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Buy Smart for the Holidays

You wouldn't buy a new car, or maybe even a new toaster, without doing oodles of research to make sure you're getting a good and reliable product for the money. Use that same consumer savvy this holiday season to make sure you're giving gifts that work and last.

I've gathered a collection of websites to help you separate the jewels from the junk -- without even setting foot in the mall. (I certainly won't snitch if you're using a "working" lunch to do a little research.) If you study up now before heading out to tinker with the gadgets, you'll be better prepared to resist when sales assistants try to talk you into flashy but unreliable purchases.

  • Consumer Reports. This oldie-but-goodie consumer testing outfit makes a lot of its content available free online. In that category, you'll find everything from the best hot cocoa to a truly comprehensive review of Apple's iPhone. Other ratings are only available to subscribers.
  • PC Magazine. If your friends and family can expect to get new electronic gadgets this year, take a look at PC Mag's product reviews. For everyone in a hurry, they've laid out the pros, cons, and bottom line for each reviewed product. When you've narrowed down your choices, delve into the more thorough editors' reviews.
  • CNET. Another site for electronic reviews, CNET Networks' (Nasdaq: CNET  ) site also creates handy editors lists of their top five picks in each category. They pick AT&T's Tilt as the top cell phone, and the Canon XH A1 as the top camcorder, among many other examples.
  • Consumer World. Looking for a grab-bag of handy consumer information? This site collects a vast array of consumer tidbits, from the bargain of the week to a list of the government agencies that address consumer complaints. You'll also find a link to a comparison-shopping engine that will dig up the lowest online price for Dora and Diego toys, or anything else on your shopping list.
  • Epinions. Want an idea of both the price and reliability of a potential gift? An arm of the eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) online empire, this website will give you an idea about how other purchasers feel about a product via consumer reviews. Keep in mind that reviewers often love it or hate it, so read consumer opinions broadly to get an idea about common faults and favorite features.
  • Even if you don't plan to buy your gifts through (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) , you can delve into a wealth of consumer feedback about the vast range of products the site sells. Seeing other purchases from consumers shopping for a certain item may help you dig out gifts for some of the hard-to-please people on your list.
  • Consumer Search. Can't get enough consumer reviews? This site, which is part of The New York Times' (NYSE: NYT  ) services, surveys a broad array of consumer reviews, boiling them down to find a consensus for the top picks. They even pick the best-of-the-best reviews to help you read further. That lets you take the experts' word for it, or do the research yourself.
  • PriceGrabber. Here's another site, by Experian Interactive, offering comparison-shopping, links to expert reviews, and collections of consumer reviews. You'll also find a collection of merchant coupons and rebates if you're looking for a bargain.
  • The Consumerist. Want to get the dirt on a product or company? Take a look at the humorous and often horrifying stories sent to The Consumerist. Find your way to their shopping section, and you'll also find lists of deals posted every weekday.

Have a favorite site you don't find on this list? Send it to me, and I'll spread the wealth. In the meantime, don't overlook the Foolish discussion boards for getting feedback on your gift-list picks. Then keep reading, to learn:

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