How to read a Best Buy circular (laptops edition)

Deciphering the specs in a retail store sales flier takes some careful reading and the right background info.

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One of the advantages the physical version of your Sunday newspaper has over the digital edition is the inclusion of all those weekly sales fliers. The ones I look forward to are from Best Buy, Staples, and other tech-heavy stores, with all the latest sales and new products. However, beyond the color photos and bold-face prices, the actual details about the products on display can be hard to decipher.

As Best Buy is the only nationwide electronics retailer around these days, it's a useful test case for deciphering how to read a Sunday sales flier.

There's actually a lot of information on display, but at first glance, it may not seem so. Model numbers are hard to find, and much of the spec info is presented without context. Laptops are a particularly enigmatic, so that's a good test case to start with.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Grabbing last week's Best Buy sales circular, which features several pages of on-sale laptops from HP, Dell, Asus, Samsung, and Toshiba, I scanned in a few pages.

Selecting one representative system, blown up for easy viewing below, I annotated some of the key points, breaking them out into a list with some background information and context.

1. 4-way processing
Wow, that sounds fancy. It really just means a dual-core processor with hyper-threading. It's the default for mainstream Intel processors, so you're not really getting anything extra.

2. Model number
Many retail circulars go out of their way to hide the actual model number of the product being advertised, making it hard to comparison shop. In this example, the model number is buried here in the fine print. It says "I15rn-3882bk," which is better known as the Dell Inspiron 15R. Why the jumble of numbers and letters? Stores such as Best Buy get their own store-specific model numbers, making it even harder to compare.

Looking up similar systems on Dell's Web site, you can get an Inspiron 15R for $599 that has the same specs, but lacks the promised 4G Wimax antenna, or a $699 Inspiron 15R that includes a discrete AMD graphics card. Dell doesn't offer as many configuration options as it used to, so you can't build the exact same system online.

3. Battery life
Seven and half hours of battery life sounds great. But if you read the fine print, that's measured by a benchmarking app named MobileMark 2007, which is a widely used test, but may not reflect real-world usage. The last Dell Inspiron 15R we testedran for only two hours and 21 minutes in our admittedly harsh battery drain test. Your results would probably come in somewhere between the two.

4. Intel WiDi
A cool extra feature that rarely gets promoted in laptops. Many systems with current-gen Intel CPUs and motherboards support Wireless Display, which can transmit the on-screen image to a nearby TV or display. What's not explained is that this requires a sold-separately receiver box (usually around $99), which plugs into your TV via HDMI. Also, WiDi is generally too laggy for most games, and there are restrictions on using DRM-protected content.

The key takeaway is that the Best Buy sales flier gives you a lot of the information you need, but not all. I'd like to see specs such as hard-drive speed and display resolution included, as well as the specific CPU part numbers. Many sales fliers take a similar approach to other categories, such as digital cameras and televisions, so check back for a similarly annotated guide on how to read the the ads for those products.