Twelve Hi-Tech Ways to Spend That Tax Rebate

In the U.S., our legislature has passed an economic stimulus package that includes tax rebates for a huge percentage of American taxpayers.

If you have filed your taxes already, you should know if you're getting it.

If not, the basic guidelines are these: If you made over $3,000 and less than $75,000, you get back $600. If you're married filing jointly, that's a $150,000 ceiling and you get back $1,200.

You get $300 for dependents and if you make over $75,000, you get less (the amount goes down further the more you make).

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For those with direct deposit, the rebates start going out on May 2nd (for those with Social Security numbers ending in 00–20) and will be all done by May 16 (for socials ending in 76–99).

If you're getting a check in the mail, May 16 is when the first checks go out (for socials ending in 00–09) and they keep going out until July 11 (for socials ending in 88–99).

That gets a little bit complicated, but the easy way to say it is: "A big chunk of America is going to get $600 back from the government."

So we'll run with that nice easy round $600 number. The idea is that it will "stimulate the economy" when you run out and buy stuff with it.

Frankly, we have no idea if that's really a valid cure for the economic slump the U.S. is in. It's not our area of expertise.

We are, however, experts in spending $600 on geeky stuff you probably don't need but would love to have.

So without further ado, our suggestions for 12 ways to spend your tax rebate.

"You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn."
— Abraham Lincoln

1. The $600 PC Upgrade: Is your system getting a little long in the tooth? Consider an upgrade to your core PC components: CPU, motherboard, RAM, graphics card.

A Core 2 Duo E8400 will run you about $210. A decent motherboard based on the P35 chipset is around $140. You can get 2GB of some nice 800MHz DDR memory for $60. A Radeon HD 3870 or GeForce 8800 GT will cost $180-190. Now you're $600 poorer and have a rockin' PC.

2. Entertainment on the Go: If you don't have a PSP or Nintendo DS, you're missing out on some great games. Prepare for all that boring summer travel time by getting both!

Nintendo DS Lite: $130. Sony PSP: $170. Add in some decent quality headphones like the Ultimate Ears 2 ($65) or Shure SE110 ($80) and you're up $365–380. That leaves you plenty of money for a good carrying case and perhaps three games for each system.

3. One Word — iPhone: Okay, this one's not for everyone, of course, but if it's not going to cost you a bunch of money to get out of a current phone contract (or you're comfortable with hacking your iPhone to work on networks other than AT&T), that $600 rebate check looks like just about the right amount to pick up an 8GB iPhone ($400) or the 16GB model ($500) with enough left over for some accessories.

The real reason to have one of these beauties is the big 2.0 firmware update coming in June, enabling Cisco VPN support, Exchange server support and a fully integrated software store. With the money you didn't spend on the phone, you can buy some cool games and apps. Or just hold out for "Spore."

Who knows — maybe the inevitable 3G model will be out by the time you get your rebate check.

4. Portable Tunes: You're not sporting an old janky MP3 player from 2005, are you? You have plenty of options for upgrading to something a little beefier.

There's the iPod Classic, $250 for 80GB or $350 for 160GB. Or grab a 32GB iPod Touch for $400. You'll want to spend $80–100 on a really nice pair of headphones (we like those from Shure and Ultimate Ears, because the headphones that come with iPods are garbage and make your music sound a lot worse than it has to.)

Perhaps you like the idea of subscription music? The 80GB Zune is a fantastic media player for $250, and if you head to you can get customized laser etching for a nominal fee. The remaining $350 is enough for you to have a Zune Pass ($15 a month) for the next two years, allowing you to download all the music you want.

The "premium" headphones that come with the 80GB Zunes are quite decent — no need to replace them if you're not exceedingly picky.

"I'm spending a year dead for tax reasons."
— Douglas Adams

5. Xbox 360 "Fully Loaded": Haven't gotten on board with the hi-def current generation of consoles? Jump in with both feet by picking up an Xbox 360 Elite ($450). But you don't want to play alone, so you'll want the second controller ($50), and a "Play N Charge Kit" so you can charge your controllers while you play ($20).

Playing with the 360 without bringing it online is giving up about 80 percent of what makes it cool. You don't need the $50-per-year Xbox Live "Gold" subscription unless you want to play multiplayer games online, but the free "Silver" level gets you free demos and lets you download Xbox Live Arcade games and such.

To make sure you can get your 360 online, you can either buy the grossly overpriced official wireless kit ($100!) or save yourself some money and get a basic wireless Ethernet bridge for about $50.

6. Wii for the Whole Family: It looks like you can actually find a Nintendo Wii in stores these days — it was tough until just recently. The fun of it is flailing your arms around with the whole family.

So why not get a Wii for four? That's $250 for the Wii itself, which comes with one Wii remote and Nunchuck controller, as well as "Wii Sports."

You'll need three more Wii remotes ($40 each) and three Nunchucks ($20 each). Might as well make one of those Wii remotes the "Wii Play with Wii Remote" bundle so you get a bunch of other mini-games ($50 instead of $40).

Then you'll need some games. "Mario Kart" is due out before the tax rebates go out ($50), and "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" is wacky cartoon violence for four at once ($50). Though you can't play four at once, no Wii owner should be without "Super Mario Galaxy" ($50).

So there you have it — a Wii with four controllers and five games (including pack-ins) for just under $600.

7. Buy a PS3, Get a Blu-ray Player Free: Now that the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle is over with Blu-ray the champ, you may be thinking of getting a stand-alone Blu-ray player.

Why do that when they cost as much as the Playstation 3, which happens to be the most compatible and highest-performing Blu-ray player of them all (by a long shot)?

We suggest picking up the 80GB "Motorstorm Pack" version of the PS3, since it comes with such an excellent game ($500). Unfortunately, there's no infrared port on a PS3, so your universal remotes won't work. Better pick up that official Sony Bluetooth "Blu-ray Disc Remote" ($20).

And of course, you don't want your friends to just sit and watch you play, so a second controller is a natural purchase ($50 for the basic unit, $55 for the "Dualshock 3" with rumble).

Total price: $570–575.

8. Upgrade Your Audio With an Onkyo TX-SR705: If you run your set-top boxes, DVD or Blu-ray players, game consoles or PVRs into some sort of home theater system, you know how much good audio can add to the experience.

But if you're running video and audio separately, or have an old receiver that doesn't support modern standards, you might consider upgrading to the Onkyo TX-SR705. List price is around $800, but you can easily find it for about $550 or so.

What you get for your money is almost ridiculous. Three HDMI 1.3 inputs and one output, 100 watts per channel 7.1 output, support for every audio format under the sun including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD, video up-conversion through both component and HDMI inputs, automatic multi-positional room EQ setup, the list goes on and on.

Of course, if you're starting from scratch, you'll need speakers as well.

"Never spend your money before you have earned it."
— Thomas Jefferson

9. Upgrade to HDTV: Still don't have an HDTV? Well, you can't get a really nice set in a large size for $600, but thanks to some never-ending price drops you can get a pretty good set at more modest sizes for around that price.

These may not be the cream of the HDTV crop, but they're almost certainly a big step up from that eight-year-old standard-def TV you're still using.

We found a number of good name-brand 26-inch HDTVs for sale under $600: the Samsung LNT2642H ($588), Toshiba REGZA 26HL47 ($589) and LG 26LC7D ($599).

10. Green Up Your Home: The cost of this is wildly variable depending on your home or apartment, but $600 can go a long way toward saving your energy bill and the Earth at the same time.

Many homeowners have an old fridge in the garage where old food goes to die, and it's typically incredibly inefficient. For under $600 you can get a cheap fridge with a good Energy Star rating and save literally hundreds of dollars a year on your electric bill.

If you use bottled water, get one of those faucet-attached water filters (Brita, Pur, etc.) and a stockpile of new filters. The quality of water is just as good or better, it's more convenient than the jug or bottle and you won't be wasting all the plastic and fuel used to bottle and ship bottled water.

Six hundred dollars is enough for almost anyone to replace all the incandescent bulbs in their home with compact fluorescent models. They cost a lot more up front, but they last a lot longer (5-8 years) and use a third of the electricity to put out the same amount of light. They pay for themselves with a reduced electric bill in usually 3-4 months.

You can probably do the water filter, light bulbs, and buy easy window-insulation kits for all your windows with just your one measly $600 rebate check. Best of all, you'll probably save more than $600 on your energy bills over the next year. I guess it takes money to make money.

11. Step Up to DSLR Photography: Point-and-shoot digital cameras are convenient, but limited. If you've been eyeing those entry-level digital single-lens-reflex but haven't made the jump yet, now's your time. Prices have really come down, and you can easily find some pretty good cameras under the $600 mark.

Consider the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. It's not the newest in Canon's line-up, but it's a great camera for the price. Sony's Alpha A200K, announced at CES this year, is now on the market right at $600.

12. Get a Cheap Notebook: The world seems awash with new, small, energy-efficient notebooks of relatively modest power. But you can actually get a lot of utility out of these little guys, and they're a lot easier to take on the road when all you need to do is a little e-mail, Web surfing or light document editing. And they can be just plain fun to tinker around with.

The 8 GB ASUS Eee PC is $500. You can actually get HP's new 2133 Mini-Note for $599 complete with Vista Basic and a 120GB hard drive.

If you want something larger, a Dell Inspiron 1525 with a 1.73GHz dual-core CPU, Vista Home Premium, a 15.4-inch display, 1GB of RAM, CD/DVD burner, and a 120GB hard drive was $599 on the site the day we wrote this article, and may be even cheaper by the time you get your rebate.

"Anyone who says money doesn't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."
— Anonymous

Of course, we could be flat-out wrong with our dozen ideas. We could have missed some real head-slapping no brainers.

The point isn't the be all-inclusive, but to start your minds buzzing with ideas and to foster a discussion about how much cool stuff you can get for a relatively small amount of money.

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