased quality, etc. There might be exceptions to the rule but I'd rather not take the chance to try and find it.

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I remember a building supply chain that used to have a jingle that had the line,"It's the good stuff,at the right price,National Lumber".That's the way I shop.Buy the good stuff at a great price.