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Cheap HDTV and Home Theater Tricks

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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. 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 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.

This story, "Cheap HDTV and Home Theater Tricks" was originally published by PCWorld.

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