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Panasonic DVD-Audio/Video Player Cool Factor 10

"Consumer Electronics" is a pretty stuffy phrase, but the companies in the CE biz can turn out some awfully sexy gear - and the Top 2 drool inducers have to be wall-hanging plasma TVs and portable DVD players. Slim and light, these players fit easily into your briefcase or backpack, or even a really big pocket. Bored on the road, you can whip out the player and watch a flick without having to endure the airline's bastardized version or having a hefty fee tacked onto your hotel bill.

Panasonic's DVD-LA85 PalmTheater ($1,400) isn't just another portable movie player, though. It holds a 7-inch (diagonal) color widescreen LCD, a Dolby Digital/DTS surround sound decoder, built-in stereo speakers, and a 24-bit/192-kHz digital-to-analog converter for DVD-Audio playback in its ultra-compact 7 1/4 x 5 1/2 x 1-inch shell. Run a cable from the minijack optical output for surround sound and an S-video cable for video output, and you can use the PalmTheater as the DVD-Video player in your home theater system.

Hooking it up to your system to play the multichannel mix on DVD-Audio discs is more of a challenge. You'll need three cables with a miniplug at one end and two regular RCA connectors at the other to run to the six-channel analog input on your preamp/processor or receiver. You can also use an optical digital connection for the front left/right channels and keep the analog connections for the other four channels, but since the music industry has decreed that pristine digital output is a no-no, the digital signal is cut off at 48 kHz.

While the screen is small, I had no problem making out the details of any image in any movie - including widescreen epics. As with any LCD, the viewability falls off rapidly as you move away from the sweet spot, but at that spot the PalmTheater puts out a clean, bright, and reasonably accurate picture. The speakers produce decent enough sound for two tiny drivers built into a plastic case. But you'll probably want to either use the two small stand-alone speakers and 20-watt amp Panasonic includes with the player (not shown in the photo on page 69), or invest in a decent set of headphones (excuse me, backphones) for both better sound quality and privacy.

Also included are a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack and an ultra-thin, lightweight plastic remote with raised-bump buttons. Forget about backlighting or being able to distinguish the different buttons in the dark, but for use on the road, this remote will do fine. (Besides, you could always program your universal remote to control the player.) The battery pack displayed impressive longevity. Said to be able to hang in there for 5 hours if you keep the screen dim, I was able to get through Lawrence of Arabia - overture, intermissions, and all (that is, just under 4 hours) - at normal brightness before the battery finally petered out.

- Panasonic Consumer Electronics | | 800-222-4213

IRock MP3 Player Cool Factor 6

MP3 players are a dime a dozen these days (actually, they're usually $200 or more a pop, but that's an argument for another time). How many, though, go out of their way to help you sing along with your tunes? Ignoring for the moment whether this is a good thing, if it's something you feel you have to do, the iRock 680 ($230) will help you get it done. Aside from standard MP3 features like a memory-card slot (two 32-MB MultiMediaCards are included), a USB port (cable included), earbuds, and a built-in belt clip, the iRock has features that take karaoke places it's never gone before. For instance, you can use the built-in microphone to record yourself singing along with a tune. Once you've made the recording, it stays wedded to the song unless you transfer the file to a PC, go into Windows Explorer, locate the .fid file, and delete it. (Chances are you'll be doing posterity a favor.) When you use files encoded in the MP3K format (yes, the K is for karaoke), the lyrics are displayed on the readout, with each word highlighted as it's sung on the track. (You'll find a decent number of MP3K files at the site.) Plug another set of phones or buds into the second jack atop the player, and a friend can croon along, too.

You can also use the voice-recorder feature for plain, old, boring stuff like note-taking. The sound quality through the microphone was pretty good - and, unfortunately, encourages you to sing along louder than you really should. The playback sound wasn't great, though, even after I swapped out the buds for better phones.

The iRock also has an FM tuner. Indoors, I was able to bring in just enough stations to fill the player's five presets (only two stations were locked in strongly). Outside, I did a little better, but this is not a crackerjack tuner. Careful, though - you can doom even this minimal reception if you plug the buds into the lefthand jack atop the player instead of the right one. The readout gives nice, big numbers for radio stations but uses pretty small characters for other stuff, which can be tough to read in bright light.

- First International Digital | | 847-202-1900