If you don't have an HDTV, you can ignore all the fracas about Blu-ray Disc and upconverting DVD players, which allow you to watch standard-definition DVDs in high resolution on an HDTV. Although such players can also output their images in standard definition, you don't need to spend extra for the technology.
That said, most DVD players now include upconverting technology, and they don't cost much more than the basic models reviewed here. You can find a good upconverting DVD player for around $50, but if an HDTV is not in your plans, a basic DVD player will suit your needs just fine.
Since most manufacturers are focusing on Blu-ray players at the expense of DVD players, there are few professional reviews available. However, several budget DVD players attract high overall ratings in user reviews, including the Sony DVP-SR200P/B (*Est. $35) . This is one of the few non-upconverting DVD players still available, and its feature set is fairly basic.
Format support for homemade discs is typical, and a basic browser makes it easy to play MP3 files or view JPEG photo files. While the player cannot upconvert, it is a progressive-scan DVD player, which means that it can output video in a progressive format for compatible TVs (that is, those that can accept a progressive input). Standard video creates the image from two interlaced frames (the "i" in 480i), while progressive video (the "p" in 480p) paints the image in one pass; both types of video are standard resolution, though 480p is also referred to as enhanced definition. Other noteworthy features include technology to allow better playback of warped DVDs, multiple-speed playback with sound and playback resume (for up to six discs).
Connectivity is limited, and the Sony DVD player lacks an optical digital audio output. While it does have a coaxial digital audio output, the absence of the former means that you'll have less flexibility if you want to hook the DVD player up to a home theater system. It also lacks an HDMI output, but since most owners will not be using this player with an HDTV, that's not a deal-breaker.
The Sony DVP-SR200P/B DVD player earns positive ratings at a variety of online retailers, including Amazon.com, where more than 350 reviews combine to grant it a 4-star rating. Users are pleased with the picture quality and relatively small footprint, and the playback resume feature is a big hit. Owners are also impressed with the budget-friendly price, and are willing to accept the trade-off in features to get it. A few unhappy owners seem to have received defective DVD players, and we also saw a few complaints about a slow ejection mechanism.
For a few dollars less, the Magnavox MDV2100/F7 (*Est. $30) also earns relatively positive feedback. Like the Sony DVP-SR200P/B, the Magnavox DVD player is a progressive-scan model that does not upconvert for an HDTV. It does play DVDs, CDs and MP3s, however, and it includes both playback resume and slow motion features.
Users at Walmart.com are generally pleased with the Magnavox MDV2100/F7, and 80 percent of the 130 reviewers there say that they would recommend the DVD player to a friend. Owners say the player is a great value for those seeking a basic, no-frills option. The Magnavox DVD player is easy to operate, doesn't take up a lot of space and has an intuitive remote. A number of reviewers recommend it as a second DVD player for a kid's room or guest room. However, there are a number of durability complaints from owners who say the Magnavox MD2100/F7 stopped working after a short time.
Standard DVDs have about 720 pixels by 480 pixels of information. That's fine for a standard-definition TV, but less than the 1,280 pixels by 720 pixels or 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels supported by an HDTV. To address this issue, many DVD players include signal processing technology that scales or upconverts a DVDs standard definition to match the format of your HDTV's display.
This doesn't mean that upconverting players can somehow magically convert a standard DVD into a high-def movie -- you won't see one speck of additional detail -- but images will look smoother and richer, especially if you sit a little bit away from the TV screen. However, you'll need an HDTV to see the benefits of an upconverting DVD player, even though all of these models can output video in standard definition as well.
Upconverting DVD players use an HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface) output, which preserves the digital video and audio signals as they travel to the TV. Be aware that your HDTV must have an HDMI or HDCP-compatible DVI input to take advantage of upconversion. (HDCP is the copyright protection mechanism used to protect high-def digital signals, including those upconverted from standard def.) For copyright reasons, video output via other connectors is capped at standard resolutions. If you have an older HDTV with an HDCP-compatible DVI port instead of HDMI, you can use a simple DVI-to-HDMI adapter to connect the player. Some older HDTVs don't have HDMI or DVI inputs at all.
Don't forget, however, that every HDTV includes its own signal processing to upconvert images coming in on all inputs to match its screen format. Even if your HDTV can accept upconverted images, it's not all that unusual to find that you get better picture quality if you let your TV do the heavy lifting of upconversion instead of relying on your DVD player for that job.
Among current upconverting DVD players, we saw the best reviews for the Sony DVP-SR500H (*Est. $50) , which is one of the top-rated DVD players at Amazon.com and other retailers. It includes an HDMI output to send upconverted video to your HDTV (although an HDMI cable is not included), as well as component and composite video outputs. The Sony DVP-SR500H supports standard DVDs, in addition to CDs, MP3s and JPEG picture slideshows. Other features include playback resume (for up to six discs), fast/slow playback and a childproof tray lock. One limitation is that while there's a coaxial digital output, an optical digital output is not included, making hooking it up in certain home-theater setups a little difficult.
The Sony DVP-SR500H comes highly recommended from About.com, where home-theater guide Robert Silva names it one of the best upscaling DVD players. Silva likes that the player offers a variety of ways to fine-tune the picture quality, and the affordable price is another perk. This opinion is backed by a number of positive user reviews at sites like Amazon.com and BestBuy.com. Owners overall are highly impressed with the picture quality. The Sony DVP-SR500H is very easy to set up, according to reviews, and it doesn't take up much space. However, many users wish the remote had an eject button, and we saw some complaints that the player freezes often. The most serious concern is durability. While many report no issues, a sizable minority -- particularly among those weighing in at Amazon.com -- say that the DVD player stopped working altogether after a few months.
The Toshiba SD7300 (*Est. $50) is another upconverting DVD player that earns a recommendation from About.com. It plays DVDs, CDs and MP3s, and it upconverts standard-definition DVDs to 1,080-pixel video via an HDMI output. A coaxial digital audio output is also included. Like the Sony DVD player, the Toshiba SD7300 plays JPEG picture slideshows.
Robert Silva at About.com says the Toshiba SD7300 provides good picture quality for an upconverting DVD player. Its value is also hard to beat. "The SD7300 is [a] great example of a good quality DVD player that can be had for less than $50," he writes. The Toshiba SD7300 doesn't attract as many user reviews as other DVD players, but a few owners at Amazon.com praise the ergonomic remote and overall picture quality. However, those positive reviews are offset by several complaints that the player died within a few months.