EDIT: OH SHOOT, Tom. If you want somebody SMART to respond, I'd better delete this.
OK, working backward. HDMI. In my opinion, using the HDMI ins and outs does deliver an improved picture. Not enormously better, but worth the effort. If your cable box and your DVD player each have an HDMI output, and your TV has only one input, you're going to need a switch. Now, as you know, you could get a receiver that has HDMI ins and out and do the switching in your receiver, or you could get a separate HDMI switch
like that reasonably priced model from Monoprice.com. As you can see that is a new switch, not due out until January 11, so it's quality is an unknown. There are more expensive HDMI Switches
, but at a price 40% of the Gefen's, I'd be willing to take a chance on the Monoprice model. I don't know for a fact, but I suspect you could get a full featured receiver and the HDMI switch for less than the HDMI switching receivers currently available. But, that would be up to you.
There is an advantage to having the switching done in the receiver. If you're using an external switch, when you change inputs on your receiver, you also have to change the input on the switch. If the switching is done in your receiver, you only have to change the input in the receiver. If you don't mind pushing a few extra buttons or have a universal remote that handles macros, this is not a big problem.
An alternative to switching is to connect either your DVD player or your cable box via component. There are conflicting opinions concerning which should use the HDMI input on your TV. Mine is that you should connect the cable box via HDMI, and the DVD via component to take advantage of the Hi Def picture from cable. Others feel the opposite. If the budget wouldn't allow for switching, this method is certainly viable, and you wouldn't be losing a lot.
Can't help you on the IPOD thing. You are "technologically challenged;" I am "IPOD challenged."
Buying a DVD player is little dicey right now. The Hi Def players (Blu Ray and HD-DVD) are just around the corner, but will, at least initially, be very expensive. So, if I were buying now, I'd be looking at something not too expensive that would tide me over until the Hi Def players come down to my budget ( in my case, that could be about 2020
A worthy player to consider, among others, is the OPPO OPDV971H
. It received the highest score ever on the Secrets of Home Theater and HiFi benchmark tests for video quality. It scored a 98, which was 2 points higher than the $3500 Denon DVD-5910. Customer service has been exemplary and it costs only $200.
EDIT: Tom is absolutely correct, don't get the Oppo unless you will be using it's DVI output with the supplied DVI to HDMI cable, or one like it. This would require either a switch, or connecting the Oppo to your TV's HDMI input, and your cable box to a component input.
If you are looking for a universal player (one that plays SACDs and DVD-As as well as DVDs and CDs) I'd look at a refurbished Denon DVD1920
from eCOST.com at $224 plus shipping. However, they are, at the moment, out of stock. You can find a factory fresh model elsewhere for around $300 to $350.
Receivers. Too many to name. If you get a $200 DVD player, then look for a receiver in the $500 to $600 range by Denon, Harman Kardon, Yamaha, Pioneer, Onkyo, etc., that has the features in which you are interested. That will keep you within your budget, and you'll find any number of capable receivers in that price range.