Buy smart and save on tech: Get the best cheap laptops, iPhone alternatives and gadgets

Buy smart and save on tech: Get the best cheap laptops, iPhone alternatives and gadgets

Our lives revolve around our electronics. We spend more than eight hours a day consuming mostly digital media and spend literal billions of dollars on tech each year.

But let's be real: We could be doing better.

Streaming Netflix on your laptop in bed is not living your best tech life — especially when flat-screen TVs can be had for less than $100. And going into debt to pay those monthly iPhone installments? Not worth it.

Luckily, there's another way. Here are some smart strategies that will land you sleek, high-quality devices — the kind that make you feel rich — on a pauper's budget.

Step 1: Stop playing by Apple's rules.

Apple is genius at making people pay through the nose.

Though it sells fewer phones, for example, than competitors, the company makes more money because it sells only "flagship" devices: those at the higher end.

If you're an Apple wallet, one way to defend your wallet is to upgrade your devices less often. There's a strong case for passing on the iPhone 7 — and just waiting for the 8.

"Innovation in every new device category slows down... Nobody updates the refrigerator every year, right?" veteran tech reviewer David Pogue, author of forthcoming book Pogue's Basics: Money, wrote in an email. "Fortunately, smartphones and tablets are finally entering that stage: Instead of 'new every two,' you can get by with 'we'll see, every three.'"

Now, iPhones are designed in a way that makes them wear out quickly. That's not an accident, explained Anthony*, a mechanical engineer who works at a wearables company. 

"When Apple comes out with a new generation of OS, it can run on old [devices] certainly, but it's expecting you to have modern hardware.... So over time, as you update [your software] your shit will get worse," he said.

That's an argument for limiting how often you update your operating system, as long as there aren't any crucial bug fixes or vulnerabilities to worry about.

A more sustainable option?

Consider the offerings of more obscure brands with valiant iPhone-like features: Chinese companies like Huawei and OnePlus offer similar makes to Apple's devices for between half and two-thirds the price.

If great snaps are a main concern, the OnePlus 3 has a 16-megapixel rear camera and a 8-megapixel selfie cam, which Digital Trends called impressive for such an affordable model.

Wirecutter has often recommended Motorola phones, and their current pick is Motorola Moto G4. Wirecutter editor Dan Frakes warned that it doesn't have a top-of-the-line camera, but the review site's consensus was that it was "best combination of features and price."

Step 2: Shop like a pro.

Buy refurbished — and know that that's not the same thing as used.

"Refurbished computers aren't what you'd expect," Pogue said. "They're brand new. They haven't been used. They've been inspected even more thoroughly than new machines. For your willingness to buy something that's been shipped and returned, you're treated to substantial price cuts."

Now, as is the case with buying sushi and hiring baby sitters, there can be a big risk in seeking out bargains with technology on the web.

"There are a lot of places online where you can find things for cheap," Frakes said, before adding a caveat: "Some of them are gray market dealers who will refurbish stuff and sell it. You need to make sure you're buying the actual product with a return policy and good customer service because if you have problem, the repairs will offset what you're saving."

Frakes suggested DealNews and SlickDeals as good aggregators that use respectable vendors. 

If there's a specific item you want that's a little out of your reach, he also suggested MyAlerts, which allows you to tag an item online and receive alerts when the price goes down.

Step 3: Trade your way to an upgrade.

If you can't afford all the bells and whistles you want, you might be able to get a little more bang for your buck by taking advantage of trade-ins. 

This method might be easiest with smartphones, which are in high demand. Even two-year-old phones can fetch up to $150, and even broken phones can be cannibalized for parts. 

The iPhone 7 retails for $649, meaning that a trade-in could save you up to 24%. 

Check out services like Gazelle, which buys back most devices, as well as Glyde and Nextworth, which have more specific parameters for the devices they accept.

Since they last even longer and are typically more expensive, you can sometimes resell laptops for even more than phones. Even a broken MacBook Air with the minimum specs will net you $50 on Gazelle, and a functioning one will net you more than $300. 

That'll go about a third of the way toward a new MacBook Air, which retails for between $899 and $999 depending on your screen size. 

Big retailers also have trade-in programs of their own. In addition to saving you money, this approach is also better for the environment by reducing electronic waste, which is often toxic and one of the fastest-growing sources of waste in the world.

Dead set on a new computer?

If 99% of your laptop usage is spent on a web browser, Frakes said, you should really consider buying a Chromebook — which can be as cheap as $149.

"They used to be something that people made jokes about, but if you're really doing stuff mostly on the web you'd be surprised," he said.

Step 4: Invest in extras

The average smartphone lasts only about two years, and more discerning customers may cycle through devices even faster.

Therefore, taking care of your gadgets is an important part of saving money on them. A major factor in your smartphone's longevity, for example, is its battery life — since the lithium batteries in most smartphones have a finite number of times they can be recharged.

Now, there are a few ways you can mitigate a weakening battery, such as keeping your backlight low or installing an ad-blocker.  

But there's also a smart investment you can make: When eventually your battery does die, rather than replacing the device entirely, you might be able to get away with just replacing certain parts. Try a resource like iFixit, which sells replacement parts and instructions.

That's what Anthony did, replacing his hard drive with a solid-state drive, or SSD — and he still uses that five-year-old laptop he refurbished himself. "It runs better than most people's laptops," he said.

You get two key benefits from an SSD, Anthony said. "It's a fresh system that's not loaded up with all your crap and the stupid stuff you did to your computer," he said. "So a fresh operating system is always good. Also the physical medium where everything is stored is faster."

Refurbishing or repairing as a DIY can be intimidating, he said, but you can usually find clear tutorials for how to install an SSD, for example, using sites like LifeHacker or YouTube. 

Also, if the thought of making improvements on your own is unnerving, you can always bring it to a pro like LaptopMD — which may still save you money despite service charges.

A great extra for smartphone users?

An impactful extra, Frakes said, is an upgraded charger — which can juice up your phone much faster than the factory chargers that come with your iPhone — or an external battery pack.

*Name has been changed at his request so he could speak freely about potential employers.