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Deals await amid raft of home-movie options

It's the holiday season and the relatives are in town. Why not save some money, keep them relaxed — and perhaps give yourself some peace of mind — by arranging to have them watch movies in the living room while they're staying with you. Not so fast, though.

Watching movies at home was once a simple process: Stop at Blockbuster to pick up a VHS tape or DVD, bring it home, watch it, return it.

But video-rental behemoth Blockbuster in just a few years went from dominating home movie rentals to filing for bankruptcy protection. That highlights how quickly and dramatically consumers are changing the way they get their movie entertainment.

Today, movie watchers are using video-subscription services, such as Netflix; vending-machine movies, such as Redbox; and on-demand movies from their TV subscriptions. And consumers increasingly watch Hollywood productions on their computers or stream online movies to their TVs with help from a variety of set-top boxes. Some are even watching movies on the go with hand-held devices and laptops as they commute to work or travel for business and pleasure.

Behind the scenes in the movie industry, a number of players, including movie studios, premium cable channels and movie-delivery companies, are scrambling to create partnerships, carve niches and preserve profits.

While the evolving new age of home video is perplexing, it's worth exploring your options because you could be spending less, or getting better value, on movie entertainment.

"I've been surprised on what's out there," said Larry Behrens, a father of four and author of the "Poor Dad Tech" blog, poordadtech.com.

Here is a sampling of ways to watch movies at home.

— Redbox, redbox.com: Price is the allure with these vending machines that dispense DVD movies for a buck a night plus sales tax, or $1.50 for a higher-quality Blu-ray disc. More than 24,000 kiosks inhabit supermarkets, malls, McDonald's, big-box stores and drugstores. The downside is you must return the DVDs or face additional charges, but you can return them to any Redbox nationwide. The return trip can also cost you in gasoline and convenience. Sign up for Redbox e-mails and text messages to get promotional codes for even cheaper rentals.

— Netflix, netflix.com: This wildly popular DVDs-by-mail service is relatively inexpensive, with plans starting at $9 per month. As a subscriber, you build an online queue of movies you want to watch, and Netflix mails you the top DVD with a prepaid return envelope. Another benefit is Netflix Watch Instantly, an on-demand streaming service that allows you to instantly play many, but not all, movies. Netflix streaming, free with the DVD-by-mail subscription, is offered on a variety of machines: computers, video game consoles, HDTVs and iPhones, to name a few.

A downside to Netflix is that many newly released DVDs and streaming movies are delayed by several weeks compared with some other methods.

To compare the cost of Netflix to Redbox or other services, you'll need to figure your cost per movie, which depends on how quickly you watch and return them, and how many streaming movies you watch. A service called feedfliks.com, which has a free version, can help with the math. It links to your Netflix account and reports your cost per movie, accounting for both DVDs and streamed movies.

— Library: It's not a new method, but if saving money is your goal, don't forget the public library as a source of free or low-cost DVD movie rentals, said Stacie Hougland, content editor of Movies.com.

— Video store: Video stores still do a good business, accounting for about half of all DVD rentals in 2009, said Sean Bersell, a spokesman for the Entertainment Merchants Association, a home-entertainment industry trade group. They are ideal for people who want face-to-face interaction and, perhaps, suggestions from store staff.

— TV service-provider box (cable box): This is probably the simplest method for most Americans who get TV service from a cable, satellite or telephone company. To watch on-demand movies, most customers won't have to set up a different account or buy and install additional set-top boxes. But if you have minimal service, you might need to upgrade your service and/or your set-top box. Depending on your provider, on-demand movies often cost about $5 each, sometimes more for a high-definition version. And, often, you'll have to pay a monthly rental fee for the box.

On-demand services also can offer a selection of free movies. You can subscribe to premium movie channels, such as HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, which often have some of their movies available on demand at no additional charge.

— Video boxes: Apple TV ($99, apple.com/appletv) and Roku ($60 to $100, roku.com) both released updated versions of their black boxes recently. After hooking these devices to your TV with cables, you can browse and order movies on your TV with a remote control. Movies for Apple TV come from the iTunes store, and content for Roku comes from a variety of sources, but current movies will be primarily from Amazon Video on Demand. Both require wireless Internet access, and both will also stream Netflix movies if you have a Netflix subscription. Other video boxes are on the way. Google TV powers newly released boxes, and Boxee plans to release a box in November.

— Gaming consoles: Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 video game machines all can stream movies from Netflix if they have wireless Internet access. PS3 and Xbox also have their own built-in movie rental stores. Playon (playon.tv) is software you can add to your gaming machine, and some other supported devices, to stream Internet content. Playon costs $40 for the first year and $20 per year after that.

— You can use your computer to download movies and play them, or to stream online movies. Often, this means hooking a laptop computer to your TV. Newer computers and TVs can use a single cable for video and audio, called HDMI. You can get one online from places such as Amazon.com and Monoprice.com for less than $5. ITunes and Amazon VOD movies will play on a computer, as well as those at a variety of Web sites, including hulu.com and YouTube (youtube.com/movies). Some on-demand boxes can help stream content wirelessly from your computer to your TV.

— Though it's in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and plans to continue closing stores, Blockbuster (blockbuster.com) offers movies in a breadth of ways: in-store, DVDs-by-mail, kiosk, downloading to computer and streaming to some video devices. Its mail subscription includes video games as well as DVDs, which is a competitive advantage. And if you have a subscription, you can swap movies at a store rather than by mail. Blockbuster also doesn't charge extra for Blu-ray movies. Netflix charges an extra $3 per month for access to Blu-ray discs.

So, what's the best way to get your movies? It depends on what you want, when you want it and what hassles you're willing to endure.

If you want to dip your toe in the world of online movie delivery, get a free trial subscription to Netflix or Blockbuster By Mail, which gives you DVD deliveries plus the ability to stream movies to your computer and TV via devices you might already have. Find trials and introductory deals on each service's Web site or through a deal aggregator, such at Savings.com.

Whatever you do, have them handy when the relatives show up in December. You might even want to sit nearby and watch the shows with them.

Gregory Karp, the author of "Living Rich by Spending Smart," writes for McClatchy News Service. Readers may send him e-mail at gkarp@tribune.com.

Deals await amid raft of home-movie options