TechnoToys: Portable DVD Players

Smaller and lighter than laptops

Clever travelers have known for a while that portable digital videodisc players can free them from the tyranny of airline movie schedules. With portable DVD, you can create a theater on your airplane tray table—or in the backseat of your car. Players from Sony, Sharp, Pioneer, Audiovox, RCA, and other makers provide astonishingly sharp images and sound quality in a package no bigger than a John Grisham hardcover. Of course, many laptop computers these days come equipped with DVD drives (which also read CDs and CD-ROMs), but portable DVD players are less bulky and less heavy—about two pounds versus the average four- to six-pound laptop. Most present movies in the 16:9 wide-screen ratio of a theater.

What is less well known is that once you reach your destination, you can plug the unit into a television set in that wind-swept cottage on Aruba—or your spare bedroom or kitchen athome—and have an instant high-performance audio-video system: With surround sound, Dolby Digital, and other features, portables can perform all the functions of a larger DVD system. Most even come with a remote control.

Most new top-end portables can play not only DVDs but CDs—with topnotch audio through speakers or headphones—Photo CDs, CD-Rs and CD-RWs, perhaps recorded with favorite music or images (like the kiddies' photos) you want to bring on a trip. But that's not all: Over cocktails on your hotel balcony in the evening you can view pictures you've taken with a digital camera or camcorder that morning in the bazaar.

Generally, the choice among the best models turns on screen size. Bigger screens mean extra ounces to pack and a higher price tag, but also more features. Panasonic's screens are especially crisp, from its five-inch DVD-LV65 ($700) to the nine-inch DVD-LA95 ($1,000), which also has Dolby Digital, DTS, DVD audio (the so-called next generation of audio), and virtual sound. Toshiba's SD-P2000 ($1,000) offers these features plus a crisp, clear 8.9-inch screen (which uses TFT technology like the best laptop computers) and dual headphone jacks so you can share with a partner—or amuse a couple of kids in the backseat without your having to listen to the Barney song one more time.

The state of the current art, though, is represented by Samsung's DVD-L100, an award winner at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, which tops out the price range at $1,200. Along with dual headphone jacks and the usual DVD functions, it's the first unit to come with a slot for Memory Stick, the Sony-sponsored technology for storing digital photos as well as MP3 music and computer files. This helps electronic equipment of all sorts—digital cameras, MP3 players, laptops—to communicate with each other better. Just released this summer, the DVD-L100 is less than an inch thick yet has a full ten-inch screen—the biggest out there—that tilts out so you can install it on your car's console or even on the ceiling (the screen-inversion control corrects for watching it upside down).

Two caveats: DVDs vary around the world, so European discs won't play properly on Asian models and vice versa. And you might want to invest in a second battery. Despite manufacturers' claims to longer life (Samsung offers an extended-life battery as an extra), you'll be lucky if any battery runs much longer than three hours. But that should be long enough to let you view a couple of films. That, plus the inflight dinner, and you're practically home.