The Cheapskate's favorite deals of the year (2016)


by Rick Broida December 23, 2016 6:08 AM PST @cheapskateblog

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CNET's Cheapskate scours the web for great deals on PCs, phones, gadgets and much more. Questions about the Cheapskate blog? Find the answers on our FAQ page. And find more great buys on the CNET Deals page.

Cheeps! I know I said yesterday was my last post for 2016, but I meant it was my last deal post. Today I bring you a list -- everybody loves lists, right? And next week I'll have a couple more goodies for you, both of them queued up and ready for delivery in my absence.

By the way, I'm so grateful for the kind words and wishes yesterday. A lot of you have been regular readers, commenters and/or contributors for a long time, and believe me the love and appreciation goes both ways. I don't really know of any other microcosm (blog-rocosm?) quite like this one; I'm honored to be part of it and thankful that you are as well.

Sorry, I think there's something in my eye...

So as we wrap up 2016 -- hoo, boy, it was a rough one -- let's celebrate my favorite topic and yours: deals! I dug all the way back to last January to round up my picks for the best of the year. Check out my choices, then share yours.

This drone

My love affair with drones kind of cooled off in 2016. The cheap ones were too hard to control, and the expensive ones were, well, expensive, and kind of getting overcomplicated. (Really? I have to use my phone or it won't fly?)

Then I met the JJRC H37 Elfie -- which, at this writing, you can still score for $39.99. It's adorable, not much larger than a deck of cards when folded, and did I mention it folds? You can quite literally carry this thing around in your pocket.

Plus, it offers auto-hover and headless mode, giving it a big leg up on the much-tougher-to-fly small drones of last year. Charging the battery is a pain, but that's my only complaint with this super-cute, super-cheap, super-fun flier.

Also, this drone

Just when I thought the Elfie was the only game in town, fun-cheap-drone-wise, along came the Skytech TK110HW (currently $55.99). It also has folding arms! But it's larger than the Elfie, and therefore more outdoor-friendly, and it looks like a flying sports-car. Even better, it comes with a remote. (I don't especially love using my phone as a controller.)

There's no comparison between this and the $50 drones of 2015. It's sexier, easier to fly and way more portable.

This phone

Amazon delivered two stupid-good deals this year (the second one is below), starting with the Moto G Play 4th-gen smartphone (known in most quarters as the G4 Play). Sure, it's ad-supported, which helps Amazon sell it for under $100, but who looks at the lockscreen, anyway?

I've been impressed with the fit and finish of Motorola's phones for the past couple years; the G4 Play feels substantial, not cheap. It's compatible with all networks, expandable past its 16GB of storage (you'd expect just 8GB, but, no) and loaded with the latest version of Android. Read CNET's review if you want to learn more.

My two cents: Shut up and take my money, Amazon!

This hockey puck

Amazon's second big win of the year: the Echo Dot. This is how the future looks, folks: 'Bots that do our bidding. Or in this case Dots: Amazon's short, squat Echo looks just like a hockey puck, but brings the full force of Alexa to your house.

I always found the full-size Echo a little overpriced at $179.99, but the Dot is just $49.99 (and a few zillion people snapped it up for $39.99 over the holidays). You need to pair it with a speaker to really enjoy its music acumen, but you can do that on the cheap.

This wasn't just one of the best deals of the year; it was one of the best gadgets as well.

This VR headset

VR is here, and it's awesome. The big rigs still cost $600-800 (not including a powerful PC), but dang if the Samsung Gear VR isn't a close second. Yes, it works only with a smattering of Samsung phones, but if you have one -- get this thing. The Gear VR retails for $100, but I routinely see it selling for nearly half that -- sometimes refurbished, sometimes new.

What's the difference between this and a generic, works-with-any-smartphone-including-iPhone VR headset selling for $20? Integration: The Gear VR runs an offshoot of the Oculus Rift platform, with many unique games and experiences available therein. Read CNET's review of the 2016 version if you want to learn more -- but don't shy away from the previous Gear VR if you can grab one cheap. It's nearly as good.

This pen

Yeah, that's right, a pen. The Ace Teah 3-in-1 wasn't uniquely a 2016 product, but I use it constantly -- and people are always asking me about it. Because, see, it's a pen (and really a comfortable, thick-barrelled one), but also a smartphone/tablet stand and a stylus.

A six-pack usually sells for $7-8, which is why I often end up giving them away to inquiring onlookers. (I'm awesome that way.) And why I continue to consider it a best-of-the-year item.

This Netflix

I was beginning to think it would never happen, but Netflix finally made it possible to download content for offline viewing. The best news of all? No extra charge. Granted, Amazon beat Netflix to the punch by over a year (and didn't get nearly the same gushing praise for it), but this is a feature every steaming service -- cough, HBO, cough -- should have. I'm glad Netflix finally did the right thing. And didn't make us pay extra for it.

This password manager

Over the course of 2016 I've shared lots of deals on password managers. But a short while ago, Lastpass served up the most unbeatable deal of all: a free version that includes password syncing. That particular feature was always the main driver for choosing a premium subscription to any password manager, as it makes your passwords available across all your devices. And Lastpass was already a top-rated product, so this is just icing on a yummy free cake.

This cell service

Let's hear it for unlocked phones and contract-free service. Now you can easily hop between whichever carrier offers the best deal. In 2016, that carrier was newcomer MintSIM. You pay more up front -- three months, six months or a year at a time -- but much less overall.

To wit: An ongoing introductory offer gives you three months for $35, which works out to just $11.67 per month. That's for a plan with unlimited talk and text messages and 2GB of LTE data. Mint relies on T-Mobile's network, by the way, so bring any unlocked GSM phone.

If you decide to keep going, that same "Small" plan (2GB of data) costs $199 for one year -- an effective rate of $16.58 per month. A 5GB plan runs $299, or $24.92 per month. Other carriers promise similarly low rates, but with much less data. Thus, Mint is my favorite flavor of 2016.

Farewell, 2016!

Okay, that's it, friends! I'll "see" you next week, but in reality I'll see you back here in 2017. Have a safe, happy and healthy holiday, and for heaven's sake, let's remember we're all on the same team: Humans of Earth. Go, team!

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