Black Friday vs. Cyber Monday: When should you buy a smartphone?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers some advice on getting the best deal on a smartphone this holiday season.

It's that time of year again when Americans give thanks, stuff themselves with turkey and mashed potatoes, and hit the stores in search of the holiday season's best deals.

But is Black Friday really the best day if you're looking for a smartphone? That's a good question considering that more people are expected to shop online this Cyber Monday than visit brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday, according to American Express. Still, not every category of product gets equal billing in terms of deep discounts on Cyber Monday. So it may pay to start the shopping earlier rather than later if a smartphone is on your shopping list.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice on how to plan your smartphone buying strategy this holiday season. I also offer some insight on the best Apple iPad Black Friday deals. For a list of the top 25 tech deals for Black Friday, check out CNET's round-up .

Searching for the best smartphone deal

Dear Maggie,
I really need to get a new smartphone. My current Android smartphone is on its last legs. I know Black Friday has some great deals on smartphones. But I really don't want to wait in line over night or fight the crowds in the wee hours of the morning to shop on Black Friday. So my question is this: Can I wait until Cyber Monday and still get a great deal? Or should I suck it up and brave the Black Friday madness for a new phone? Can I get Black Friday prices online? Also which phone will I get the best deal on?

Thanks,
Lazy and Cheap

Dear Lazy and Cheap,
There's definitely a lot of hype around Black Friday. But the truth is that you have to be careful in assessing what's truly a good deal and what's not. Sometimes the supposed hot Black Friday deal is not much different from the regular price or a promotion that has run earlier in the year.

Walmart's Black Friday smartphone deal Walmart screen shot

Still, depending on the smartphone you're interested in buying, the holiday season can be a great time of year to buy a new device. But if getting the best deal possible is your goal, you may not want to wait until Cyber Monday, according to a recent report from the Christian Science Monitor, which examined the Black Friday deal archives of DealNews for the past two years.

According to the DealNews data, Thanksgiving is actually the best time to purchase a smartphone. The article notes that about 42 percent of all the deals for cell phones on Thanksgiving in 2012 received an Editors' Choice from DealNews, whereas only 31 percent of cell phones deals listed on Black Friday were worthy of this award. (Keep in mind that most of these Thanksgiving deals were for Android devices and not iPhones, which if there are any deals on them tend to run on Black Friday.)

That doesn't mean you still can't get a good deal on a new device on Monday. There are some deals that will run only on Cyber Monday. And most websites will be offering free shipping. Still, I would recommend that you start checking out websites now. Some big retailers, like Walmart and Best Buy, as well as Amazon, have already begun posting deals online all week.

For example, Amazon has been offering new deals since Sunday on its "deal hub" website. The Amazon deals only last a short time until supplies last. New deals will be running through the Black Friday weekend and into Cyber Monday. To make sure you get a good deal, you'll have to keep an eye on this site.

If you have your heart set on a particular device, you may still have to brave the Black Friday masses. Stores like Best Buy, Walmart, and Target are offering "door buster" deals that are meant to get shoppers into the store so that they will hopefully buy a bunch of other stuff they hadn't intended on buying. But you may want to check online early on Thanksgiving to see if advertised in-store deals will be offered online. CEO of Walmart.com US Joel Anderson said that some items that go on sale in stores Thursday evening will be available online in limited quantities Thanksgiving morning .

What's the best smartphone deal out there this Black Friday season?

The most attractive smartphone deals I have seen so far are for the Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung's latest generation of the Galaxy S series of smartphones, which usually costs $199 to $249 with a two-year carrier contract.

Target is offering the Galaxy S4 for $40 with a two-year contract. Staples is offering the Samsung Galaxy S4 for a penny in select stores with a two-year contract on either Verizon Wireless or AT&T. Best Buy is offering the device for free with a new two-year contract on AT&T, Verizon Wireless, or Sprint. And Walmart is offering the S4 for $99, but it's also offering a $100 gift card on select smartphones, including the Galaxy S4, with a tw- year contract on either AT&T, Verizon Wireless or Sprint.

Other smartphones are also included in Walmart's $100 gift card deal. And on these other devices you can actually make money by way of Walmart store credit. These include the Samsung Galaxy S3 from Verizon, which Walmart is selling for 97 cents with a two-year contract, the Moto X for $49 on AT&T, Sprint or Verizon with two-year contracts, and the Samsung Galaxy Mega on AT&T, which goes for $79.

Even though Walmart is offering some online deals, and will likely unveil some deals on its website early on Thanksgiving day, the $100 gift card door-buster offer is only available in stores. The gift card is for future purchases and can't be used with the purchase of the device. And of course, it's a gift card and not cash. So keep that in mind as you plan out your strategy.

Another phone you might want to consider is the HTC One, which is selling for $30 at Best Buy with a two-year carrier contract.

It's also worth noting that in order to get any of these super deals from Walmart, Target, Staples, Best Buy or Amazon, you must sign a two-year carrier contract. It's somewhat unclear as to whether these deals are good for all customers signing up for a two-year contract or if they're limited to new subscribers. For example, I know many of the deals that Sprint is offering for Black Friday and Cyber Monday only apply to new Sprint subscribers.

As for the in-store discounts, the deals may not be offered in every store. So you may want to check ahead with your local retailers ahead of time.

One other thing to keep in mind as you shop for a new smartphone is that the device itself is a relatively inexpensive piece of the total cost of ownership of a smartphone, especially when you consider the cheapest smartphone service plans on AT&T or Verizon will still cost you at least $1680 over two years before taxes and fees. So even though you may save $100 or $200 on the device, it's not that much when you look at how much it will cost you to own that device over two years. And so far, I haven't seen any of the major carriers or retailers offer any Black Friday or holiday deals on the monthly service fees for these services.

Good luck! And happy Thanksgiving!

iPad deals for Black Friday?

Dear Maggie,
I know there are lots of Black Friday deals on Apple iPads. But what about the newer iPads, like the iPad Air and the iPad Mini with retina display? Are there any deals on those devices?

Thanks,
Jenny

Dear Jenny,
I've got some good news for you and some bad news. The good news is that there are quite a few deals on the iPad Air. This thinner version of the full-sized iPad sells for $500 from Apple without any special discounts. Best Buy and Target will both be offering the iPad Air at a discount. At Best Buy the 16GB iPad Air with Wi-Fi will sell for $450. And at Target the same device will sell for $480, but with a $100 gift card , the price drops to $380.

Apple's iPad Air.
Apple's iPad Air. Josh Miller/CNET

Now for the bad news. There aren't likely to be any deals on the iPad Mini with retina display, considering that this device just hit stores, it makes sense that there aren't discounts yet on that device.

But if the mini size is what you desire and your wallet can't afford the newest model, there are lots of great deals on the older iPad Mini. Walmart is likely your best bet for Black Friday deals on the original iPad Mini. It has the first-generation iPad mini for $300 and with a $100 gift card that takes the price down to $200. And since this is one of Walmart's door buster product, it will be guaranteeing that the device will be in stock for customers who show up at stores between 6pm and 7pm on Thanksgiving.

I hope this helps. And good luck with your holiday shopping.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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