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DVD players

DVD player buying guide

Last updated: March 2014

Getting started

It makes sense to consider a DVD player only if you have a standard-definition TV and don't expect to upgrade soon. If you have an HDTV, you're much better off with a Blu-ray player. It can play your library of DVDs but will also give you the ability to play high-definition movies and, in many cases, to stream video from Internet services such as Netflix. But if you still need a DVD player for an older TV in a kid's room, for example, here's what to look for.

Types

Progressive-scan players

Virtually all new DVD players are progressive-scan models that can convert (or deinterlace) the interlaced video (480i) contained on DVDs and output it to your TV as a 480p video signal. Many players go a step further and upconvert the video to pseudo-HD. But neither of those features will work with standard-definition TVs, so you won't see any improvement in picture quality.

Many major-brand progressive-scan DVD players are priced in the $30 to $75 range, but you can find some models for as little as $25. Models that combine a DVD player and VCR cost about $100.

Portable players

These players let you watch a movie anytime, anywhere--perfect for long trips or waits between flights. You can also connect a portable to a TV for at-home use. Though you can also play movies on a notebook computer with a built-in disc drive, portable players are often smaller and lighter and might offer more playback options.

Most portable players look much like small laptop computers minus the keyboard. These typically have a 7-to-10-inch screen (measured diagonally) with a clamshell-style cover that protects the screen when it's closed. Others use a tablet style. Convertible models feature displays that fold back so that you can use the player in either laptop or tablet mode. Some models have dual screens and mounts designed for use in cars. Many models sell for between $70 and $150.

DVD recorders

This product category seems to be waning. Few if any new models are being introduced, and when searching the Web recently, we found only a handful available, some of them refurbished. That's largely because these devices can't record in high definition or play Blu-ray discs. Still, a DVD recorder offers better recording quality than a VCR, and a disc is easier to search and navigate than a videocassette tape. It's handy for archiving home videos and photos, and it can replace a DVD player, an advantage over hard-drive recorders that lack a disc slot. Prices typically range from $100 to $200 or so. Combo units with built-in VCRs let you easily dub your old VHS recordings to DVD, but they're also hard to find. The few we saw online were selling for about $200. Note that some of the DVD recorders now being sold don't have a built-in digital off-air (ATSC) tuner, so they can record only programming that comes in via cable or satellite--not free over-the-air broadcast TV you get by antenna.

Digital video recorders

A DVR records onto a built-in hard drive much like the one in a computer. Though you can't record high-def TV programming onto a DVD, you can do so on many DVRs. DVRs don't have a slot for removable discs or tapes, so they can't play recorded media. You'll still need a Blu-ray or DVD player to watch a disc you purchased or rented. A DVR is a good choice if you often record TV programs or often time-shift to watch a program at a more convenient time. You can also pause, fast forward, and rewind live TV and recordings, allowing you even more viewing flexibility.

Perhaps the easiest option for many consumers is a DVR that's integrated with a cable or satellite set-top box and leased from a TV service provider. On top of the rental fee for the box, there's generally a DVR service fee, often about $10 or so a month. Many DVRs have two or more tuners so you can record a few shows simultaneously or watch one program while recording others. Multiroom DVRs from various providers can record more shows simultaneously (one cable provider says up to 10) and let you watch recorded video on multiple TVs in your house. You may get more storage capacity than with a hard-drive-based DVR.

You can also purchase a DVR from TiVo, whose name has become almost synonymous with this type of product. TiVo recorders have gained a following for their extensive capabilities and easy-to-use interface. A TiVo unit replaces your cable box; you use it with a CableCard that you can rent from your cable company for a few dollars a month. (A TiVo HD DVR is also now available from DirecTV for a small premium over its standard models.) TiVo offers various combinations of price and fees; check their website for the latest prices and promotions. You must make a one-year commitment and pay a monthly service fee ($15 a month in early 2014), or a one-time service fee ($500) that's good for the life of the DVR. You can add an external hard drive to some models to get more capacity. TiVo recorders also provide Internet connectivity, with access to streaming video from providers such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, and more.

Features


Connections

Most standard DVD players now have HDMI connections and component-video and composite-video outputs; some also have S-video. An older TV probably doesn't have an HDMI input, so you'll have to use one of the other connectors, along with separate audio cables.

Disc capacity

Most standard DVD players accommodate a single disc at a time. Other standard players have carousels that can hold several (generally three or five) discs. DVD jukeboxes are able to hold 100 discs or more.

Disc formats

In addition to commercial DVD titles, DVD players often support playback or display of many other formats. They include CD-R/RW recordings of standard audio CDs, the recordable DVD formats DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW, and DVD-RAM, Video CD (VCD), and DVDAudio. They can also play CD-R/RW discs containing MP3 and Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and JPEG picture files.

Multichannel surround sound

To reap the full sound experience of the audio encoded into standard DVD titles, you'll need a Dolby Digital receiver and six speakers, including a sub woofer. (For 6.1 and 7.1 sound tracks, you'll need seven or eight speakers.) Dolby Digital decoding built-in refers to a DVD player that decodes the multichannel audio before it gets to the receiver. Without the built-in circuitry, you'd need a decoder built into the receiver or, in rare instances, a separate decoder box to take advantage of the audio. (A Dolby Digital receiver will also decode an older format, Dolby Pro Logic.) Most players also support Digital Theater System (DTS) decoding for titles using 5.1-, 6.1-, or 7.1-channel encoding.

Other features

Most DVD players also provide features such as multilingual support, which lets you choose dialog or subtitles in different languages for a movie. Parental control lets you lock out films by their rating code. Dynamic audio-range controls help keep explosions and other noisy sound effects on a DVD from seeming too loud.

   

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