Two years ago, on a reporting assignment, a small TV crew and I were shacked up in a houseboat near the Rio Negro in Brazil, when it rained. I have never in my life been so thankful to be near a portable DVD player. There are only so many games of spades in a deck of cards, and even a bunch of Arkansas boys run out of Aggie jokes eventually. When a cameraman plugged his player into the TV, we were able to leave the Amazon basin for the dustscapes of Blazing Saddles and The Outlaw Josey Wales. And—notably, after 10 days of sharing cramped rooms and tiny boats—no one murdered anyone. Well, except Clint Eastwood.
I haven't run aground anywhere so remote since, but this year I will have visited something like 30 states and provinces, mostly in service of writing about sports and the outdoors. That circuit has dragged me through some truly pissant towns—I'm looking at you, Evans, Ga., and Nice, Calif.—and a dizzy flipbook of airports. MP3s and Dashiell Hammett will quiet a laid-over brain only so long. Sometimes you just want to zone out to some Samurai Jack.
Normally I use my laptop for digital time-killing, but its 17-inch screen makes it unwieldy, and I'd rather conserve my battery life for, you know, work. So over the past few weeks, I've put a passel of portable DVD players through their paces, and they no longer feel like an extravagance. For one, they're relatively cheap—$100 at the low end, $250-plus for more under the hood—and they're versatile. Some of the players could take the place of a home DVD unit or even, in some capacities, a laptop. The players I've been using can read, variously, MP3s, JPEGs, WMAs, MPEGs, and all forms of CD and DVD formats.
To gauge each of the machines' visual detail and fidelity, I watched Hero, a chromatically indulgent Chinese battle epic, and for the audio, Snatch, the English noir caper embroidered with a host of unintelligible accents.
I also spun a bootlegged copy of the cheeseball 13 Going on 30 that a friend of a friend smuggled out of Manhattan some years ago. I recalled a story that a buddy once told me about a fellow airplane passenger pulling out a DVD player, putting in his earbuds, and popping in a disc, only to have it not play. Tiny defeats stalk chronic travelers, and the format incompatibility apparently broke the man, for he did nothing but stare at the back of the seat for the rest of the flight. Happily, all the players I tested ran the bootleg beautifully, rendering even the silhouettes of theatergoers coming and going midfilm.
The players could score a possible 30 points, with 10 points apiece in the following categories:
Audio and video. How big is the screen? How crisp is the picture resolution? How rich is the sound with the system's built-in speakers?
Utility. This includes interface, weight, battery life, file formats supported, extra headphone jacks, skip protection, appearance, and variety of connections supported.
Value. The standard consumer equation: my overall subjective happiness with the player, divided by its price.
Overall, the units are more similar than dissimilar; there wasn't a patent dud in the 10 players I bought from Target and Best Buy. A couple of them were, however, more outstanding than others.
Hereforth are eight notable players and the prices I paid for them, from my least favorite to the sharpest:
Philips PET708, $180 The selling point on this player is obvious: In addition to the main player, it comes with a second separate screen. Too bad neither is very big—a modest 7 inches—or particularly crisp.
And the player shorts you in every other sense, with just two-and-a-half hours of battery life and no WMA or MPEG compatibility. The on-panel controls are some of the least functional of the bunch. You can't fast-forward or reverse on the unit, and the volume controls are plus/minus buttons, making swift adjustments impossible.
Sure, it's nice having the two screens—even if the box doesn't depict the cat's cradle of wires needed to connect them. But unless you have twins who'd otherwise bicker, there's really no other reason to recommend this unit.