The first thing to realize about portable DVD players is that they’re much more affordable than they were just a few years ago; high-quality systems are available for as little as $200 or $300. Our recent trip to area retail stores confirmed for us that most buyers are concerned first and foremost with price, which suggests that families are still the primary target in this market. However, if you are inclined to spend more money, bigger screens with longer feature sets and multiple inputs/outputs are also available. With component and S-video outputs, your DVD portable can even serve as a highquality player for your bedroom, vacation home, or hotel room. In a pinch, it could also be used to drive a widescreen set in your living room. Another noteworthy improvement in this market is longer battery life; whereas 2 hours used to be the limit for most players, some of the newer models will play up to 5 hours.
In this review, we selected a crosssection of portable DVD players on the market, from straightforward budget players to dual-screen systems to technophile-grade10-inch sets with high-quality inputs and outputs.
Sound and Screen
In the past, portable DVD screen sizes ranged from about 5 to 9 inches, but at today’s prices there’s no reason to limit yourself to a small screen, unless a compact size is really important to you. Several manufacturers have come out with 10-inch screens, and Samsung even has a 12-inch player on the market. From where I’m sitting, a 9- or 10- inch screen looks like the sweet spot, since it’s still easy to stuff in a carry-on bag, yet large enough to enjoy from several feet away. For picture quality, all of the sets we tested were good, but there were definitely subtle differences. For instance, if you shift your viewing angle to one side, some screens look shaded, while others retain their brightness and clarity. Beyond that, each screen varies slightly in its detail and sharpness, although this is most apparent on close-up examination. In the end, a side-by-side comparison didn’t reveal a clear winner in picture quality, but generally speaking, the more expensive sets did look slightly better.
The speaker quality on these players is pretty mediocre, especially in the bass department, so a good set of headphones is all but critical if you want to enjoy the audio production that goes into modern movies. The vir- tual surround sound featured on many of the players is surprisingly effective, and a good set of cans or ear buds will give you a much more entertaining ride.
One of the decisions you’ll have to face with portable DVD players is which features are important to you. Since many of the players are geared toward the family crowd, car-friendly setups are available, with mounting straps and dual, multi-use monitors. There are normally several output options, and if you want to hook the player into a TV, look for component, S-video, and composite outputs, in that order for quality. Likewise, if you plan on playing video from a camera or other device, an A/V input is handy. Most players have some type of virtual surround sound, which simulates the real thing in a two-speaker system. Dual headphone jacks seem like a nobrainer, but some sets are still lacking. As for power options, a car lighter adaptor and battery come with most players, but not all.
Fortunately, battery life is much improved in the latest generation of DVD portables, and you can expect anywhere from 2–5 hours of playing time, depending on the unit. An extra battery is probably a good investment with portables if you want to use one for air travel, and will run about $50. Finally, be aware of the warranty that comes with your player, which can vary from 3 months to a year. In the past, these units have had a reputation for breaking down, which is no great surprise for a mobile electronics device with moving parts.
In the portable DVD player realm, a 10-inch screen is one of the largest you can buy. Anything bigger, and you may as well be carrying a small laptop. Whether a player this large is worth the extra heft depends on your definition of “portable,” but after watching several movies on the new Philips PET1002, count me in.
Sitting directly in front, to the side, or even several feet back from the PET’s 10.2-inch LCD screen, I perceived the picture to be vivid and bright, with excellent color fidelity and saturation. The 16:9 widescreen format makes sense on a screen this large, and during the many dark, shadowy scenes in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away, I noticed surprisingly good detail and definition. The Fifth Element also appeared remarkably clear, even up close. In short, it was a pleasure to watch any style of movie on this player.