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Tech gift etiquette: Read this before buying anyone a phone or gadget

If you don't think through the details, you could saddle your loved one with more work or expense.

amazon-echo-show-5-black-and-white-with-gifts

The Echo Show 5 could make for a great gift, but not for everyone. 

QVC
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Giving the gift of a phone, tablet or other gadget can be thoughtful and personal. But before you hand over your cash or credit card details, keep in mind that a tech gift isn't like a new sweater or potted plant. It could come with a mess of unintended consequences, like saddling someone with the cost of buying extra gear, or exposing someone's privacy in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

New phoneslaptopssmart speakers and other electronic devices provide a means to communicate with friends, work, play or with something like a Kindle or Nintendo Switch, escape to another world for a brief moment of time. In other words, tech products are more than just a battery, components and some software. They are tools that can add value to a person's life. 

The process of picking out the perfect gadget this holiday season shouldn't be a straightforward affair. There are aspects of the product and the company behind the product that you need to keep in mind. Privacy, security and compatibility will go a long way in helping you make sound decisions as you shop for new phones or gadgets

Let's take a closer look at some best practices you should keep in mind. If you need somewhere to start, we've rounded up all the best Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals from Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart. We also give you suggestions for the best iPad to buy this Black Friday and some more things to think about if it's a smart home gift you're after, like a Google Home or Amazon Echo.

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, 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 USB-C or Lightning 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 they'll 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.

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Dongles are sometimes a necessary evil.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Pay attention to which devices someone 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, make sure you find out what kind of devices they already use on a regular basis. 

For example, if your giftee has an Android phone, they won't be able to use every feature in an Apple Watch. Or if they have a house full of Google Home smart speakers, 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. 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(s) the giftee already use around his or her home, we have a smart home compatibility chart that lays it all out for you. Here are more specific angles to consider when giving smart home gifts.

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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 thought through all the angles.

The most important one is making sure that the phone you're buying someone will work with their wireless carrier of choice. Wireless carriers use different technology that can prevent phones from working on 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 directly ask the gift recipient which wireless carrier they use or consider buying an unlocked phone. Many smartphone 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're no hard feelings if they ultimately want to return or exchange the phone. This gift is all about the gesture. 

Google's Pixel 4 XL phone

Google's Pixel 4 XL is sold by every carrier, or as an unlocked phone. 

Stephen Shankland/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, a friend or loved one 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 very least, you should take note of companies like Facebook or Amazon, which are constantly surrounded by privacy questions and concerns, if you're considering buying a Facebook Portal or one of Amazon's Ring's smart doorbells 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, for example, Facebook privacy issues, should surface any potential issues. 

One option to consider when you aren't sure if the gift will be a hit: Go ahead and get it as a sort of a placeholder. You can explain that you're alright with helping them refine the end decision, and if need be, get a different product. 

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For someone who is 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 even more important to have confidence that companies are going to continue to support the device(s) 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 the most consistent and timely updates. Outside of Google's own phones, Samsung has a good track record for consistent updates with its Android phones, whereas Motorola has really dropped the ball over the last couple of years. (The foldable Motorola Razr might be one exception for early adopters with money to spare, but it won't go on preorder until Dec. 26.)

Software updates for smart speakers and streaming devices like a Chromecast are handled in the background, without the user ever knowing (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're bound to be many great deals and promotions this shopping season. Don't swayed by a deal on a product from a brand you've never heard of. If the company doesn't last, your gift could end up being a fancy paperweight. 

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Anki made some great products, but ultimately had shut down earlier this year. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Read more than one review

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 DJI Mavic Mini -- an entry-level drone -- was recently released with a base package for $399 that includes just the basics you need to fly. For $499 you get two extra batteries, a carrying case and a few other accessories. If the Mavic Mini base bundle is on the wishlist, is it worth it to spend the extra $100 for the additional accessories? Reviews are going to help you make an informed decision. 

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Reviews are an important part of researching new products. 

Juan Garzon / 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 decision. 

Still not sure where to start? Here are the best phones of 2019, along with our 2019 gift guide that includes items for different budgets, and Star Wars fans. You can also check out our favorite selections for popular products like smart speakers, tablets and laptops

Originally published earlier this shopping season.