February 7, 2002 New York Times DVD Players Under $100: What Price a Bargain? By DAVID POGUE TODAY'S trivia: What best-selling gadget helped stave off an economic train wreck for retailers this past Christmas? Anyone? Anyone? All right, here's a hint: its crisp digital circuitry Delivers Vibrant Details. In the long run, it's sure to contribute to the Diminishing of VCR Dominance. And lately, its price has Dropped Very Dramatically. Give up? It's the DVD player, one of the fastest-adopted machines in the history of gizmos. Its acceptance has been so rapid, in fact, that some strange economic weather patterns are emerging. Whereas VCR's took 30 years to fall below $100, DVD players have taken only four years. Today, you can actually buy a full-fledged DVD player for as little as $80. Now, these aren't what you'd call name- brand machines. They're made by Chinese companies that, suffice it to say, did not run ads during the Super Bowl. You can buy some of these players online, but most are available only in stores like Circuit City, Best Buy (news/quote), Wal-Mart (news/quote), Kmart (news/quote), Target and even drugstore chains. (Phrase for the new millennium: "Honey, could you stop and pick up some deodorant and a DVD player?") Like almost any modern player, most of the $80 models play DVD's, music CD's, video CD's, MP3 music discs you've created on your computer and so on. Most offer not only standard RCA connectors (for basic quality) and an S- video jack (a dime- size black socket for better picture), but even something called component video jacks, whose trio of cables mate with plugs on the latest television sets for the best possible color. You get a remote control with buttons for slow motion, freeze frame, fast forward and so on. The one thing you don't yet get on players under $100 is something called progressive scan, a circuit that produces a slightly sharper, less jittery picture. For most people, that's no great loss; progressive-scan players make a visible difference only on digital, high-definition TV's. If the features are mostly the same, then how do the no-name companies keep their prices so low? They spend very little on advertising, of course. There are also some, ahem, efficiencies of construction involved. (Try hefting one of these players: it's so lightweight, they ought to tie it to your wrist.) Some, like the Oritron DVD650, lack a front-panel display. According to their brand-name rivals, the no-name companies can also save up to $28 per player by not paying the proper royalties to the patent holders for DVD-player technologies. Upon hearing the price, most people, if they're still standing, have two immediate worries about these players: picture quality and reliability. With fixed jaw and steely determination, I vowed to make a sacrifice in the name of science: to hook up several of these players, along with a name-brand unit for comparison, and spend days on end watching movies on the couch. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. My comparison machine was a slim Pioneer DV-440, which goes for about $180 online. Like most brand- name machines, it produces a spectacular picture and crystal-clear sound (in five channels, if you have decked out your TV with the appropriate speakers). The challengers included the Oritron DVD650, available for $70 from, for example, Target stores and www.target.com; the Memorex MVD2027, sold at Sav-On and Osco drugstores for $100; and the Apex AD-1500, $80 at Circuit City. As a video diva (and someone whose lottery-win contingency plans involve a home movie theater), I found it easy to distinguish the name brand from the off-brand. Colors were slightly brighter and truer on the Pioneer. Even non-geek test subjects correctly identified the $180 player's picture 8 of 10 times, although with a great deal of squinting and insecurity. In other words, the quality difference isn't night and day — it's more like 5:30 p.m. and 6:15. In any case, the picture is still vastly superior to that of VHS tapes. The sound quality is great, too, although it depends far more on your speakers than on the DVD player. And the $80 players are perfectly capable of delivering all the other DVD goodies: alternate-language soundtracks, "making of" documentaries, a choice of screen format (letterboxed or full-screen) and so on. Reliability is a different story. As Forrest Gump might say, buying an $80 DVD player is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get. You may get one that works great for years, and you may get a turkey. If you've ever bought a fake Rolex on the streets of New York, you know the feeling. I had high hopes, for example, for the Apex AD-1500. It lacks the component-video jacks of its rivals, but Apex is now the second-best-selling brand in the United States after Sony (news/quote). How bad could it be? Unfortunately, I lost this round of the Cheapskate Lottery: on the one I bought, the DVD tray itself refused to open, making it impossible to insert a disc and presenting something of an obstacle to my testing regimen. The Apex help-line representative didn't do much to bolster my confidence in the machine's construction: "Try tilting it forward and shaking it around to make the drawer come out," he said. (I did. It didn't.) At Amazon.com (news/quote), I discovered that I wasn't alone. Many of the 50 customer reviews of the Apex AD-1500 are five-star ratings ("Great value!" "Works great!"), but about a third are one-stars ("Dead on arrival!" "Tray won't open!"). I drew a losing hand on the Memorex player, too. The picture produced by the first one I tested was so washed out and distorted, I thought the kids had been smearing yogurt on the television set. A second player didn't work either. Meanwhile, nobody compensates you for the time and effort it takes you to unhook, pack up and exchange these things. The Memorex remote control and I could not get along, either. Consider the Play button, which you might expect to be a big fat button in a central location. No such luck: it's lost near the bottom, in the center of a 4-by-4 block of tiny, identical buttons — third from the bottom, second from the left. If it were a Monty Python skit, it would be hilarious. My final candidate was the Oritron. It wasn't exactly glitch-free — the picture shudders when you press the Menu button — but it worked. Evidently, I picked the right box this time. But at Epinions.com, dozens of furious customers describe Oritron units that refused to operate, stopped playing movies halfway through or expired completely just after the meager 90-day warranty. (When reading the pros and cons submitted by these customers, the pros are among the most enlightening. They include: "It plays DVD's — for a while, "Wal-Mart has a very helpful returns counter" and "Makes really cool noises when thrown into wall.") Despite the crapshoot involved in buying $80 DVD players, plenty of consumers just want a player for the bedroom, the teenager, or the teenager's bedroom. Their motto is, "I'm not gonna pay a lot for this DVD player!" In that case, if you are unfazed by the possibility that you may have to make a trip or two back to the drugstore for exchanges, the odds are on your side. If your unit works at all, it may well soldier on at least until Christmas, at which point DVD players will probably come in disposable 10-packs. Otherwise, remember that even brand-name DVD players aren't exactly major purchases these days. You can buy a Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba (news/quote), Pioneer or other brand name for $140 to $180. Even though that's not quite as Dramatic and Valuable a Discount, you'll notice a Definite Visual Difference — and gain a much more Dependable Video Device.