A DVR without a subscription or monthly fees

What if I told you that you could have a DVR without a subscription that worked with free over-the-air antenna-based TV, and it cost less than $35, saving those monthly subscription fees month after month?

It’s called the Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB. If you want to record and time-shift television without loss of quality and without paying a fortune in subscription fees, it’s a tremendous value. You have to provide an antenna–which you can even make yourself–and USB-based storage, but it means you can get whatever capacity you want, and if you fill up a drive, just get another one.

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What to look for in a monitor

What to look for in a monitor

Most buying guides for monitors assume you’re buying a really expensive monitor for gaming. But there’s a lot more to look for than refresh rate and response time.

A good monitor can last 10 years and multiple computers, so it pays to make a good decision when buying one, even when you’re not spending $500. There can be a significant difference even between two $100 models, or between a $60 model and a $70 model, that will save you money in the long run.

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Visit your layout with a cheap camera

I’ve seen a number of videos lately made by people putting dashboard cameras on their trains, which gives a view of a layout that we don’t usually get to see–the view from the trains themselves. I’ve found a cheaper option. Hit up Ebay for an SJ4000 camera, which, if you sort the buy-it-now listings, you should be able to get for less than $20.

If that’s too rich for your blood, look for the Mini DVR 808, which is keychain sized and costs more like $5.

Don’t expect the world for that kind of money, but you can get a surprisingly good view of your layout from a perspective you’ll never see in person with one.

It’s not quite like getting to ride in your trains, but it’s not bad, either.

The Channel Master DVR+ is a cord-cutter’s secret weapon

One of the key things that keeps people from cancelling cable and saving themselves $100 a month is the DVR. They don’t want to lose the ability to time-shift their favorite shows and rewatch favorites during rerun season.

Channel Master has the solution for that: The Channel Master DVR+, an over-the-air DVR that works with any antenna and records shows,up to two at once, to an attached USB hard drive. There are no subscription fees, and you can plug in whatever sized hard drive you want. Plug it in to an Ethernet connection, or plug in a USB wifi adapter (a $40 option) if you want the DVR to pull down TV listings over the Internet for you.

The $250 price could be a bit off-putting, but it’s a one-shot purchase. Once you pay the $250, plus whatever hard drive you attach to it, and the wifi adapter if you want it, you’re done. No monthly fees. No losing your shows if you change plans. And if you want a bigger hard drive, just get a new one and plug it in. And since the hard drive is detachable, it probably means you can plug the drive into a computer and copy its contents to another drive for backup, so if the drive ever fails, you don’t lose everything.

To me, the flexibility makes up for the price. I’ve considered trying to build such a device in the past, but by the time I bought a case, motherboard, CPU, memory, and tuner card, I would be out $150-$200, and then I’d probably have to spend most of a weekend getting it all working together. And after that, there’s no guarantee anyone else in the house besides me would be able to figure out how to use it. Getting something I can just take out of the box, plug in, and let the family use is worth a bit of a premium.

And besides, even if I sunk $400 into the thing, that’s four months of cable.

I’m not exactly sure when the DVR+ will be available, but if I can buy one this summer, I intend to.

DVD players as cheap home media centers

I thought the steady stream of Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, Bob the Builder, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, Elmo, Thomas, and Thomas had finally done in our DVD player after almost 8 years.

It turned out the VCR I was running the video through was actually the problem, but what I learned in shopping for a potential replacement suggests I may want to think about replacing it anyway.Modern DVD players will upscale your old DVDs to make them almost hi-def, and have HDMI ports for digital connection to HDTVs. But they do more than that.

Mid-range ($50 and up) players include a USB port, so you can plug a flash drive or hard drive into them, and they’ll play MP3 audio or DIVX video off them.

Due to the United States’ anti-fair-use laws, I won’t tell you how to do it, but what you’ll want to do is rip your DVDs to a USB hard drive, convert them to DIVX, then plug them into your DVD player. Ask Google how. Then you have a library of movies in a 5-inch box and don’t have to mess with discs. That’s a big plus when you have small kids like I do. Plug in the box, turn it on, and pick your movie or show from the on-screen menu.

For ages, I’ve been planning to build a media center PC for just this purpose.

But I think I’d really rather just buy a $50 DVD player and plug a USB hard drive into it. Even though our 32″ CRT TV can’t really take advantage of a modern player’s video capability, the convenience of not fiddling with discs (and no risk of scratching them) makes it worth the 50 bucks. And once LED-lit LCD TVs get affordable, the DVD player will be ready for it when I upgrade.

Update: Rather than buy a pricier DVD player, you might want to consider a $35 DVR, which can double as a media player.

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