I thought the steady stream of Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, Bob the Builder, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, Elmo, Thomas, and Thomas had finally done in our DVD player after almost 8 years.

It turned out the VCR I was running the video through was actually the problem, but what I learned in shopping for a potential replacement suggests I may want to think about replacing it anyway.Modern DVD players will upscale your old DVDs to make them almost hi-def, and have HDMI ports for digital connection to HDTVs. But they do more than that.

Mid-range ($50 and up) players include a USB port, so you can plug a flash drive or hard drive into them, and they’ll play MP3 audio or DIVX video off them.

Due to the United States’ anti-fair-use laws, I won’t tell you how to do it, but what you’ll want to do is rip your DVDs to a USB hard drive, convert them to DIVX, then plug them into your DVD player. Ask Google how. Then you have a library of movies in a 5-inch box and don’t have to mess with discs. That’s a big plus when you have small kids like I do. Plug in the box, turn it on, and pick your movie or show from the on-screen menu.

For ages, I’ve been planning to build a media center PC for just this purpose.

But I think I’d really rather just buy a $50 DVD player and plug a USB hard drive into it. Even though our 32″ CRT TV can’t really take advantage of a modern player’s video capability, the convenience of not fiddling with discs (and no risk of scratching them) makes it worth the 50 bucks. And once LED-lit LCD TVs get affordable, the DVD player will be ready for it when I upgrade.

Update: Rather than buy a pricier DVD player, you might want to consider a $35 DVR, which can double as a media player.