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.
Polaroid PDX-0073, $130 For this price, what's not to like? I bought this on a lark, and found it surpassed expectations. Light and compact, with easy navigation and two headphone jacks (a must on a smaller player), the unit has a screen that renders brights and darks more cleanly than some other players. The sound, though not particularly loud, is adequate, and its casing comes in blue or red—excellent for people who derive pleasure from color.
Overall, it's an average player at a below-average cost, making it a decent choice if you prefer not to drop $50 extra for more-advanced file support or a bigger screen. (Note: A couple of customers on Target's Web site complain that it breaks after some months. Save your receipt.)
Sony 8-inch DVP-FX810, $200 This would be the obvious winner if your hands alone were making the decision. The slim, sleek player might literally fit in your back pocket and features two headphone jacks, varied file support, two remote sensors, and a six-hour battery that attaches neatly to the bottom of the unit. The navigation's clean. The screen swivels 180 degrees along the x- and y-axis, and has an acrylic coating that allows quick fingerprint wipe-away.
Alas, its performance is not quite as dazzling as its features. The picture is nothing special, and gets alternately blown-out or too dim if the angle is wrong, like a laptop screen. And it's more expensive than other comparable players. Still, this is the best candidate to slip into a satchel, especially if you have decent headphones. I love the portability—and with a better screen, this would have been my favorite. But that's not quite enough to carry it higher.
Panasonic DVD-LS82, $260 The best feature of this player—a screen that can nod almost 270 degrees around the x-axis—may be enough to make it the airline carry-on player of choice. That 8.5-inch screen is also plenty big, but not particularly sharp on bright-dark contrast. The speakers are substantial enough that when the dog whined in the car-crash scene in Snatch, my terrier ran downstairs to see what the fuss was about.
It accommodates just about any file format you'd want, including DIVX, and offers two headphone jacks and intuitive navigation. The electronic skip protection is good enough that I couldn't jump the disc even as I simulated a train derailment with my knees.
Basically everything you'd want it to do, it does, and in a snappy little package. But it's pricey, and ought to render a prettier screen for the penny.
Memorex 10.2-inch Widescreen Portable DVD Player, $180 The big screen's resolution simulates the feel of film, avoids blowing out high-contrast images, and makes other players look like GameBoys. As with other large-screen units, it also carries more substantial speakers that almost impersonate a television.
It should have been the perfect player. After all, it supports most file formats (except WMA or MPEG video), features a dial volume control, offers two headphone jacks, S-Video, and four hours of battery life, and comes with all the requisite cables. Two flaws hold it back. It's built with light, thin plastic that feels highly breakable. More egregious, though, is that there's no fast-forward or rewind function on the console. To have to fiddle with a remote control to access basic functions on a device on your lap is mildly dehumanizing.
That said, among the players I watched, it's absolutely the prettiest screen for the price. Wide and loud, it would even be a solid player for someone wanting to set it on a coffee table to watch from a love seat.
LG 8-inch DP781, $160 Until you've watched several of these players, you might not appreciate how faithfully this player renders bright whites, sunlight, and darkness. And it's uphill from there. It hosts myriad formats and includes a USB port for music and images. The screen can spin around and lie against the main panel. It even displays subtitles during fast-forwarding, a thoughtful addition.
It's frustrating, though, to see a player this good fall short on a couple of counts. The speakers are average, at best. Its occasionally maddening feather-touch navigation feels designed primarily for designers, and the smooth plastic case picks up fingerprints faster than the candlestick in the conservatory.
Overall, though, it's a superior player if you're not as enamored with obnoxious speakers as I am. Right out of the box, with no fiddling, this player is definitely the best at its price, especially if you intend to use headphones.
Toshiba 10.2-inch SD-P2900, $280 Finally, audiophiles have found their player. With the speakers blaring from my lap during the frenetic and cacophonous diamond heist at the beginning of Snatch, I phoned a friend to run an experiment. "Guess where I am," I said. Her answer— "A strip club?" —should thrill engineers at Toshiba.
The screen is expansive and crisp—though it does struggle somewhat with heavy dark shades—and the navigation is smooth and simple. The player handles the gamut of file formats and impresses with a media card slot and five different video and audio outputs. One disappointment is that the screen can't swivel, and it's so heavy that if the unit jostles, the hinge doesn't hold it upright. I also groaned at how slowly the machine advances through chapters and fast-forwards (and at the slight grinding noise it makes as it does so).
But you should consider those mere blemishes. If anything below $300 feels like a deal, this is a must-have. Otherwise, pick up the Memorex or the LG, and sign up for a year of Netflix with the change.