With the growing popularity of netbooks and portable video on smartphones, the portable DVD player has taken a back seat of late. Quite literally, with the humble portable DVD player now most often seen strapped to the back seats of cars full of kids. Toshiba is looking to put it back on the laps of commuters and travellers with its delayed SDP94DT, a 9-inch portable DVD player that was due to go on sale well before the World Cup.
A 9-inch LCD screen wrapped in an eye-catching white chassis, it looks a class - or two - above the competition. As well sporting a relatively large screen, the swivelling LCD screen is flanked by two speakers and underlined by all the controls also found on the matching (though rather crammed-full) white remote.
Accessories are plentiful. A white AC adaptor is joined by cigarette lighter charger, a Composite video and audio cable set for outputting everything to or from a TV/games console/DVD player, a pair of back-of-the-skull headphones, an attachable battery pack, a rather cheap-looking black fabric carry case, and a mini TV aerial.
The latter is magnetic and plugs into the unit’s left side. It’s joined there by a SDHC card slot, while opposite are the AV in and out, the power input and two headphones inputs.
Its unusual main feature - a built-in Freeview TV tuner - tunes in channels fairly well even on the move, though don’t expect to get a full roster of channels. From a few random locations we managed to watch around half of the Freeview channels, though the "big five" mostly tuned-in OK. The EPG itself is tricky to call-up (shift + "1"), though easy to use - it copes with only one channel one-at-a-time, and shows programme schedules for the rest of the day.
The only criticism we have of the SDP94DT Freeview performance is, alas, a rather big one: picture quality. Strangled by its woefully inadequate resolution of just 640 x 234 pixels, there’s a visible grid from all sources and jagged edges to both pictures and graphics are everywhere. It’s a worry because you’re going to be sitting pretty close to the SDP94DT at all times. Compare it to the iPhone 4, which has a 960 x 640 resolution despite being a quarter of the size of this LCD. Apple’s latest might be over-doing it a bit, but surely it’s best to have more, not less - especially since portable, networked Blu-ray players are already on sale.
Take a broadcast on ITV for instance; a competition page containing a multiple-choice question is just about legible, but the small print below isn’t. Similarly, the team sheets before a UEFA cup game were tricky to make out. Left on the "standard" picture setting the SDP94DT is uncomfortable to watch, though thankfully a user setting can be created - we recommend you tweak until you’re happy.
That’s not to say that picture quality is a complete disaster, because there’s plenty of colour and enough contrast for on-the-move entertainment, but a lack of pixels is a serious problem elsewhere on the SDP94DT.
Not surprisingly DVD playback suffers from the same problems, though functionally it’s impressive, able to play CD, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R and DVD-RW as well as purchased DVDs, and digital files (DivX, AVI and MPEG).
The SDHC card slot is also hampered by the lack of pixels; you’ll probably get as clear an idea of exactly how good your last photograph was merely by using your camera’s own LCD screen. As well as JPEG files, the SDHC Card slot also plays DivX, AVI and MPEG files, though we did receive a "wrong content" message for some DivX files. It’s functional enough, but we would prefer a USB slot for multimedia playback.
From the built-in speakers sound quality is poor. Pit it against the spinning of the DVD drive and headphones become essential, though even from SD Card or Freeview dialogue is shrill and distorted. Music-heavy movie soundtracks from DVD are much more subtle, rounded and enjoyable.
In our tests the SDP94DT achieved just over 4 hours of mixed use, though we figure this would be lower if it just spun DVDs. Nevertheless, that’s an impressive performance.
There’s a touch of Emperor’s new clothes about the return of the portable DVD player. Plagued by an unfeasibly a low-resolution screen, this player is little better than supermarket cheapies. It does have a reasonably long battery life, a classy look and a good sized screen, but even these talents - and its rudimentary Freeview and DivX skills - can’t save it from a general sense of mediocrity.