License-plate bingo and the dreaded childhood mantra of "are we there yet?" have become increasingly rare since the advent of the in-car DVD entertainment system.
Originating in the 2002 Honda Odyssey, factory-installed DVD systems first gained a foothold in the minivan segment — a natural connection, since they often carry the most kids. Since then, DVD options have expanded to both the front and rear of sedans, wagons and SUVs. They can be factory-installed to double as a navigation system, too.
All of a DVD system's components connect to a control center, which is sometimes enclosed in a hideaway box (usually stowed under the car's front passenger seat) or, increasingly, built into the car's dash.
A DVD system with multizone capability allows more inputs and outputs so that other devices, such as video game consoles, can also be used and multiple sound sources can play simultaneously. The audio can be heard either through the vehicle's speaker system or (as parents often prefer) through headphones. You can even add an amplified subwoofer to get surround sound in your car.
Several navigation systems with flat monitors in the dashboard are also capable of DVD playback. To prevent drivers from watching while driving, this feature plays DVDs only when the vehicle is in Park; most states outlaw viewing movies or TV while a car is in motion. When you're not watching a DVD, the screen can also function as a navigation system, control panel or backup camera.
If you're tight on cash, you could consider installing an in-dash CD receiver with a retractable 6- to 7-inch monitor that flips out and up. CD receivers range from $300 to $1,200, and most can play DVDs.
If you're looking to really customize your front-passenger DVD system, dealers can install monitors in sun visors, rearview mirrors and even the steering wheel. Whatever you choose, make sure to always keep your eyes on the road while driving and use the DVD system only when the vehicle is parked. Please.
In-car DVD entertainment systems originally came with factory-installed fold-down overhead monitors. They range from 6 to 16.4 inches, and their overhead location is ideal for minivans, providing easy viewing for rear-seat passengers. Dealer-installed overhead monitors can cost from $300 to more than $1,000, plus installation fees, and are usually compatible with a car's controls and displays.
More recently, carmakers have introduced DVD players that allow the user to watch a single video in widescreen mode or split the screen between two separate inputs and use wireless headphones. The screen contains two displays that sit side-by-side in a single unit, allowing two different inputs to operate simultaneously.
Front-seat head restraint monitors range from 4 to 9 inches and can cost from $200 to $800, plus installation fees. With the slice and sew method, dealers cut into your vehicle's head restraint and insert a bracket for the monitor. If that makes you nervous, manufacturers also offer mounting brackets that fasten the screen to the head restraint posts. Head restraints that resemble the color and texture of the factory original but have a monitor already installed are also available.
Ford, Chrysler and GM offer factory-installed mid-console-mounted DVD players in many of their larger sedans. However, if you have a floor console between the two front seats, you can buy a replacement console with a built-in monitor and media player. Generic consoles are available, as are ones specifically designed for a particular year, make and model. You can also build a custom console with a monitor that ranges from 6 to 15 inches.
Using an iPad or other tablet device can be an excellent in-car entertainment option for backseat passengers. Simply sling an affordable case around the front passengers' head restraints, and you have a much bigger screen than most expensive built-in DVD options that automakers offer.
Plus, you have the advantage transferring content to the tablet as opposed to buying DVDs that can get lost in the car or forgotten. And if you're vacationing, you use the tablet to entertain the kids instead of bringing a video game system or if the hotel TV isn't satisfactory.
What to Buy
Building a permanent DVD entertainment system for your vehicle can be a costly experience. Factory-installed systems tend to be more expensive and are difficult to update and customize. However, choosing components for a dealer-installed system can be a daunting task if you don't know much about electronics. Buying an all-in-one package system will be cheaper than buying each component a la carte, so keep your budget in mind when considering options.
Make sure you choose the best spot for the different components. A driver with children might want the monitor in the back with the media player in the front. If you have multiple cars, a portable DVD player might be the most economical choice — although sound and picture quality will take a significant hit. Wherever you decide you want the equipment, be sure it doesn't get in the way of cargo room or passengers.
If you plan on updating your DVD entertainment system in the future, invest in an expandable hideaway control box with multiple inputs and outputs. That way, you can add more screens, electronics or audio components to your system.
Safety and maintenance are important, so have a professional installer make sure your vehicle's electrical system can handle a DVD system's requirements. Because DVD systems are expensive, you might also want to invest in a quality car alarm.