Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

17 thoughts on “Ways to save money on your DVD player

  • December 28, 2002 at 12:06 am
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    I think my little $50 buck Walmart special DVD player rocks. It’s from Apex.

    The interesting part is, when I went to their web site, I couldn’t find it listed. I wonder if it was a one time good deal for Walmarts???

  • December 28, 2002 at 8:11 am
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    Interesting. I know Apexes are really highly regarded, and I know I’ve seen them at Wal-Mart and Kmart every time I’ve been back in their electronics section. $50 is a really good price right now; $60 is a little more typical.

  • December 28, 2002 at 9:06 am
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    I picked up an Apex for about $60 at Circuit City and easily flashed the EEPROM with the instructions I found on the Apex Hacking Pages. Now my player is region-free so I can watch Japanese region 2 DVDs and the Macrovision copy protection is gone so it works fine connected thru my VCR. Check out the info there on different models before you buy, as some are much easier to fix than others.

    I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.

    Man, ain’t THAT the truth… ๐Ÿ˜‰ Which, BTW, is why I’m posting anonymously ๐Ÿ˜›

  • December 28, 2002 at 10:57 am
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    Just the article I have been looking for. I searched the web for a “How to buy a DVD player” article and found nothing. Any thing I did find was for high end equipment aimed at the home theatre crowd.

  • December 28, 2002 at 5:40 pm
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    Very well written article on how to buy a DVD player. I will mention the one thing you left out. I use my DVD player to play music CDs. And my two or three year old Panasonic DVD player won’t play from CD-Rs. So I have to use the original CD. I suspect that playing music from a CD-R is one more feature you are likely to find on a cheap DVD player.

    And should the MPAA or the RIAA be reading this, let me say that if I had a DVD player that would play music from CD-Rs, I would only be using it to play copies of music from my small CD collection which I legitimately own.

  • December 28, 2002 at 7:58 pm
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    Yes, that is another benefit to a cheap player–most of them will play CD-R and even CD-RW discs. Most will also play MP3 mixes off CD-Rs. If you have the ability to burn discs full of MP3s, that can make a cheap DVD player a nice alternative to a multidisc CD changer. A monster CD changer will hold more songs, but a disc holding a couple hundred hand-picked MP3s is more listenable than a 25-disc changer on random play.

  • December 28, 2002 at 8:45 pm
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    And if you have a multidisk CD changer, be sure to put copies of your CDs in the changer. A burglar could swipe your CD changer, and a chunk of your CD collection could be gone forever. I had a boom box with a ten disk CD changer stolen almost three years ago. Losing ten CDs was annoying, and they would be harder to replace than the changer.

  • January 10, 2003 at 12:01 pm
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    I’ve got an old cabinet style TV that IS sitting in a shag-carpeted living room. Rust colored shag.

    I was hoping your article would help me with my VCR dilemna, but no such luck. This TV is about 20 years old and has no Coaxial input… just that little two prong thingy that many older TV’s use for the antenna.

    I know I need to connect my VCR there, but have no idea how. Also, how do I connect the existing antenna to the VCR?

  • January 10, 2003 at 12:27 pm
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    You can pick up a coax adapter at Radio Shack. I’d completely forgotten about those. They’re pretty cheap. You can put one of those between the TV and the VCR and another one between the VCR and the antenna.

  • February 19, 2003 at 1:47 am
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    I have an old pan. tv with built in vcr. Any dvd player I plug in rca or ruf the picture fades light then to dark over and over and over. 90% of dvds do that to my tv. I have tried 3 players. All the same. Do you know why?

  • February 20, 2003 at 1:56 pm
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    Sounds like copy protection’s getting you. Do a Web search and see if you can disable Macrovision. Or take the DVD player back and get a cheap Apex unit, which will either have it disabled or be easy to disable.

  • March 19, 2003 at 2:36 pm
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    We’re still waiting for every company on earth to be DVD compatible…then we can put some real business content on disc, instead of PDF files and Quick Time movies on CD-ROM’s. Once that happens, you’ll never see another VHS training tape in the conference room or another thick and boring brochure sent to a prospect. DVD technology will revolutionize the way we do business and will revitalize what has been a dying electronic media production market in St. Louis and throughout the United States.

    Mark my word, by 2005…a very big chunk of business communications will be distributed on DVD…until then, please recommend a DVD upgrade for all of your company’s computers. It makes training and marketing much more interactive, interesting and effective. And, It will also put a lot of very talented people back to work.

  • April 10, 2003 at 11:55 am
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    Can you connect a DVD player through a cable box? My cable box has audio/video input.

    My other problem is that my DVD directions say to use the input selector (I guess to get Line 1 or Line 2). My old TV can’t do that. My VCR can. Not sure about the cable box. Any advice here? Or would an RF modulator take care of that?

    Thanks for your help!

  • April 10, 2003 at 1:46 pm
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    Ellen, if you’ve got RCA “in” inputs on your cable box and coax “out”, you *may* be OK if the box has a modulator built-in. Your VCR is a more sure bet. In either case, you’ll have a degraded signal because of the modulation, but you’ll still get something better than open-air broadcasts or (usually highly-compressed) digital cable.

  • June 23, 2003 at 10:39 am
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    I have a DVD, VHS and TV to connect.

    I have an old TV with an RF cable. I brought a used APEX 1100w and upgraded the firmware. But have been unable to test it since I cannot figured out how to record.

    I have the DVD plugged into the VCR ( old Magnavox) using RCA cables (the extra audio cable is left dangling) and the TV antennae and the TV RF cable is also plugged in the back of VCR. I can play the TV and the VCR but when I try to play the DVD and record on the VCR, I get sound band a blue screen.

    I have also tried hooking up the DVD and the VHS to an Jensen 3 input modulator. I can view DVD and VHS but I cannot record TV shows on the VHS and I have tried to record a personal DVD for my family on VHS tapes and was unable.

    Anyone who can help it would be greatly appreciated. I have been struggling with this for weeks.

    Thanks. Mammie

  • August 8, 2003 at 11:43 pm
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    thank you so much!
    i bought the rf converter i was told i would need, and there was this horrific static, hissing, grating noise coming in and out over every dvd i watched. it was unbearable. i thought maybe my old tv was to blame, but i’m poor, so i used google and found this little essay. thanks to you, i’ve got an integrated ancient tv, vcr, and dvd player. you saved me so much time, trouble, money, and heartache.

    (i was also told all about how connecting a dvd player through a vcr won’t work. pablum.)

    the rf modulator is on its way back to the store. hooray! everybody, listen to this guy!

    thank you!

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