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A Bumpy Ride With Cheap DVD Players
by John R. Quain
Don't upset the kids in the car with a poor portable DVD player

In the never-ending quest to keep our children amused—or, at the very least, quiet—portable DVD players have become a necessity for any parent who has to travel farther than the corner store. But paying $300 for a player that’s going to be bounced around in the back of an SUV doesn’t seem practical, especially considering that the machine is also going to have to endure Slurpie sloshes, cookie crumbs, and sticky fingers.

Magnavox DVD playerBut are “value priced” portable DVD players really such a good deal? To find out if cheap players could endure the rigors of the road, I trudged over to three major chain stores to buy three players ranging in price from $79 to $156. The point of the exercise was to determine if the cheapest player was good enough to watch “Monsters Inc.” or whether spending an extra $50 to $200 would make a difference in terms of quality or performance. The ultimate litmus test: one technologically over-educated 3 and a half-year-old and two parents short on patience.

My first stop was that paragon of “value,” Walmart. There I found a Durabrand PDV-705 7” Portable DVD Player for just $78.72. For that I got a clamshell style portable with a rechargeable battery, an AC adapter, an AV cable, and a remote control. I was disappointed to discover later that a 12-volt car adapter was not included—a major oversight in my view. So I bought a third-party adapter, which added $10 to the overall price.

Like other more expensive models, the Durabrand will not only play DVDs, but also CDs and discs filled with MP3 tracks. However, it failed to play a legal home recording of “Kiki’s Delivery Service”; the same disc played without incident on three other home DVD machines. Furthermore, the clamshell design, while perfectly fine in the back of an SUV proved to be a detriment in economy class airline seats where one is subject to the vicissitudes of reclining seats.

Considering the price, however, the whole family agreed that the Durabrand’s controls were surprisingly sturdy and forgiving. Fumbling in the dark with inscrutable controls while a petulant child waits can be frustrating so we especially appreciated touches such as the separate brightness and color buttons situated right below the screen (the other two models bury those controls in on-screen sub menus). And when we popped in “Bartok” only to discover that the French subtitles were on, a simple press of the player’s handy “subtitle” button resolved the issue (compare that to more than a dozen portables I’ve tested that, again, force you to sort through multiple on-screen menus to turn off the subtitles).

While the Durabrand’s controls were laudable, the layout did leave something to be desired. For example, the play/pause button is located along one side of the open player, while the fast-forward and rewind buttons are on the opposite side. But we quickly became accustomed to such quirks.

Jacking up the volume we found the built-in speakers were generally sufficient to overcome all but the most obtrusive road noise. However, if more than one person is going to share the show, I’d recommend using headphones. Fortunately, the Durabrand player has two mini headphone jacks.

We were less enthusiastic about the Durabrand’s 7-inch screen. My daughter complained that the underwater tones in “Finding Nemo” looked washed out. I agreed, but what the screen lacked in brightness and color saturation it made up for in detail and contrast. In a cave scene, for example, I could clearly make out objects in the shadows, while on the brighter screen of the Polaroid model we tested the peripheral objects disappeared into blackness. Furthermore, while the Durabrand’s picture lacked the vibrancy of the other two players, it also didn’t have as much horizontal banding as the more expensive Polaroid.

One surprise: the rechargeable battery is rated to last just 2.5 hours, but I found it was good enough for a New York to Vermont trip of 3 hours and 15 minutes.

One Step Up

   Circuit City offered more portable models than Walmart. I chose a mid-priced Polaroid PDM-0742 for $139.99 plus tax. For the extra money we got the same sized screen as the Durabrand—7-inches, measured diagonally—but the Polaroid model’s display can swivel 180 degrees or even fold flat so that no matter how far back your fellow passengers recline their seats, you’ll still have room to watch a movie. The machine came with the requisite accessories, including a power adapter, credit card-sized remote control, A/V cable, and—thankfully—a 12-volt car power adapter. However, the Polaroid model only has one headphone mini-jack, so the company includes a Y-splitter to accommodate two headphone users.  Using the player’s speakers on road trips, however, the Polaroid was good and loud and did an excellent job usurping traffic noise.



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