In the four years since the first one hit the market, DVD players have become the fastest-growing electronic product ever. Already, one in three American households owns one, and in September, sales of DVD players surpassed those of VCRs for the first time. In the electronics category, they are this year's most-desired holiday gift, topping digital cameras and flat-screen TVs in an October survey by Web auctioneer eBay.
The low price isn't all that's fueling demand. Movie studios are packing their DVDs with hours and hours of extras--movie trailers, "making-of" documentaries, directors' commentaries--that they can't fit on the videocassette versions of the same features.
If you're new to DVDs, you'll be amazed at the picture, whatever the price you pay and no matter what TV you own. Images are clearer and crisper, without fuzzy edges. The colors are truer, too, particularly the reds, which have a tendency to spread or bleed on video. But don't fall for the sub-$100 loss leaders offered as come-ons by the mass merchandisers. They're likely to be close-outs, lacking now-standard features such as the ability to play CD-Rs and CD-RWs, the two types of homemade compact discs. Or they may be stripped-down versions without basic connectors you need to best hook them up to a late-model TV or stereo.
If you want the most bang for the buck, plan on spending at least $150 (or maybe $20 less if you shop on the Internet). At that price, a good budget buy is the SD1700 from Toshiba, one of the inventors of the DVD. Because of the more sophisticated video processing on name-brand players, you should be able to see a sharper picture than on the $99 machines. Moreover, this model will play homemade CDs, including those with MP3 audio files--important for anyone who downloads music from the Net.PROGRESSIVE SCAN. For about a hundred dollars more, you can get almost all of the bells and whistles available these days. That would be the Toshiba SD4700, at $250, or comparable models such as Sony's DVP-NS700P, for $300, or Panasonic's DVD-RP56, for around $230. Their touted advantage is that they can show movies in the so-called progressive-scan format, a term you'll hear a lot when you go shopping for a DVD player.
Progressive scan is essentially an insurance policy, a way to future-proof your DVD player so it will work with that digital TV you'll probably buy in the next five or six years. (The Federal Communications Commission requires that all TV stations broadcast digital signals by 2006.) A simplified explanation: Ordinary TV splits each frame of a video picture into two 240-line frames that alternate on the screen. Progressive-scan DVD players display all 480 lines at the same time, just like a computer monitor. You can see the difference, but only if you have a digital TV. Look for thin, horizontal lines on the screen--they won't jiggle. Diagonal lines won't have jagged edges, either. If you're watching a progressive-scan picture on a big-screen TV, the horizontal-line structure won't be nearly as noticeable.
You also want your DVD player to play CDs. That way, you can get rid of your CD player. For that reason alone, you need to check out DVD players in person. Most are optimized for playing movies, and many skimp on the audio functions. When you go shopping, take a CD along--one you've recorded yourself, if homemade mixes are important to you--and check how it sounds in different models. Listen especially for dropped notes or static when you load the disc or use the "next" button to skip to the beginning of a new track.TAKE FIVE. Take a look at DVD changers, too. Most, such as the Pioneer DV-C503, Sony DVP-NC600/B, or Panasonic DVD-CV51, hold five discs. They're all about $250--and no, they're not designed to load in all five original-cast Star Trek movies for your own mind-numbing marathon. Sure, you can do that, but they're really aimed at people who like to load up five CDs for an evening's worth of background music. You can get DVD changers that will hold some 300 discs for about $500 if you're short on shelf space.
Here's a smart twist: Sampo has a $250 DVD player with a slot for the 1 1/2-inch square CompactFlash card used by many MP3 players and digital cameras. Slip it in, and you can listen to your music or view snapshots on TV. Also check out Sony's $300 Style Cube. It's a pretty basic DVD player, but it's less than half the size of the others. You can park it vertically in a bookshelf or even hang it on the wall. Another way to save space: Buy a portable that can be used on an airplane or in a car and hooked up to a TV at home. Today's hottest seller is Panasonic's $1,000 DVD-LA95 with a 9-inch screen, the biggest available.
Other tips for your shopping trip: Turn the DVD player around. Look for a series of three jacks, usually colored red, green, and blue. They make up the component video output, which delivers the highest-quality picture--providing your TV has a matching set. If it doesn't now, your next TV most likely will.
If you plan to play the audio through your stereo system, as in a home theater, make sure the DVD player has a digital-audio output. It will look like a single jack, often colored orange and labeled "coaxial," or a square, black opening for an optical cable. Better yet, get both, in case you can't remember what your stereo receiver has--or for if you ever change systems.
For this year's "everything" machine, go with the Panasonic DMR-E20, for $1,000. That's about $800 cheaper than the closest competitor. It plays everything--DVDs, MP3s, CD-Rs, and RWs--and it records, too. No fewer than four DVD recording formats are coming to market, and this has two of them: one for recording discs to share with friends, and one that records on a single disc over and over again so you can have shows to watch later when it's convenient, just like a VCR.
No matter which DVD player you choose, you're bound to be pleased. At these prices, you can easily afford a second if you decide to buy cheap now and upgrade later. By that time, the kids will be more than happy to have this year's model for their own room. By Larry Armstrong