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Assessing Your Portable Video Options

If you're looking forward to summer vacations with the kids (or at least acknowledging the inevitable), one of the concerns you're going to have to deal with is how to keep the youngsters occupied during traveling. Whether you're traveling via car, train, or airplane, portable video is often an excellent choice. And this year, you have more options than ever.

But first, a few general considerations. If you plan to travel by car, consider shelling out cash for a DC-to-AC power inverter, which will let you use your AC power supplies with your vehicle's DC-based plugs. Radio Shack is a good source for these useful devices, which cost between $40 and $100, depending on the number of plugs.

If you'll be flying, determine whether your airline offers seat-based power ports. You might be able to find a power adapter for a laptop or other portable device that uses these ports.

If you'll be traveling with others (i.e., on a train or plane), don't subject other travelers to the sounds of your kids' movies, video games, or other entertainment. You'll need headphones for each child, although you'll want to ensure that the volume isn't set so high that it might damage their hearing.

OK, let's check out the device options.

Portable DVD Player
The cheapest option, in this case, is generally the best choice, unless you happen to already own one of the other devices mentioned here. Now available for as little as $125 in major retailers (although nicer models will cost upwards of $300), portable DVD players make a lot of sense because you probably already own a lot of content, or you can get it readily from your local video store. Look for the best combination of price, screen size, and battery life. And if you'll be traveling without power, consider buying an extra battery: Many portable DVD players can't even make it through Titanic before giving up the ghost.

Notebook Computer
If you already have a notebook computer with a DVD drive, you have the makings of an excellent portable DVD player. On our last few road trips, we've suspended my HP Pavilion dv1010us widescreen notebook computer between the front seats of our van using an HP carrying case that's designed specifically for this purpose. Our kids have been able to enjoy movies in the van without an expensive in-vehicle installation. The Pavilion's loud speakers are particularly well suited to this task.

Portable Media Center
Last fall, several of Microsoft's hardware partners shipped Portable Media Center (PMC) devices, small Apple iPod-like handhelds with 3.5" half-VGA screens that make for decent portable video units. I wouldn't recommend these devices per se, but one feature makes them worth your consideration: If you own a Media Center PC, you can integrate the PMC with the PC and download all your recorded TV shows. That means your kids don't have to go without Dora the Explorer or Scooby Doo while traveling.

PlayStation Portable
Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP) is designed primarily as a portable game system, but it also supports Universal Media Disc (UMD)-based movies that are of surprisingly high quality. And some UMD movies are pretty cheap, costing as little as $13. I've compared a few UMD movies to their DVD equivalents and have come away impressed. Because of reduced storage space, UMDs typically don't include any of the special features you see on DVDs. But the widescreen picture quality is fantastic, and of course the PSP is a great game player as well, so that's one less thing you need to pack.

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