Shopping Made Simple: DVD Gets Real

Photo by Tony Cordoza The success of DVD is so colossal, so rampant, so relentless that anyone discussing the format is almost obligated to gush about its astounding features and many victories in the electronics arena. For a change of pace, I think it's time to admit a dark secret: a lot of people hated the format when it first came out. Many folks had a deep feeling of resentment upon walking into the neighborhood electronics store and seeing that first DVD player, because with that sighting came the traumatizing realization that their massive VHS collections now had the half-life of a ripe tomato.

"Damn it!" was the cry, as thousands envisioned buying The Godfather Trilogy again (and for laserdisc owners, yet again). Formats come and formats go, but this one, with its sexy little discs and sudden pervasiveness, felt inevitable. Someone, somewhere had decided it was time to upgrade, and upgrade we would. But with prices of first-generation players averaging $700 to $800, for most of us it wasn't going to be anytime soon.

Of course, that was then. As some 50 million U.S. households now know, DVD turned out to have a lot going for it. And it hasn't hurt that since Day 1, player prices have headed south, with many today costing as little as - or, in some cases, even less than - a VCR. Yet DVD gives so much more.

With a tip of the hat to the CD, DVD replaced fragile analog recording and furlongs of magnetic tape with robust, error-correcting digital storage and nimble optical discs. On top of that, the medium brought with it DVD "extras," which have proven so popular that many studio releases include a second disc for them. With all this going for DVD, how could we not be won over?

But the format went even further. Building on the flexibility of the digital optical disc, a DVD player can be a CD player, an MP3 player, a digital photo viewer, a high-resolution-audio player - it can even interface with your PC. And these abilities aren't reserved for high-end models. Remarkably, you can often find them in players that cost $400 or less. The listings on the following pages will show you what's available in this price range. There are even a few portable players, which used to cost as much as a weekend in Vegas. And remember, we give the list prices - chances are you'll find these players for less on store shelves or the Internet.

Basic and Not So Basic FeaturesVirtually every player available, from $40 bare-bones machines to top-of-the-line models, has outputs for composite video (the yellow RCA jack) and S-video (the four-pin connector, which gives a superior picture), plus analog stereo and either a coaxial or optical (Toslink) digital audio connector. All of the models here also play write-once CD-Rs and rewritable CD-RWs. But if you venture toward the $100 line, you can get features like a progressive-scan output, which promises the best possible picture from DVD when the player's connected to a digital TV - something you'll probably have eventually, if not already. It's also a good idea to make sure that any progressive-scan player you're considering includes 2:3 pulldown processing. This feature (sometimes called "3:2 pulldown") compensates for the different frame rates between video and film, creating a smoother image. Most digital TVs have 2:3 pulldown, too, but not all processors are created equal. Our lab tests have shown that the 2:3 processing in many DVD players delivers a cleaner image than the processing built into some HDTVs.

One of the most important things to consider when buying a player - and one that's often overlooked - is the remote control. In this price range, many aren't backlit, but it's a feature worth keeping an eye out for unless you like turning the lights on and off every time you want to fast forward. But a well-laid-out, intuitive remote can make up for a lack of backlighting.

Plays Well with OthersIt's tough to find a DVD player nowadays that doesn't play MP3 files on CD-Rs or CD-RWs, and some can even read other formats, like Windows Media Audio (WMA). Quite a few players can also scan CD-ROMs for JPEG photos and display them on your TV. Although pixel resolution is limited by the player's video outputs, a built-in JPEG viewer is a handy modern substitute for a slide projector. And if you like the idea of bridging your DVD player with your PC, you might want to seek out one of the few that have flash-memory-card slots or an Ethernet port for networking.

You can't yet buy a DVD recorder for less than $400 (at least not at list prices). But if you already have a DVD recorder, or are planning to get one, you'll want to make sure the DVDs you burn will work in your other players. There are multiple formats of recordable DVD, and our listings tell which players are specified to read DVD-RAM, and DVD-R/RW discs. Most players that read DVD+RW discs can also read DVD+Rs. But no player is guaranteed to be able to read all discs in a format it's rated to be compatible with - it depends on the particular disc and recording method.

The last column in our table lists some extra features, most of which are self-explanatory. But you might not know that the mysterious "enhanced black-level setting" increases picture contrast, which can give a better - if less accurate - image in a bright room. And the DVI (Digital Visual Interface) output on the V Inc. and Samsung players not only avoids a cycle of analog-to-digital conversion if you have a TV with a digital input but can also be used to upconvert the DVD picture for a high-definition display.

Probably the most significant new arrival to the sub-$400 zone is the so-called universal player (Pioneer's DV-563A) - one that plays both DVD-Audio discs and Super Audio CDs in addition to all or many of the formats mentioned earlier. And there are a fair number here that will play one or the other high-resolution audio format, both of which can offer recording-studio-quality sound. Even if you don't have a receiver or preamp with a multichannel analog audio input, it's worth considering one of these players - you can always listen to the Dolby Digital or DTS soundtrack on DVD-As and the standard-CD layer on "hybrid" SACDs in the meantime.

DVD had its work cut out for it when it was just a curiosity in electronics stores. It faced the twin challenges of an entrenched opponent in VHS and a buying public skeptical of new formats. But sales of DVD players have long since eclipsed those of VCRs. Soon, DVD won't even be competing with videotape but instead taking on its more worthy rivals - video hard-disk recorders, on-demand programming via cable or satellite TV and the Internet, and DVD's own high-definition offspring. New features are continually being added to players, and prices have come so far down that any working stiff can afford one. This is one format whose success is well deserved. Now, where can I find a copy of The Godfather?

PDF: Product listings