How to lower your Comcast bill

If you use Comcast for your cable television, chances are that you’re paying way too much money. Don’t worry, this article should teach you how to easily, and quickly reduce your Comcast bill. If you’ve been paying the standard Comcast rates for television for several months, you’re account is probably eligible to receive a discount for the next six month. This discount is not automatic; you have to explicitly ask for it. Asking for your Comcast monthly bill to be reduced is very easy. Go to Comcast.com, login with your account, and choose live chat support. Simply ask if you’re eligible to receive a lower price for cable. If you are, Comcast will reduce your bill for cable television by half for six months, starting after your current billing period. If you pay 60 dollars a month for cable TV like I did, you will probably start paying 30 dollars a month for six months. This is a total savings of $180. The process of asking Comcast to reduce your bill takes less than 15 minutes if you use their online live-chat support. Sure, you will receive a note on your account saying that you requested your bill to be reduced. Because you never know what notes they attach to your account, it’s always best to be as polite as humanly possible. And that’s really all there is to it! Take 15 minutes of your time and save close to two hundred dollars! Saving money is really that simple!

Posted under Avoiding Fees, Saving Money, Shopping, Technology

This post was written by admin on February 5, 2009

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The Best and Worst Microcontroller Kits

Selecting the right microcontroller kit may seem like a daunting challenge, mainly because there are hundreds of kits to choose from. Here’s a list of the best and worst microcontroller kits to help you guide your way!

Microcontroller PIC

These 8 bit microcontrollers are by far the simplest and cheapest microcontrollers available. Being 8 bits, these microcontrollers aren’t very good at floating point arithmetic, but are good at many other tasks. You can even build an El Cheapo Programmer for these microcontrollers for a couple dollars, which is very cheap. Use these microcontrollers if you have a fairly simple project, and you don’t mind programming in assembly language. There is a C compile available, but that costs money. You can buy a microcontroller and make a programmer for less than twenty dollars.

Microcontroller PIC32

These microcontrollers are simply awesome. PIC32 microcontrollers have every interface you can imagine, including CAN, I2C, SPI, RS-232, and more. As a bonus, there are usually plenty of I/O pins to satisfy even the most complicated projects. Of course, being 32 bit helps out with floating point arithmetic.

MAKE Controller Kit

The MAKE controller kit is a decent microcontroller with plenty of I/O pins. The controller kit makes it easier to get access to all the pins on the chip by using easy access terminals. Many other microcontroller kits make it much more difficult to gain access to all the pins. The cost is about $110.

Thames & Kosmos

This microcontroller kit is for kids age 12 and up. Most websites sell these kits for $150, but I’ve found some websites which sell the kits for as low as $120. These kits are pretty expensive for what you get, but this is definitely the most kid friendly kit around. I would not recommend buying this kit if you a professional engineer.

BASIC Stamp Kit

Okay, I have to be honest about this one. In my opinion, the BASIC stamp kits aren’t very good. Stamps are very small, very simple microcontrollers, and you use the BASIC language to program them. Sure, they’re easy to program. Unfortunately, these microcontrollers seriously lack in features. If you’re doing a project which requires many I/O pins, or communicates over a bus protocol like I2C, I wouldn’t recommend a BASIC stamp kit. These kits are usually cheaper, but sometimes it’s better to pay a little more and get a decent microcontroller kit.

Posted under Saving Money, Shopping, Technology

This post was written by admin on December 13, 2008

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New Coilgun website added

This website is mainly about how to save you money one penny at a time, but why? Sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and remember that money is only worth something if you spend it. It makes sense to save up money for retirement, or a new home, or new car, but it’s important not to get carried away with long term goals. Sometimes, it’s best to save money for the long term, but also use some of your spare money so that you can live a good life. For me, I invest a lot of money into personal hobbies of mine because they can keep me entertained for months with relatively little investment.

Today, I’m posting about my new coilgun site. I didn’t bother getting a new URL because, after all, I do like to save money. I spent a couple months on and off working on a coilgun which has kept me thoroughly entertained and challenged. Thinking back on the project, everything probably cost me less than $200, which is fantastic for all the entertainment it provided me. If you want to see a good coilgun site with plenty of result data, feel free to check it out!

Posted under Technology

This post was written by admin on October 16, 2008

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Is the new AMD Radeon HD 4550 worth the money?

Recently, AMD unveiled its low end graphics card, the Radeon HD 4550. For fifty dollars, this card sure seems like a bargain, but is it really worth it? The answer is actually no! Those of you who keep yourselves informed about the graphics card market know that it’s a dynamic world. Currently, the nVidia budget card, the GeForce 9500 GT, outperforms the Radeon card in virtually every performance benchmark. Best of all, if you look on newegg.com, you can buy a GeForce 9500 GT from PNY for only 50 dollars. This is after a 20 dollar rebate, of course, but does that really matter? The fact of the matter is that the GeForce 9500 GT has much better performance and power consumption characteristics than the Radeon HD4550. One thing you should be aware of is that most of the GeForce cards have a fan, while the Radeon HD4550 is passively cooled. If this is a problem for you, there are still some GeForce 9500 GT cards which are passively cooled. These cards usually cost about ten dollars more.

The one thing I’m really trying to drive home to you is that you should always do your research before buying a video card. Right now, the only two respectable graphics card companies are ATI and nVidia. These companies constantly compete with each other, but ultimately, it is up to you to do some homework and figure out which card is currently the best price for the type of card you’re looking for. This can save you a lot of frustration and a lot of money too!

References:

http://www.motherboards.org/reviews/hardware/1819_1.html

Posted under Saving Money, Technology

This post was written by admin on October 2, 2008

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How to build a speed detector for a coilgun project

If you are building a coilgun (or gauss gun) or rail gun, a necessary part of your project will likely be some sort of speed detector. Getting a coilgun to work is rewarding, but you can’t continue the project without a reliable, accurate device to measure speed. A speed or velocity detector allows you to objectively quantify the performance of your gun. Given this information, you will hopefully be able to tune your project for maximum performance. For example, you can double the size of your capacitor bank and see if there is an improvement in final speed or not. Or, you can use different projectiles and see which ones go the fastest, or which ones have the greatest amount of kinetic energy (you will also need a weight scale to determine kinetic energy).

Here is my speed detector for my coilgun project:

This is quite simple and very cheap to build. In order to build it, you will need two infrared LEDs and two infrared detectors. These are readily available from Radioshack. You can probably buy them for a cheaper price from Jameco or Digikey, but then you would have to pay and wait for shipping. I built my project from two scrap pieces of wood and a piece of metal. As you can see, I didn’t even bother to cut the two pieces of wood to the same length because I’m lazy. You will also need to buy a PIC microcontroller and prototype board. The prototype board is readily available from Radioshack; however you will probably need to order the PIC microcontroller from Jameco or Digikey. The only other specialty components are LM339N and a BAR LED, both available from Radioshack for a fairly cheap price. One last thing I would like to mention is that since you will need to buy a PIC from Jameco, it would probably save you money just to buy all the components from Jameco, with the exception of maybe the prototype board.

How the speed detector works

The speed detector I designed is extremely simple, which is why I’m sharing it with you. There are two sets of infrared emitter and detectors. The emitter is always on. As soon as an object breaks the first beam, the first infrared detector no longer detects a signal. The signal from the infrared detector is analog, not digital. To help interface it to the PIC microcontroller, an op amp is used. This brings the signal to either a full zero or one. This signal is then sent to the microcontroller. Some microcontrollers have ADCs built in, but I would still recommend using an external op-amp such as the LM339N to produce a cleaner trigger signal. For my project, I used a PIC16F627, but there are many microcontrollers you can choose from that will work fine. I do recommend PIC16FXXX microcontrollers because they are very cheap, and you can even build a PIC programmer yourself. One thing that is important is to keep the infrared detectors in a dark place. As you can see, a piece of paper is covering the first detector, and a metal plate is covering the second detector. This helps to get cleaner signals and block out unwanted infrared radiation.

As soon as the processor detects the pin goes low, the software enters a counting state. In this state, the PIC microcontroller simply starts counting from 0. The current value of the counter is always displayed on the BAR LED. When you’re designing your detector, you have to keep in mind how fast you expect objects to pass through, and how accurate you want your results to be. In my case, results are only 8 bits accurate, but that is more than sufficient to get reliable and accurate data for a coilgun project. During the counting phase, you will need to carefully tune how fast the microcontroller counts. Because I’m only using an eight bit display, the counter will overflow very quickly. Therefore, it is necessary to intentionally add delay into the microcontroller program to count at a rate where you don’t expect there will be any overflow. For example, if you don’t expect objects to travel slower than 2 meters per second, you can use that fact and the length between the two detectors in order to figure out how many clocks it will take before overflowing. And oscilloscope is very useful to ensure your microcontroller is counting at the correct rate. Otherwise, all your data will be wrong. Verifying the counting frequency with an oscilloscope is necessary because it is too fast for a human to see. My microcontroller operates at 7.15 kHz.

Once the projectile breaks the second infrared beam, the program stops counting and displays the final count on the BAR LED. You will then have to use good old fashioned math to determine the final velocity in meters per second. I wrote a quick C program to do this, but you could also use Excel to create a simple lookup table.

Posted under Technology

This post was written by admin on September 28, 2008

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Using GPIO for I2C

Originally, this website was dedicated to methods for saving money in your every day life. While I still post those types of articles, I will also start posting a series of technical articles.

This article is about whether or not you can use GPIO pins, or general purpose input / output pins in order to communicate on an I2C bus. The answer is yes! For electronic hobby projects, I2C is an excellent bus protocol to use due to simplicity, ease of debugging, and extremely low cost of bus components. Another great feature of the I2C bus is that there is no minimum speed the bus has to operate at. Simply put, this means that it doesn’t matter how slow you send a message on the bus. This makes it extremely easy to debug, and usually doesn’t even require an oscilloscope to fully debug any problems you might have with the bus. There are two wires of importance in I2C. These wires are the clock and data wires. In order to use GPIO to communicate on the I2C bus, you will need to have exactly two GPIO pins dedicated to I2C. Please note that if you are doing more complicated tasks involving multiple bus masters, then you may need to use additional GPIO pins, but the vast majority of projects only require one bus master, presumably some sort of microcontroller or microprocessor.

The next common question that comes up is how to write the software to communicate with the I2C bus via GPIO. There are two ways to do this, assuming whatever microcontroller your using doesn’t have a built in I2C module (which is why you would want to use GPIO in the first place). The first method is called bit banging. Simply put, the software writes data to the GPIO pins one pin at a time, delays for a short period of time, and then proceeds to write the next piece of data and so on. Often, empty for loops are used in order to create delay between changing the GPIO pins. This is because I2C generally needs to operate below 400 kb/s, and most microcontrollers operate at several megahertz. Therefore, it is important to set the for loop to count to a high number so that the bus isn’t too fast. It is also important not to change the data and the clock pins at the same time because this may create timing issues. Instead, change the clock pin, delay, change the data pin (if necessary), delay, and so on.

The disadvantages of bit banging are that while the processor is communicating on the I2C bus, the microcontroller can’t do anything else. This is because the processor is busy executing empty for loops to intentionally delay the I2C signals. However, if you communicate on the I2C bus for only short periods of time, this con may be more than acceptable for your project.

Another technique is more complicated. First of all, if you don’t have an operating system running on your microcontroller, your only option will be to use a bit banging technique. However, high power microprocessors often have a reduced version of Linux which is loaded onto them. To communicate with I2C, you may create semaphores or threads, which are executed repeatedly on a timer. This is generally a better approach than bit banging because it allows the processor to schedule other tasks in between changing or reading the GPIO pins. However, this is only useful if you have an operating system with a scheduler. If you are unsure whether or not you have an operating system, chances are you do not have one. In either case, bit banging is the simplest approach to use I2C with GPIO pins.

Posted under Technology

This post was written by admin on September 25, 2008

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El Cheapo, the cheap way to program a PIC microcontroller

If you ever wanted to do a project involving microcontrollers, the first thing you need is a microcontroller, and programmer. Many commercial PIC programmers exist. These programmers cost anywhere from 25 to 250 dollars depending on how many different PICs are supported and how greedy the manufacturer is. In my other article, I gave a great review for the Microchip PIC32 starter kit, which includes the chip, programmer, and debugger. Best of all, it connects to your computer via a USB port, which is excellent since all modern computer have USB. The PIC32 starter kit only costs 50 dollars, which is more than reasonable.

However, there is a cheaper alternative if you are truly trying to save money on your hobby project. The cheapest way to get a PIC programmer is to make one yourself! The design is called El Cheapo, mainly because all the components together cost less than 10 dollars. Luckily, El Cheapo is extremely easy to make. Schematics of the programmer may be found by their original creator here.

What does this programmer look like? Here are some pictures I’ve taken of my El Cheapo programmer which I built.

Unfortunately, the El Cheapo programmer connects to your computer via an LP-25 printer port, which many computers do not have because it is now obsolete. If you’re thinking about building a PIC programmer yourself, be sure that you have a printer port on your computer. Otherwise, it’s best just to get a starter kit from Microchip which has a USB connection.

Posted under Saving Money

This post was written by admin on September 13, 2008

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Three reasons why you shouldn’t buy quad core processors

Thinking about upgrading your computer or buying a new computer with a quad-core processor? You may be making a big mistake that will cost you money!

#1) Good quad core processors are very expensive

If you’re thinking about getting a quad core processor, chances are you’re looking to get a nice, fast, high performance computer. Unfortunately, the fast quad core processors can be very expensive. Obviously, quad core processors are about twice as expensive to manufacture as dual core processors, so right away you can expect the processors to be more expensive. As it turns out, yield for processors go down as frequency goes up. This means the higher the clock speed is, the more expensive it will be. So getting a quad core processor with a fast clock speed can cost you many hundreds of dollars more!

#2) Many applications can actually slow down

Yes, it’s true. Even though dual core processors have been out for years, most applications are still single threaded. These programs can’t take advantage of four cores! With these programs, you will be much better off buying a cheaper, higher speed dual core processor, rather than a quad core processor with a slower clock.

#3) Quad core processors use more electricity

The die size of quad core processors is very large, so you can expect them to use plenty of extra electricity. Not only do you have to have capable power supply to handle the extra load, you need to pay actual money for electricity for as long as you use your computer. Not only will the processor cost more, but you have to pay more to use it also!

Conclusion

Before you get a quad core processor, you should really think about the potential downsides. Very few programs are designed to take advantage of 4 cores, so you should really evaluate how many programs you use that will, and how often you’ll use those programs. But the bitter truth is that most applications use one or two processors, and because of this, the most reasonable thing to do is stick with good, high-clocked dual core processors.

Posted under Saving Electricity, Saving Money, Shopping

This post was written by admin on September 4, 2008

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Seven reasons not to buy Blue-ray yet

The formatting war between HD-DVD and blue-ray has been over for months, so many people are considering switching over to Blue-ray. This article is going to outline the top seven reasons why you shouldn’t buy a blue-ray play just yet.

#1. Cost of the movies

Out of all the reasons you should wait on buying anything related to blue-ray, this is definitely the most compelling. It’s no secret that new technology is expensive, but that goes double for blue-ray. HD-DVDs were actually much cheaper to buy because manufacturers could simply retool their DVD factories and start making HD-DVDs for little extra cost. Blue-ray on the other hand, is not so easy to manufacture. Therefore, in order to manufacture blue-ray discs, manufacturers had to buy new, expensive machinery. Because of this, Blue-ray discs are still anywhere from 25% to 100% more expensive than regular DVDs! You don’t have to take my word for it, either. You can go to your favorite DVD retailer, and compare prices on new movie releases in both blue-ray and DVD formats. You are likely to see that most blue-ray movies are about ten dollars more expensive for each DVD. The best solution to save your money is to wait until scale of economy drives the prices of blue-ray movies down.

#2. Cost of the players

Like all new technology, blue-ray players are much more expensive than regular DVD players. Nowadays, you can get a decent DVD player for $100, but a decent blue-ray player may cost you $300 or more. Think about this for a second…are you willing to this much money for the privilege of buying more expensive movies? The folks at Sony are laughing their way to the bank every time someone forks over the cash for a new blue-ray player. Your best option is to wait until you can get a high quality, reliable player for a reasonable price. You may have to wait years before the players finally reach this point, but frankly, DVD’s still look very good on virtually any television or projector.

#3. Annoyance of security for players

Believe it or not, DVDs have encryption. Unfortunately for the movie industry, this encryption was broken very easily, which allowed people to quickly and easily transfer DVDs to their computer so they may be stored, or burned onto a blank DVD. I, for one, keep a copy of my favorite movies on my computer for easy access.

Because it was so easy to copy DVDs, Sony decided to step up security for blue-ray movies, at the expense of us, the consumers. The ramifications of this are profound, and will be discussed in this point, and points to follow. First and foremost, the copy protection on blue-ray discs was broken fairly soon after their release into the market. Because of this, Sony actually changed the security protections on their discs. After this change, new blue-ray discs WOULD NOT PLAY in current blue-ray disc players. This forced all the blue-ray disc player manufacturers to develop new firmware which needed to be installed on all their players in order to play newly released movies. What does this mean for you? Ever time Sony changes the security protection on their discs, you are going to have to wait a couple days, and then spend an hour to download, burn, and install new firmware for your blue-ray DVD player. So far, I’ve wasted over three hours of my life and about 4 dollars in blank DVDs just so I could install new firmware in order to play newly released blue-ray movies. Even when I bought Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (which turned out to be disappointing) I had to wait over a week before a firmware update was available for my player. The player I own is a LG BH-100. What really scares me is that if the manufacturer ever decides to discontinue support for my player, as soon as Sony changes the security again, the player will be unable to play any new movies ever again. That’s really comforting.

In short, Sony’s security protection software for blue-ray DVDs is one of the biggest engineering and business blunders of the century. Not only are their security features always broken days after being released, but it’s terribly inconvenient for us, the consumers.

#4. Annoyance of getting blue-ray to work on your computer

If you have a modern computer, chances are you have a DVD drive. If you want to play blue-ray movies on your computer, be prepared to jump through hoops. First of all, you need to have an approved operating system, processor, graphics card, monitor, connection to the monitor, and software player. If any one of these things is not up to Sony’s outrageous security related demands, then you will still be able to play the blue-ray movie, but the visual quality will be intentionally ruined to look worse than a VHS tape…and no, that isn’t an exaggeration. If you’re not sure what the exact requirements are for each of these components, chances are, you don’t meet the requirements.

#5. Buying computer software in order to play blue-ray on your computer

If you bought a blue-ray drive for your computer expecting to play movies, brace yourself. Many blue-ray drives on sale right now come with software which is intentionally crippled. For example, if you want to watch a blue-ray movie on your computer with Dolby digital 5.1 sound, you are going to need to fork over 70 dollars for an upgraded version of the software that came with your player. Usually, this is Cyberlink PowerDVD. Can you see how expensive this can become? What makes me really angry is that this is all a ramification of Sony’s copyright protection fueled by Sony’s greed. You could look at software from Sly Fox, which copies the entire blue-ray movie to your computer, and removes all copyright protection. This way, you won’t need to buy expensive software to play blue-ray movies, but you will have to buy Sly Fox software. You will also need 50 GB of free room on your hard drive and wait for however long it takes to copy the movie over, which is an annoyance to say the least.

#6. Burning Blue-ray is not a realistic possibility yet

If you have a modern computer, you probably have a DVD burner. DVD burners are cheap, and blank DVD’s cost about 50 cents each, which is reasonable. Blue-ray burners do exist, but the cost of both the players and the media is prohibitively expensive. At the time of this writing, the cheapest blue-ray burner is $250, but that does not support blue-ray re-writeable media. The cheapest blue-ray burner that is able to read and write to re-writeable is about $350. A similar situation existed when DVD writers were first developed. The only responsible solution is to wait. Simply wait for the price of blue-ray DVD burners to fall. That way, you’re ensured cheaper players, and technology which is better tested than drives available on the market right now.

Not only are the burners expensive, but the recordable media is even more so. The absolute cheapest 25GB 2X BD-R I could find on newegg.com was $8.99. Of course, shipping is another $6.99. The blue-ray media is prohibitively expensive right now. Right now, if you buy single discs (ignoring shipping), you will get 2.78 GB for every dollar you spend. If you buy single-layer DVD-R, you will get 9.4 GB for every dollar you spend, which is a vastly better deal. Right now, the blue-ray burnable media is simply too expensive, and not worth it. Again, the solution to this problem is to wait. The prices will eventually come down, so why hurry and get blue-ray now? The best way to make your wallet happy is to simply wait it out.

There is one more cold reality that you should consider about burning. Blue ray players for televisions DO NOT support discs burned with a computer. This is part of Sony’s master plan to eliminate piracy. So don’t think you can rent a movie, copy it, burn it, and play it in your blue-ray player, because you won’t be successful. The only solution I know of is to use a media-PC equipped with a blue-ray drive, and use that as your blue-ray player for your television or projector. Again, if you don’t have a media-PC, this is yet another costly item you will have to purchase in order to watch burned blue-ray movies on your television. Unfortunately, waiting isn’t going to fix this problem, although it may bring cost down on a media-PC.

#7. Renting is more expensive

It’s already widely known and established in this article that blue-ray movies are more expensive than regular DVDs. Unfortunately; you can expect that to be true even for renting blue-ray movies! That’s right; companies such as Netflix are planning on charging their customers a couple extra dollars each month for access to their high definition library. For the very last time, the best solution to this problem is to simply wait. Netflix and other rental places don’t want to charge their customers more, they are forced to because of the high cost of blue-ray movies. Once blue-ray movies become cheaper, these extra renting charges should disappear.

In summary, it is clear that one day, blue-ray will be standard, but that time has not come yet. There are still many problems with blue ray relating to the cost of players, computer hardware, blank media, and the movies themselves. While the movies may be in high definition, in my opinion, that is not worth all the extra cost. The best thing we, the consumers, can do is wait until the prices drop. Waiting will not solve all the problems, especially ones related to bizarre security and copy protection requirements, but waiting is still the best way to save some substantial money.

Posted under Shopping

This post was written by admin on September 3, 2008

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Your TV may cost you more than you think!

It is common knowledge that when electronic devices are off, they consume little to no electricity. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Depending on your particular television, it may be consuming anywhere from half a watt to 76.11 watts! It is unbelievable to think that in this day and age, a product would be designed and sold to use so much electricity when it’s ‘off.’

Already, CNET has posted a list of large, high-definition televisions along with their power consumption when on, and when on standby. You can check out the list here. If your television isn’t on the list, it’s worthwhile to try to look up the standby power consumption of your television online.

The absolute best way to save electricity is to disconnect your television from the power grid, even when it’s off. If your television consumes 10 or more watts of power when on standby, you can save some real money simply by disconnecting it when it is not in use. Of course, make sure the television is off before unplugging it.

Let’s do a little experiment to see how much your TV could potentially be costing you. Suppose your television consumes 30 watts of power when on standby, and you use the television 5 hours a day. Next, assume you pay the national average of 8.96 cents per kilowatt-hour.

$ 0.0896 / kWh * 30 W * (1 kW/1000 W) * (24 – 5) h/day * 365 days/year = $18.64 / year

As you can see from the example scenario, leaving your television plugged in when it’s off can cost you almost twenty dollars a year! Now, most televisions are designed to consume next to no power when off, but it’s worth it to double check and make sure you have a power efficient television. If it turns out that your TV consumes a significant amount of power when off, the simplest way to remedy the situation is simply use a power strip. If you use a power strip, you can disconnect your television and any other related equipment with the flick of a switch. Best of all, power strips are readily available and cheap.

Here’s a short list of the worst offenders:

  • Sharp LC-37D90U 40.04 Watts
  • Sharp LC-65D90U 76.11 Watts
  • Westinghouse LTV-32w3 33.76 Watts
  • Pioneer PDP 5060HD 25.12 Watts
  • Pioneer PDP-5080HD 22.95 Watts
  • Mitsubish-62628 50.88 Watts
  • Mitsubishi WD-65833 19.35 Watts

For more televisions, check out this list.

For more ways to save electricity, be sure to have a look at this page.

Posted under Saving Electricity, Saving Money

This post was written by admin on August 10, 2008

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