Technology Moneysavers

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Cheap HDTV and Home Theater Tricks

Why spend $60 a pop taking the family to the cineplex when you can turn your home into a kick-ass theater? Granted, the couch may not seem like such a cheap alternative when you add up amenities like HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and cable service. But believe it or not, there is such a thing as a thrifty home theater. Here's how to build it.

Use a projector to get a big picture without a big HDTV: Where sports, movies, console games, and Lost are concerned, bigger is always better. Alas, LCD and plasma TVs currently top out at around 65 inches (you call that big?) and sell for at least $4000. So what would you say to a screen that's nearly five times larger but only half the price?

I'm talking about an HD projector like the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 Projector, which can create a 1080p image up to 300 inches diagonally (assuming you have a 25-foot wall available). It works with all the usual sources--cable, Xbox, Blu-ray player, and so on--and costs around $2000. Sure, you need a reasonably dark room to enjoy it, but you'll definitely score bragging rights with the neighbors--and save money in the process. Estimated savings: $2000.

Get a big HDTV for a small(er) price: Overall, HDTV prices haven't dropped much in the past six months. All the more reason to shop online for the best possible deal on the model you want. I priced a 46-inch Sony Bravia KDL-46W4100 at a brick-and-mortar Best Buy and came away with sticker shock: Literally one penny short of $2000, not including sales tax. But Amazon had the same set for just $1594, shipping included. And at PC Connection, the price was $100 less than Amazon's: $1494, again with free shipping.

I also priced the Samsung LN46A650, another 46-inch LCD, and although the price difference in this case wasn't nearly as steep ($1545 at Best Buy, $1487 at Amazon), the latter's freedom from sales tax again made this a no-brainer. It's worth paying extra only if you insist on having a storefront at your disposal in case something goes wrong. (Of course, with big-box storefronts like Circuit City closing up shop, even that isn't a sure thing.) Estimated savings: As much as $500 on a 46-inch LCD.

Cut your costs on overpriced cables: Welcome to the scam of the century. Browse the aisles of your local electronics store and you'll likely find a Nyko HDMI Cable for PlayStation 3 selling for $60, a NexxTech Ultimate HDMI to HDMI Cable for $70, and/or a Monster Cable 700hd High Speed HDMI Cable for a whopping $95. And they're not even jewel-encrusted!

They are, however, very overpriced. At MonoPrice.com, a 6-foot HDMI cable sells for $10. At Meritline.com, you can buy a pair of them for--are you sitting down?--$11, shipped. Okay, yeah, but you get what you pay for, and if these no-brand cables cost that much less, they must be shoddy and unreliable, producing a poor-quality picture. Right?

Wrong. PC World's tests (see The Cable Game) and my own hands-on experience show that $10 HDMI cables work just as well as their $100 counterparts--particularly at the 6-foot length used in most home-theater setups. Bottom line: Don't buy over-packaged, overpriced cables from retail stores. Ever. Estimated savings: $50 on a 6-foot cable.

Stop buying CDs, start saving cash: If you're still buying CDs, you're paying too much for music. Consider Coldplay's Viva La Vida, one of my favorite albums of 2008. If you buy it at the mall, you'll pay around $15 plus tax. DeepDiscount.com sells it for $11 shipped--but you will have to wait a week or so to get it.

Amazon MP3 store (click for full-size image). Then there's the Amazon MP3 store, where the album costs $9 and gets downloaded immediately to your iTunes or Windows Media Player library, ready for play or for syncing to your portable jukebox. Audiophiles may disagree, but to my ears a 256-kbps MP3 sounds just as good as a CD.

And don't forget Web services like Pandora and Slacker, where you can build custom radio stations based on your favorite artists and stream music to your heart's content--all free of charge. Estimated savings: $70 annually, based on a rate of one album per month.

Skip the Blu-ray player: Blu-ray won the high-definition DVD war over a year ago, but Blu-ray players still cost a couple of hundred bucks. Meanwhile, Blu-ray movie selection remains limited (about 1500 titles to date), and they cost more than their DVD counterparts. What's a cash-strapped HDTV owner to do?

Simple: Forgo Blu-ray for now and buy an "upconverting" DVD player. These models give ordinary DVDs an HD makeover, upscaling the pixels to take advantage of your TV's higher resolution. The results aren't quite on par with Blu-ray, but they're a definite improvement--and you get to enjoy the movies you already own. Upconverting DVD players range from $50 to $100. Estimated savings: $150.

Ditch cable television: Seems like the cable bill gets bigger every month. If you're willing to make a few changes to your viewing habits, you can kiss the cable company goodbye. It all starts in your Web browser: You can stream the latest episodes of your favorite shows--many of them in HD--from both the networks' sites and TV hubs like Fancast and Hulu. These offerings are free, on-demand shows with only brief commercial interruptions. Like sports? Head to ESPN360.com to watch live and recently played games.

To cover your premium-channel bases, subscribe to Blockbuster or Netflix to get shows like Flight of the Conchords and Dexter on DVD (or on-demand in the case of Netflix, which can now stream movies and TV shows to your PC, Xbox, or Roku set-top box). Packages start at around $9 monthly.

The downside? You'll have to watch everything on your PC (unless you connect it to your TV, which entails a few hassles). Plus, now that some cable companies have instituted bandwidth caps (hmm, wonder why), you could run into trouble if you stream too much content. Estimated savings: $600 to $1800 per year.

Skip the TiVo: TiVo rocks, but the $12.95 monthly service plan does not. If you want a DVR but don't want to pay yet another monthly bill, consider enlisting your PC for the job. Windows Media Center, a component of Vista Home Premium and Ultimate, offers champion DVR features. All you need is a TV tuner and a cable feed or antenna. The tuner will run you anywhere from $50 to $100, but the program guide costs nothing, so it's a one-time expense. You can find out more about this TiVo-busting proposition in "Turn Any PC Into a Media Center." Estimated savings: $150 per year.

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