Rentals Take the Sting Out of Getting the Latest Gear

Keeping up with the latest and greatest technology is often a losing game. Once you've spent a fortune on a new laptop, smartphone, or flat-screen TV, a few months later a better version comes along, leaving you stuck with yesterday's model.

Tech companies design products that are doomed from the start to be replaced by faster, more powerful upgrades.

However, tech rentals can help you enjoy the latest releases and save a chunk of money. Renting isn't right for every consumer or every product, but it can be ideal for short-term needs and other situations.

By renting, you can try new technology without making a commitment, or just sample a high-end item you can't afford to keep.

If you need a powerful Mac for a design project for a few weeks, for instance, renting one may prevent buyer's remorse once the update debuts at the next Macworld Expo. International mobile phone rentals let travelers talk and text whether they're in Berlin, São Paulo, or Tokyo. And instead of spending a ton on electronics that depreciate, a business can rent to avoid keeping assets on the books. Companies often rent plasma TVs and laptops for meetings and trade shows. A firm can even furnish temporary workers with rental workstations and desks.

Mobile Phones

BlackBerry touchpad
Cell phone rentals often serve employees who travel abroad, but they're also an option if you're gun-shy about locking into a mobile phone contract or commiting to a handset.

For one month, CellHire offers BlackBerry devices for $149, charging 20 cents per minute for calls and 35 cents per text message. Nextel phones with two-way radios cost $199 a month, with call fees of 99 cents per minute. The charges could snowball if you yak away, but with cautious use you might spend less than you would on a locked-in monthly service plan with a carrier.

CellHire's domestic smartphone rentals have risen as more businesses seek to provide phones to temporary staffers. It also rents unlocked phones for international usage, which can help you escape high activation and roaming fees and the cost of a new handset.

The BlackBerry Curve is the most popular handset for foreign travel, while Nokia, Motorola, and Samsung smartphones are also common requests. Renting a BlackBerry costs $49 per week or $149 per month, plus a $20 activation fee. Most call rates within Europe are 89 cents per minute, with SMS charges around 59 cents per message.

If you work in the desert or off an oil rig, satellite phones keep you connected for $299 a month.

CellHire offers support, including setup with mobile e-mail accounts, as well as security options in case of loss or theft. Competitors include Event Radio Rentals, Rent Cell, and TravelCell.

Short-Term Equipment Rentals

Companies that offer short-term electronics rentals mostly serve other businesses. They can tailor quotes according to specific customer requests, such as equipping a convention booth for $5000. Rather than your buying and hauling a plasma TV to a weekend trade show, the gear can come to you.

Meeting Tomorrow specializes in renting audiovisual equipment for conferences and meetings to corporations and mom-and-pop businesses. It has equipment available in every major city.

For example, you can rent an LCD projector for one day for $198 instead of buying it new for $1100. A $7000, 61-inch plasma monitor costs $1150 per day or $3450 per week. An $1800 Canon GL-2 3CCD camcorder is available for $275 per day or $550 per month. A laptop with Office 2003 preinstalled costs $209 per week and $259 per month.

CRE Rentals of Los Angeles also offers businesses short-term electronics rentals. It will rent out a room's worth of laptops to a company training temporary employees; a projector, screen, and sound system to a business making client presentations; or a specialized printer to a store creating a large-format sign.

MacBook Pro
An eight-core Mac Pro from CRE Rentals costs $595 to rent for a month versus $3500 to purchase from a retailer. That might be affordable for a month, but you might as well buy the machine outright after five or six months. A 15-inch MacBook Pro costs $245 per week or $395 for a month; renting it for four and a half months would approach the $1750 you'd pay to take the computer home forever.

A Dell Optiplex workstation that you can buy for several hundred dollars online rents for $145 weekly or $195 monthly. If you want to use the machine for a few months, it's probably cheaper to buy for frequent usage, but not worth the hassle if you don't need to keep the PC around. CRE Rentals customers generally seek Windows machines for temporary workhorses.

Rental costs can quickly exceed the ticket price of electronics if you keep an item like the plasma for several weeks, or a laptop for many months. However, rentals also include delivery before the day of the event, with on-site setup. By contrast, in-house audiovisual services at hotels or convention centers tack on additional fees to return revenues to the meeting site.

Though the pricing isn't designed for ownership, with 24/7 support included it can add up to a good value. The rental company can swap out a busted monitor or virus-infected PC with in-house replacements, too. If you can't afford to pay an IT professional to service your machines, even a long-term rental can be a bargain for a small business.

Rent-to-Own Options

Federal consumer-protection laws don't cover rent-to-own services, which consumer-watchdog groups have accused of predatory lending.

However, Rent-a-Center, the largest chain in the rent-to-own market, admits that short-term rentals are the best value, while renting to own almost always costs more in the end than buying outright. Three-quarters of its customers rent and don't buy.

Rent-a-Center has 3000 stores around the country that lease electronics and computers as well as furniture. The company pitches its service as a way for certain consumers to obtain items they otherwise couldn't afford. Its customers often have limited access to credit, have an unfavorable credit rating, or don't want to pile on to a credit card balance. More people with higher incomes than before the recession are coming in, according to the company.

Without a deposit or a credit check, you can pay a monthly rental fee and walk out of the store with items such as a 17-inch HP laptop, a 54-inch Panasonic plasma TV, or a Microsoft Xbox 360. The company does request an address, a Social Security number, and a driver's license number.

Upgrade Incentives

Although not a rental arrangement, the TechForward buyback program is built to attract consumers who want to keep a product for a while but like to upgrade regularly. Through participating merchants--including CompUSA, TigerDirect, and some RadioShack and Office Depot stores--TechForward BuyBack plans are available with new electronics purchases.

The plan costs $30 with the purchase of a laptop under $1000, or $150 for a flat-screen TV priced between $1000 and $2000. If you tire of the tech toy within six months, you're supposed to get back half of what you paid to buy. The benefit diminishes with time: Between 18 and 24 months from the purchase, for instance, you'll receive only 20 percent of the initial price.

This program could work as insurance against buyer's remorse, but it isn't necessarily a great deal. If you buy a laptop for, say, $800 and take it back after three months, you'd receive $400, so you would have paid about $133 per month for use of the laptop. If you took the laptop back in a year, you'd get 30 percent, or $240 back. At that rate, you'd have paid about $47 per month.

By contrast, if you kept the laptop for a year and didn't return it, the price would average out to about $67 per month. So, if you plan to get rid of the machine within a year anyway, using the buyback option toward a new purchase appears to be a fair deal. But you'd pay a premium to use the laptop for a shorter period of time.

Person-to-Person Rentals

Plasma TV
In addition to businesses that provide rentals directly to consumers and businesses, Web-based services such as Zilok, which enables person-to-person rentals of electronics and other items, are in their early stages. Users can offer and seek items in rental categories, including electronics, power tools, and cars, around the country.

Among the items available on Zilok (as of this writing) is an AT&T 3G Sierra Wireless laptop modem, which costs $20 per day in New York. For $15 per day, you could use an electric power washer in Lake St. Louis, Missouri, or a Sony HD Handycam in Chicago. If you want to pose behind the wheel of a late-model Porsche, it can be had for $399 in Massachusetts.

On Rentalic, you can find items in 15 states, with the most available throughout California. A company throwing an event could find golf clubs, folding chairs, and a PA system there. SnapGoods is currently in beta testing exclusively in New York. On that site, people list items for daylong rentals, such as $10 for a toolkit or $20 for a Roland XP-60 music workstation. To rent an item, you leave a security deposit via PayPal, and leave an identity trail via SMS and Facebook.

Lessors and lessees on person-to-person services set the delivery terms of their transactions, either shipping goods to each other or meeting in person to hand off large equipment. The services charge item owners commissions on transactions. For Zilok, that fee ranges from $1 for a $10 rental up to 5 percent plus $26.60 on rentals of $2000 or more.

By frequently renting out expensive gear via one of these Websites, item owners could potentially earn back what they spent on the purchase. Renters pay only the rental fee, but lose their deposit if they break an item.

Do the Math

Before deciding to rent or buy new tech gear, crunch the numbers. Decide how long you really need the product, and what you're willing to pay for it in the end.

Short-term rentals can be a bargain for a few days or weeks, but can quickly stack up if you keep extending the rental. Even so, businesses may find the included setup, delivery, and tech support worth the premium. Another attraction is the convenience of getting rid of gear once it has served its purpose. TechForward, for example, pledges to resell or recycle products that you return.

Consider the hidden costs of ownership, too. If you're planning to charge a new TV or computer to a credit card, what will you have paid in interest after a year? If you're paying a big-box store an additional fee for tech support or a flexible return policy, don't forget to add that to the overall price.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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