Getting a new gadget can be awkward. You know it's expensive. You know it's "cool" or at least you know you're supposed to think it's cool. But you don't really know what it's for.
You are not alone. My daughter, home for the holidays from a Senate internship in Washington, D.C., shared this story:
The senator's staff gathered in the conference room. It was the last day before everyone returned home for the holidays. The interns sang carols written by the senator himself; crockpots of homemade, bourbon-soaked sausages and baked beans bubbled on a side table.
The chief of staff presented the senator with this year's office gifts. The senator unwrapped an Apple TV and two universal remotes. Silence. The group waited for his response. His chief jumped in to explain that these devices would make using his TVs so much better.
"I have no idea what these are for, but I like them very much," the senator said.
One out of five people will return a gift this year, according to Consumer Reports, and will spend two or more hours doing so. Returns will cost retailers and manufacturers $17 billion this year, which could mean higher prices in the future.
Only 5 percent of unwanted electronics are returned because of product defects, an Accenture study found. The majority of people who return electronics do so because they're too difficult to set up or the benefits of the product are unclear.
Before you head out to stand in a long line, consider giving that unfamiliar gadget a try. Chances are, whoever gave you the gift knows how to use it.
Customer support from the kids
I sent my dad a Roku media streaming device for his birthday in November. I bought one for my family's TV at the same time. Within an hour of its delivery to our house, the kids connected the box and synced our Netflix, Pandora and Hulu Plus accounts from the computer to the TV. A month later, my parents' device was still in its box.
We arranged a time when we could do a hands-on remote setup over the phone. I asked them to have their instructions ready and their computer running, so that we could connect the device and get the apps working.
When you enlist the help of someone else, make sure you are prepared. Ask for detailed descriptions if you're not sure what to do. For instance, the larger cord connects the Roku with the TV, while the smaller cord connects the box with a nearby outlet.
Once the device is installed and powered up, keep the kids on the line until you have successfully accessed some content or otherwise used the device. In this case, we set up a free Pandora radio account on the computer, including several custom stations. Once set up, we typed in the Pandora code from Roku into the computer, which synced the account. From then on, any changes such as adding new stations would show up on both the TV and the computer.
Netflix and Hulu Plus do not require a computer. You can do it all on the Roku interface. As a Netflix customer, my mom added streaming to her monthly DVD plan for $1 and then logged into Netflix with her password from Roku on the TV. Like Pandora, viewing activity and recommendations now show up on both the TV and the computer.
Real help from stores
Two retailers offer in-store help that can make the difference between a useful device and one that gathers dust. If you received a Nook from Barnes & Noble, the staff there can set up devices and fix common problems for free. The company also offers an hour a day of reading any Nook book in-store for free.
Apple is also known for its customer service behind its "Genius Bars" and offers free device setup and troubleshooting. For Mac computer owners, Apple offers unlimited one-on-one help, small group workshops and two-hour project help, such as editing videos, for $99 a year.
Many Internet-connected devices require a password and a registered method of payment for buying content. Choose a password that you have not used for any other account. (This is especially important for carry-along devices such as a Kindle, where a password could be stolen over your shoulder as you type in a public place.)
You also may be asked for a payment method, which could be a credit card, a bank account or PayPal. Consider setting up a PayPal account in which you keep just enough money to make purchases on a particular device. You will be protected from strangers who could make unauthorized purchases from a lost device âï or from your kids, who could get carried away buying apps or movies because pushing a button just doesn't feel like spending "real money."
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at email@example.com.