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Vexed by Vextra

By Brendan I. Koerner

I usually blow off the guys who hand out drugstore circulars on the corner, but I made an exception last week—what can I say, I was feeling the whole brotherhood-of-man vibe that day. Good thing I shifted my policy, however, as this particular Rite Aid pamphlet advertised an amazing low-end treat: a Vextra portable DVD player, with 5.4-inch LCD and "FREE Bonus Travel Case," for a measly $99.99.


Vextra, by the way, is Rite Aid's in-house brand, slapped on a variety of low-end gadgets like flashlight radios. (At my local Rite-Aid, in fact, you get a free Vextra pocket radio with every purchase of the new Cinderella DVD.) So I'm not claiming that the brand's portable DVD player is any great shakes. But a hundred bucks for a 5.4-inch screen? And it seems like just yesterday that you couldn't get a to-go DVD unit for under $1,200.

Okay, maybe not quite yesterday—more like 2001. But, still, in business-cycle terms, that's a mere bat of the eye. And it got me thinking: has any recent gadget experienced a quicker journey from early-adopter plaything to drugstore-chain dreck than the portable DVD player? After the jump, a brief-and-enjoyable history of the gizmo that made airport waits much more tolerable. PLUS: More clock radio goodness!

I had to dig pretty deep to pinpoint the first-ever portable DVD player, the Panasonic DVD-L10. You remember the DVD-L10, don't you? The darling of 1998's CES, and a plaything of the rich and famous while us common folk were still quibbling over the merits of VHS modes. (I'll admit it, I once nearly came to blows with a dear friend while defending the honor of EP over SP. Yes, Jagermonsters were involved.)

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The DVD-L10 was priced at $1,299 out of the gate. Stunningly, that ended up being a bargain compared to the competition that soon emerged. For example, it took Toshiba until 2000 to debut its similarly sized (5.8-inch screen) answer to the DVD-L10. It cost a whopping $1,499; for that kind of coin, you'd be better off buying a refurbed Satellite with a DVD drive, for heaven's sake.


The real turning point didn't come until 2002, when our very good friends at Apex—home of the $79 13-inch TV—finally got some serious budget models rolling off its Chinese assembly lines. So, too, did Wal-Mart's Initial brand, the first to break the $300 barrier for a 5-inch screen. This was why on your trip back home from Christmas break that year, the 14-year-old sitting next to you in coach was watching the Queen of the Damned DVD instead of reading Sports Illustrated.

But $300? That's still not in Low End Theory's territory. The rule around here is that, if and when a Benjamin Franklin leaves my pocket, he leaves alone—though I guess I'll permit Messrs. Washington and Lincoln to accompany him for sales-tax purposes. So the first truly low-end portable DVD player I saw was the atrocious (and I mean atrocious) TeenTech model from K-Group Industries. (Warning: Company's website plays a terrible, ultra-repetitive guitar riff.) True, it could be scooped up for $99 starting last fall, but the 3-inch screen is for the dogs. Oh, and check out the hilarious comments from Amazon customers, who awarded the TeenTech 1.5 stars. Not only does it need to charge a full hour for every hour of play time, but it also tends to melt your wall socket. Nice.

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So that brings us to the Vextra at Rite-Aid. Again, I can't vouch for whether or not it's stellar, but at $99.99 for a 5.4-inch screen, it sure is cheap. By my math, the cost of purchasing a portable DVD player with a screen in the five-to-six inch range has declined over 92 percent since 2000. I guess you could say something comparable will happen with the (supposed) 2007 debut of the $100 laptop, but not really; those cheapies will have 500-megahertz processors, plus loads less features than more expensive notebooks from 2000. But the Vextra DVD player? It plays DVDs, just like the Panasonic DVD-L10.

My LazyWeb query to y'all, then, is this: can you think of another gadget that has gone low-end as quickly and precipitously as the portable DVD player? And by "low-end," I mean "available at a store that also sells toothpaste and tighty-whiteys." Candidates, please.

CLOCKERS, REDUX: Huge response to last week's column on clock radios for under $20. My favorite tip came from a fan singing the praises of the HoMedics Sound Spa Clock Radio. It's got the chic projection function, as well as "6 soothing sounds from nature to either lull you to sleep or gently wake you." Is it just me, or do soothing sounds seem none-too-promising in terms of wakeup potential? Better to put a growling tiger on there—that'll bolt you into the day. (Thanks, Brian!)

Also, a reader from Burkina Faso objected to my intimation that even cheap motels in his nation's capital feature clock radios:

I'm affraid(sic) I would have to disagree. It would be fairly easy to find a flea invested(sic) hotel without a clock radio in Ouagadougou...

So noted, my friend. So noted.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appear every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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