Rentals Take the Sting Out of Getting the Latest Gear

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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.

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