David LaGesse

An economy in the dumps has taught many consumers to live without the extras. And that would seem to include the latest in gadgets: New HDTVs, MP3 players, and game consoles can cost a bundle. But some of the best in fresh tech not only comes cheap; it can even save cash over time. Here's how savvy buyers can cut their budget and still brag that they're on the cutting edge:


One of the best ways to save on tech is to trim your monthly cable subscription, which often exceeds $100. Simply cutting out extra movie channels can save consumers as much as $600 a year. A cheaper alternative is to purchase a Netflix subscription for $9 a month and get as many DVDs as you can watch, one at a time. There's typically a two-day delay between shipping a disk back and receiving another.

Netflix also offers instant Web streaming of more than 17,000 TV shows and movies. Watching those streams on the living room TV is easy with a Roku box, which starts at $80. Roku owners can also pay a few dollars to stream a movie from an even larger selection at Amazon, and Roku recently added about a dozen "channels" that offer video from other Internet sites.

A variety of Blu-ray players, flat-panel TVs, and other boxes such as Apple TV also can stream Web video to the living room, "but Roku is the simplest out there right now," says Chicago resident C. J. Chilvers. "It also offers the most diversity."

Cut the cable completely.

Chilvers lives in a condo that doesn't have good over-the-air reception. Otherwise, he says, he would have taken the next step of cutting out cable altogether. Digital broadcasts now offer crystal-clear video and audio with an old-fashioned antenna, including what videophiles claim is an HDTV signal that's sharper than cable or satellite. Cutting the digital tier, or basic cable, altogether can mean the loss of live news and sports that aren't yet available online. But it can also save consumers another $600 a year.

Slash the phone bill.

Many consumers are hesitant to replace a landline with Internet phone service. But home users can cut at least $250 a year, what they typically pay for long-distance calls. And it doesn't mean being tethered to a PC headset.

A Web-based service called Jajah connects a landline phone with another landline or cellphone for inexpensive calls arranged through jajah.com. With no contract to sign and no gear to buy, it's an easy way to get the benefits of Internet calling. Or plug a standard corded or cordless phone into magicJack, which then plugs into a PC. MagicJack costs $40 the first year and $20 the next year for unlimited domestic calls to any landline or cellphone.

Consider prepaid cellular.

Once the domain of customers with bad credit, prepaid wireless plans can save $600 a year or more for anyone who uses a handset sparingly and mostly for calls. Having no contract is also a benefit in uncertain times. Customers typically pay a bit more for these phones upfront, although the cost is less than $100 for full-featured phones that can record and play videos, send text messages, and surf the Web. Companies like Virgin Mobile, Boost, and Cricket specialize in prepaid service, which typically costs 10 cents or less a minute. A careful caller can keep a bill to $20 a month versus the typical $70. Or tap unlimited monthly plans that include Web surfing and start at about $50 a month, without the burden of a contract.

Major carriers also offer prepaid services.

One from AT&T offers free unlimited minutes for a $3 daily fee that's paid only on days the phone is used. Verizon Wireless charges 5 cents a minute and $2 a day.

Coverage might be more spotty than with conventional plans, so check the maps. And availability of smart phones is rare. T-Mobile was one of the first to offer a no-contract BlackBerry Curve, which costs $300 upfront and $80 a month for voice, text, and Web access.

Save the PC.

Before you throw out your old computer for something faster, consider upgrading the RAM in your old PC. That's where a computer loads programs that a user has called up for work. Upgrading RAM is one of the easiest boosts you can give a PC, with perhaps the biggest bang for the buck. Spending $50 to $100 can vastly improve a computer's performance, and this route is at least $400 cheaper than buying a new machine. It doesn't matter if you have a Windows or Mac computer. "Everything seems to be running faster," says Abraham Neben, a Chicago college student who doubled the RAM in a two-year-old MacBook. His photo-editing software no longer grinds to a halt when he opens other programs.

Start with the memory guides at crucial.com and kingston.com. Or simply haul the box into a Best Buy or other electronics retailer with on-site tech services, which might charge $35 to $50 to install chips that can also be bought there. Just don't wait too long--RAM prices are actually climbing, and some analysts project a shortage later this year.

Free software.

Microsoft is readying a new version of its ubiquitous Office suite of software, which will cost $500 for a full version and $120 for a limited copy aimed at home users. But free competitors reproduce all but the latest or most sophisticated Office formats and tools, which few people need. Download the free versions from openoffice.org or symphony.lotus.com. Or you can find online versions at docs.google.com or zoho.com that are more stripped down but answer most users' needs. They're also free. Even Microsoft is getting the hint. The company will reportedly release free--if limited--versions of its most popular Office software, such as Word and Excel, for use on the Web.

Float in the cloud.

Online programs from the likes of Zoho or Google Docs make it easy for you to work from any computer. Even your photos can be edited at sites like shutterfly.com, picasa.com, or picnik.com. So when replacing a laptop, consider a new "ultrathin," which can cost $1,000 less than more powerful notebooks of comparable weight. And compared with most netbooks, these computers have more muscle and wider screens, usually about 12 or 13 inches across--big enough for hours of work. Ultrathins also have a good amount of oomph for working comfortably on the Web, where huge computers do the data crunching and storage.

You can save another $400 by dumping the portable PC altogether and traveling lightly through Web services that are often called the "cloud." Friends, family, and most hotels have a PC that can reach your documents and photos that are stored on the Web. Or use the free remote-control service at logmein.com, which hurdles the Internet to control a home PC. LogMeIn makes it feel as if you're sitting at the den computer, with all its power and data at your frugal fingertips.