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Tech Savvy: Accessory loyalty program

Hey there, Tech Savvy fans! This week I thought it might be pertinent to discuss the mix n' match option of accessorizing your smart device and tech gizmos.

For years tech companies spent millions building mini-ecosystems around their products - many still do. A prime example is Apple. As much as I like to pick on them, there is something really appealing to the way they package their products. Every single thing that Apple designs as accessories is designed to work with their products flawlessly. If you buy a Bluetooth keyboard for your Mac, it will pair up and the keyboard shortcuts naturally work with their ecosystem. They've done a really, really great job at developing this and as a result they often have customized shortcuts or tweaks that make working with and using their products even more streamlined.

Microsoft took a slightly different approach in that they didn't exclusively develop their own accessories - like a keyboard and a mouse. They do produce their own line of accessories and they also have that same fantastic integration with the Windows products but other companies like Logitech and Rocketfish have also developed products that integrate seamlessly with those products.

Then mobile came along and there are more options than ever. Our mobile phones and tablets use Bluetooth to connect with the devices, which is become a very standard protocol, and makes it easy to mix and match the products and the devices. I can use an Apple wireless keyboard with my Android phone (I actually have) and it works OK. I can use wireless Microsoft keyboards, if they are Bluetooth enabled, with my iPad and they will work too. The only downside is you then lose the customized shortcuts.

So, at a base comparison it seems like a bit of a no brainer, right? Customized shortcuts, streamlined operation, similar construction and appearance - just go with the manufacturer's option. Of course, it's not that simple. If you factor in price all of a sudden the conversation can get more complicated.

The major manufacturers have always been tagged as overpricing fiends when it comes to accessories they make. You can buy an iPad USB charging cable from Apple for $20 for a short 2-foot cord, or you can get a 10-foot one from an off brand company for the same price. The manufacturers stand by their pricing with the defense that it was made of higher quality products and made to work optimally with their products. As a retort I envision the off-brand guys off to the side simply shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Who cares, our product works and it costs less."

I find myself torn. I love having the brand products; they look like they belong to my devices and, even if it's only in my mind, they seem to be made of higher quality materials. At the same time, if I can get enough chargers for my devices to keep them everywhere I need them for the same price as one of the manufacturer's parts, and even if they don't last as long, I can replace them for far less.

Over the years, through trial and error, I have developed a series of guidelines I use in regards to what I purchase from the brand and what I feel is an OK substitute, and here are some of the top ones to consider as you make these choices, too.

Chargers are pretty universal, even Apple is using similar chargers for their products now. These are one item I don't have a problem buying a knockoff of. There are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that cellphones and tablets charge at different rates - tablets can take a higher wattage. This means that if you use a charger made for a cellphone in your tablet it will charge slower. You may think that the reverse would be true and you could then use your tablet charger to charge a cellphone more quickly and you should just buy tablet chargers. This isn't true and, in fact, can damage your cellphone because it may overheat your phone - be cautious of your wattage. My other charger guideline is that I've discovered the 14 in 1 chargers, you know - the ones with the interchangeable ends - are for all my intents and purposes pretty worthless. In retrospect I realized I was only ever using the end that I needed for that specific device and if I needed another end, I usually just bought another charger anyway. With the varying voltage and wattage settings on those, it ended up being simpler to just forgo the "universal" chargers all together.

Keyboards are another pretty universal accessory. Most keyboards are now considered Plug 'n Play, meaning that you can simply plug them into your computer, or connect them via Bluetooth and they will be ready to rock. However, you do have to keep in mind those customized shortcuts. I have used my Bluetooth Apple keyboard with my Android device, but the shortcuts either don't work or they do something completely different. With some devices, you can reassign the key or the command but that isn't true in all cases. My suggestion here is that if you plan on using it every single day, consider splurging and spending the extra money to get a keyboard that was made to work with your device. If you only use the device sparingly, or if you have multiple devices, you may be better off finding a more universal approach. In that case I'd say buy the keyboard that is most customized to the device you use more often.

Headphones are one item that I would say is easiest to deviate from the manufacturer. Most major manufacturers have gotten away from producing high end on-ear or over-ear headphones, instead only providing ear buds or something similar. Apple made a big to-do about their improved ear buds when they released the iPhone 5s but at the end of the day they are still just earbuds. Instead we have options from most every headphone maker on the planet - Beats by Dre just released a revamped version of their headphones. I recently reviewed a killer set of phones by SMS Audio, and the list could go on and on and on. Biggest piece of advice here is to buy headphones based on the quality of the sound, and not necessarily the device it will be used for. True, you will need to make sure it is compatible with your device but at the end of the day if I had a choice between the Apple earbuds and my Koss buds, I'd take my Koss.

Finally, there literally thousands of other accessories that are available - cases, stylus pens, screen protectors and the like - that are made by manufacturers and third party companies. Some are better from the manufacturer, some aren't and you can't always get to a store that has them on display and available for you to try. In these cases I check three things - Google, YouTube and forums if needed. You can refer back to my article a couple weeks ago on how I shared how I learned new information but I fall back to that procedure to determine which products will work best for me. The great thing about Google, YouTube and forums is that you can get a lot of information in a relatively short time and it is usually detailed enough that you can make a fairly educated decision.

Good luck with your accessory purchases, it can be a jungle out there!