2021 Holiday Gift Guide: Stop making these mistakes when buying smartphones and other tech gifts

For example: Don't buy someone a phone they can't use with their wireless carrier.

Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Nelson Aguilar
Nelson Aguilar is an LA-based tech how-to writer and graduate of UCLA. With more than a decade of experience, he covers Apple and Google and writes on iPhone and Android features, privacy and security settings and more.
Jason Cipriani
Nelson Aguilar
6 min read

You should do research before buying a gadget gift for someone else.

Sarah Tew/CNET

An unfolding supply chain crisis and a continuous pandemic won't stop the holidays -- but it'll definitely make it more difficult for you to get your hands on the perfect holiday gift. And while seeing empty shelves might push you into a panic to buy something ASAP, you should still take the time to not make common mistakes when you're shopping for tech gifts.

If you're looking at smartphones , you might need to decide between Apple's iPhone 13 or Google's Pixel 6 (not to mention the Galaxy S21 and all the other Samsung models). For headphones, you have options ranging from wireless earbuds like the third-generation AirPods, to over-the-ear options like the Bose QuietComfort 45. And if you're thinking about smart speakers, well, you have a wealth of options: There's the Amazon Echo, Google Nest Mini, Apple HomePod Mini and Sonos One, just to name a few.

No matter what tech gift you're considering -- gaming console, computer or even a smart garden -- due diligence is not just recommended, it's necessary. In this guide, we'll take a closer look at what you should avoid doing (and what you should do) when considering buying a gadget.

Read more: Best places to sell your used electronics 

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, for example, 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 your giftee will 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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, 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 Apple HomePod speakers, a smart home gift that relies on 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 (just make sure they don't already have a Roku-enabled TV). 

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, 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. 

Angela Lang/CNET

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 considered all the angles. 

The most important one is making sure that the phone you're buying for someone will work with their wireless carrier of choice. Wireless providers use different technology that can prevent phones from working across 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.

Either 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.

 Pixel 5

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, your giftee 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 8, 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 Meta (the new name for Facebook ) or Amazon, which are constantly surrounded by privacy questions and concerns, if you're considering buying a next-gen Portal Plus or the latest Ring Video Doorbell 4 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 is in order. Looking up "Meta/Facebook privacy issues," for example, should surface any potential issues.


For someone who's uneasy with Facebook's privacy practices, the Portal may not be a good idea. 

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

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 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 consistent and timely updates. Outside of Google's own phones, Samsung has a good track record for consistent updates to its Android phones, as do the OnePlus phones.

Software updates for smart speakers and streaming devices such as a Chromecast or Apple TV 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 are bound to be many great deals and promotions this shopping season, especially around Black Friday. Don't be swayed by a deal on a product that seems too good to be true. If the product is discontinued (or soon-to-be), your gift could end up becoming an expensive paperweight. Again, Google is your friend when it comes to learning more about a product and its future. 


Meta (formerly Facebook) discontinued the Oculus Rift S in 2021.

John Kim/CNET

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 Nintendo Switch comes in three versions: the original ($300), OLED ($350) and Lite ($200). If you're opting for the Lite -- the least expensive version -- you should know that it doesn't come with Joy-Con controllers, not all games are compatible with it and it doesn't feature TV or tabletop mode. And while you could swing for the fences with the OLED model (which comes with a 7-inch touchscreen, 64GB of storage and a built-in wired LAN port), the original still packs a punch and comes with many of the features the Lite is missing. 

Reviews can help you make a more informed decision.


Reviews are an important part of researching new products. 

Scott Stein/CNET

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 choice. 

Still not sure where to start? Here are the best phones of 2021, along with our 2021 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