How to Choose a Portable DVD Player

At the opposite end of the spectrum from giant home-theater screens lies the portable DVD player. Built for people who want to enjoy movies on the go, these battery-operated devices let you enjoy your favorite standard-definition DVDs anywhere, without having to squint at a tiny iPod screen.

Basic Features
Unlike DVD players for your home, you'll find a fairly standard set of features on portable DVD players. Most models support a 480p resolution, which is fine for smaller screens, playback, chapter search, fast forward and reverse. In general, slow-motion scanning won't be as good as you'd find on a home system.

The other common features to look for are input and output jacks. Input jacks let you hook up an iPod or video camera so that you can view things on the portable's screen. Output jacks let you plug the portable DVD player into a television with compatible jacks, useful if you want to watch movies in a hotel or motel. Some models also include memory card readers that let you view photos taken with a digital camera.

The Screen Play
The real difference between portable DVD players is their screens and the way the screens are mounted. Most portable DVD players resemble a laptop computer without the keyboard; the screen flips up and the DVD runs from the lower part of the case. Some models have swivel screens that can rotate to a variety of positions, which makes it easier for several people to watch a DVD at the same time.

Tablet-style portable DVD players have the player mounted behind the screen. While it's easier for several people to watch a movie on a tablet-style player, it's also easier for the screen to be damaged, because it can't be closed into the case when it's not in use.

A portable DVD player has an LCD screen, and sizes range from 7" to 10.2", measured diagonally. All current portable DVD players support the 16:9 widescreen format found on many DVDs. Surprisingly, you won't find a lot of specifications to compare screen performance, which leaves you no choice but to see some in action and trust your eyes. Look for a bright screen, which will make it easier to see the action on sunny days.

All portables will handle commercially available DVDs. If you make your own discs with a computer, you'll need to see what formats are supported. Most players are compatible with the standard DVD and CD writing formats (DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, DVD-RW, CD-R, CD-RW), but they may not support the content on those discs. MP3 music, JPEG images and MPEG2 video are fairly universal. Newer formats such as progressive JPEG, WMA and MPEG4 aren't as widely supported, so you'll need to seek them out.

Portable Blu-ray DVD players aren't a practical reality yet. Although the first players are expected by the end of 2008, it will take some time before prices drop to an affordable level. Since portable DVD players have such small screens, the image enhancements offered by Blu-ray discs won't be as noticeable as they are on large-screen TVs.

Battery Life
The other variant between portable DVD player models is how long the batteries will last. Better portables have built-in rechargeable batteries, and viewing time varies depending on the battery type and the size of the screen. Lithium ion batteries are best, and you'll find viewing times that range from 2 hours to 12 hours, with smaller screens generally offering longer viewing times.

If you'll be using your portable DVD player in the car, look for a model that includes a car adaptor so you don't have to rely on batteries.

Sound Advice
Don't expect much from the speakers built in to a portable DVD player. The small speakers are good for a portable system, but they don't compare to the home theater system at home. Bass is a particular challenge for small speakers, since they don't have the surface area needed for good bass reproduction.

In general, it's not worth spending extra for simulated surround sound. Instead, find speakers that sound good to you. You typically won't find the frequency range of speakers listed. Most portable DVD players have RCA audio output jacks that let you plug them into a stereo system, but most models lack surround sound output and decoding, so even if you plug them into a home theater system, you'll still only get stereo sound.

For car and airplane use, headphone jacks are a must. Most portable DVD players have two headphone jacks, which makes it easy for two people to enjoy a DVD without disturbing others.

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