Gift cards, a staple of the holidays, may seem to some like gifts given without much thought. But if you love tech and the card’s from an electronics store, it’s like Santa leaving a lump of gold in your stocking.
If you’ve gotten a new computer for Christmas, you can use electronics store gift cards to enhance that purchase. If you didn’t get that holiday PC, you can also put it to good use improving the setup you have.
And there are some things you can buy with a gift card that will make your overall tech life a little better. Here’s a list of suggestions:
• Upgrade your computer. Sure, you may have gotten a new computer from Santa, but don’t think that just because it’s still got that new-PC smell that you can’t improve on it right away.
Check its manual and see if you can increase the amount of memory it has. Many consumer systems now come with 2 to 4 gigabytes of memory, and depending on the computer’s motherboard, you may be able to add even more.
Of course, if you have an older system, more RAM is one of the best upgrades you can make.
Unfortunately, computer memory isn’t as cheap it was just a year ago. Supply has caught up with demand, and the release of Windows 7 in October spurred a RAM-buying binge both by PC makers and consumers, which further boosts prices. Expect to pay at least $45 for 2 gigabytes of older RAM. Memory that’s very fast, or newer DDR3 memory, starts around $60 for 2 GB.
There’s another upgrade to consider, particularly if you have a desktop computer hampered by shared-memory graphics, in which the video display uses system memory. If your new or older desktop comes has an open graphics-card slot, you can spend about $100 on an nVidia or ATI/AMD video card and get another performance bump.
• Protect your computer. If you received a new system, you may want to spend your gift card on an extended warranty. In most cases, you can buy additional protection for a while after the initial purchase, sometimes up to a year. Check with the retailer for its policies.
Generally, I don’t recommend that people buy extended warranties, particularly for traditional desktop computers. Most defective electronic parts fail in the first few months of use, and in the case of desktops, replacing a bad memory stick or a failed hard drive yourself is a lot cheaper than the cost of most two- or three-year warranties.
There are two exceptions, though. If your computer is a portable and you travel with it, it’s likely to get rougher treatment than if it just sat on your desk at home. An extended warranty may make sense in this case.
You may also want more coverage if you buy an all-in-one desktop. These are often harder to service yourself, and if one major part fails, the entire unit could become a doorstop.
• Speed your network. A gift card is also a great opportunity to give your home network a boost by upgrading from an older 802.11g router to a faster 802.11n model, which will also improve the range of your network’s signal.
The committee that approves Wi-Fi standards signed off on the faster wireless connection earlier this year. Hardware makers had already been selling routers based on earlier “draft-N” versions of the standard, so there are plenty of models out there at good prices, starting at about $100.
If you’ve got a newer notebook with Wi-Fi — some desktops now have it, too — chances are it has 802.11n capabilities. While older Wi-Fi adapters are compatible with it, too, you can also pick up an N adapter for under $100. They’re available for PC-card slots, USB ports or as cards for use in a desktop PC.
• Back up your PC. External hard drives are the best way to do backups of your documents, music, video and other critical files. For about $100, you can get a full terabyte of storage. Backing up can be as simple as plugging in the drive and dragging/dropping your files onto its icon, but many external drives come with backup software that can automate the job.
Now you can kill two birds with one stone by spending your gift card on something useful and make good on that perennial New Year’s resolution to back up your data.