How'd They Make It So Cheap? Amazing Prices on Consumer Products

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walletA digital video camera for $53? A cashmere sweater for $31? The prices on some popular consumer products have dropped over the years, resulting in amazing deals on items that were once exorbitantly expensive. Whether due to increased demand, new production techniques, or changing consumer priorities, the following items cost considerably less than they did just a few years ago. Of course, the cheapest option isn't always the best one, but most of the following consumer choices offer surprisingly impressive performance at extremely low prices.

Cheapest Laptop
With $99 netbooks on the market and Indian manufacturers touting a $35 touch-screen computer, the future looks promising for super-cheap computers. However, "real" laptops that come complete with a nice big hard drive and a few hundred megabytes of memory are still a bit pricier. A few years ago, Medison, a Swedish company began taking orders for the Celebrity, a well-appointed laptop with a promised price of $150; unfortunately, they failed to deliver. Even so, prices are becoming surprisingly low, even on many name brands: for example, Walmart is currently selling an HP 10.1" Mini 210-1041NR Laptop with 1 gig of system memory and a 160 gig hard drive for $288; list price is only $10 more.

Nissan VersaCheapest Car
Across the globe, manufacturers like India's Tata, China's Chery and Geely, and Japan's Suzuki offer a wide selection of cars for under $10,000. But in the U.S., if you want to drive a new car off the lot for less than 10 K, there are only two options: Nissan's Versa 1.6, which costs $9,900, and Hyundai's Accent 3-Door Blue, which has a base price of $9,970. For that price, you get some pretty basic transportation: neither car has power windows, power locks, air conditioning, automatic transmission, or a stereo. Then again, with money tight and the job market looking less than promising, you might want to consider rolling down the windows and bungee-cording a boom box into the shotgun seat.

Cheapest Digital Video Camera
Anyone who grew up in the 1980's can probably remember the first consumer market video cameras -- bulky, side-loading monsters that ate up VHS tapes and cost upwards of $1,000. Three decades later, increased competition, smaller size, and massive advancements in technology mean that there are numerous options for under $100. The cheapest option on the market, the DV136ZB retails for $53, but numerous retailers offer it for as little as $34. At that price, you don't get exciting extras like optical image stabilization or physical zoom, but the 1.5" display, 4x digital zoom and 1.3 mega pixels offer a reasonably-priced video experience that might evoke memories of your family's first camcorder.

sanyo junoCheapest Smartphone
While early smartphones like the Blackberry or Palm Pilot often cost hundreds of dollars, the increasing popularity of the mini-computers has steadily driven costs down. Today, Boost mobile offers a Sanyo Juno for only $99. For that, you get an internet-capable phone with a Querty keyboard, built-in camera, and almost five hours of talk time on a single recharge. It also has most of the standard bells and whistles, and comes in two colors: hot pink and blue.

Cheapest Cashmere Sweater
Harvested from the delicate, soft undercoat of a handful of goat breeds, cashmere has long reigned as the ultimate luxury fabric, with a price to match. Beginning in the 1990's, however, consumer demand and amped-up production have driven prices down; today, big-box discount stores sometimes offer cashmere sweaters for as little as $20, and we were able to find a cashmere sweater at Talbot's for only $31. Yet overproduction has come at a high cost: starving goats have denuded large swaths of Chinese countryside and drained its water resources, leading to brutal dust storms, air pollution and -- ultimately -- sub-par cashmere. With China's deserts growing by 400 square miles each year, it seems like even cheap cashmere may come with a very steep price.

Cheapest Flat Screen TV
In the 12 years since Philips put the first flat screen television on the market, consumer options have steadily expanded, even as prices have dropped. The current cutting edge is LED television, which pairs low-energy light-emitting diodes with liquid crystal (LCD) displays for a startlingly clear picture that uses very little energy. LED TV is still fairly pricey, but so-called LCD TVs, which use fluorescent light instead of LEDs, are getting very reasonable. Thinner, lighter and cheaper than traditional cathode-ray TVs, LCDs offer crisper images, greater convenience, and are far more energy efficient. Currently, 32" televisions -- like VZON's TV3200 -- offer an HDTV quality picture for less than $300.

leather jacketCheapest Leather Jackets
Leather jackets were once a sort of status symbol, a high-ticket item that conveyed a sense of style and affluence. However, like cashmere, a combination of American market demand and Chinese mass-production techniques have sent prices tumbling. The Middle Kingdom accounts for about 25% of the global leather trade, and a combination of improved hide-cutting techniques, government support for the industry, and a burgeoning home-grown tanning industry have enabled Chinese manufacturers to lower prices to only slightly above material costs. While this has been devastating for leather industries in other countries, it has been a boon for consumers, who can easily find leather jackets with list prices of $100 or less, and sale prices far below that.

Cheapest Aircraft
Various analysts have touted the arrival of cheap consumer aircraft, but private jets are still far out of the range of the average citizen: even entry-level models like the Cessna Citation Mustang, a popular "very light jet," go for $2.5 million. But if you're open to a little adventure, a cheap airplane may be well within your range: brand new ultralight aircraft -- many of which come without airbags, a safety cage, or even a windshield -- can cost as little as $20,000. And if you really want to live the life of James Bond, the next big thing may be the Transition, Terrafugia's flying car. With an estimated retail price of $194,000, the craft converts from a car that gets 30 mpg on the highway to a plane with a 460-mile range. While the Transition isn't on the market yet, the company has received more than 70-pre orders and hopes to have them out within two years.
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