Portable road entertainment
March 26, 2005 7:37 AM   Subscribe

What's the coolest thing I can buy to keep my kids entertained on a 15 hour road trip to Oregon, for $200? I will probably try to find a decent portable dvd player but it occured to me that there might be a portable gaming system or something that would improve the bang/buck ratio.

We're going on a 15 hour roadtrip, and to my suprise my spouse has approved the purchase of a $150-200 portable dvd player. Unfortunately, I can't find reviews with a level of detail that includes the usability of the interface, specifically playing mp3s. Sure, most players can play mp3s but the interface is so clunky that it's a painful process. So, any recommendations for a site with that degree of granularity in its reviews? Or even just recommendations?

If I can piggyback another question: Would I be better off getting an old xbox with a portable lcd screen instead, to get more bang for the buck, or is there any other nifty alternative to a portable lcd player for around $200 that would make more sense for four kids ages 1-8? The PSP is tempting, but to be useful I'd have to spend another $80 on a memory stick big enough to hold more movies, bringing the total price up to $330, when my upper limit is $200. A mac mini would be perfect, but then we're looking at $600 plus an inverter.

And before someone gets all self-righteous about the evils of TeeVee, we usually stick to books and analog games until the last brutal four hours of the trip or so.

p.s. I've got an old pII thinkpad 600 that works, but no dvd for it, and I'm afraid it would get trashed on the road.
posted by craniac to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total)
We had a couple of long road trips this year with our two kids, and the portable DVD player was a _huge_ boon. We got an "Insignia", I believe--it's like the Best Buy house brand--and it was somewhere in that neighborhood, price-wise. It wasn't quite top-of-the-line, but it was the only one in that price range with the bigger 9" screen...all the comparably priced Sonys and Panasonics had 7" screens, and the extra 2" make a real difference at that size. The picture and sound were still totally fine, especially for when you're watching a movie in a moving car. (I just noticed you said 4 kids--there's no way they could really share a 7" screen.)

It also had two headphone jacks, and a remote, which made things much easier. My wife and I could listen to a book on tape or a CD while the boys were watching a movie. With four kids, though, you'd have to get four sets of headphones, and a couple of splitters, so even though you can get decent Sony over-the-ear phones for about $15 a pop, that's a still another chunk of change. You might be better off getting either one of those little radio transmitters or a fake cassette thingie, and playing the movie over the car stereo.

I don't know about playing MP3s on the one we got, though. I doubt it can. The video game thing is also a stretch, since there's no way four kids can play simultaneously on even a 9" screen, so then you've got the whole "sharing" thing to deal with. (Which you've got, to some degree, with movie selection, but at least you can just take turns for that.)
posted by LairBob at 8:15 AM on March 26, 2005

I can't imagine you'd be able to purchase an Xbox, the small handful of interesting Xbox titles, and a decent size LCD screen that four kids can see at the same time for under $200. If you have a line on one, though, go for it. You'll want to invest in a couple of extra controllers so that the under-three crowd can at least pretend to be playing along, or you'll be settling controller fights for the last brutal four hours of your trip.

Frankly, $200 isn't going to go very far in terms of automotive entertainment systems. Unless you already have some of the hardware (e.g. a 12VDC DVD player, a stack of headphones, a multiple-headphone rig) you'll be lucky if you can buy enough parts to assemble a functioning system. In fact, you'll be lucky if you can even get a half-decent LCD for that much.

I'd steer clear of handheld systems like the PSP if you're trying to put movies on them. How are four kids -- strapped into seats! -- supposed to watch a movie at the same time? Do you really want to let the younger half of the crowd beat up on a $300 handheld device?

If $200 is all you've got, and you're trying to entertain all the kids at once, buy a stack of GameBoys.
posted by majick at 8:23 AM on March 26, 2005

I had a portable DVD player, and I could never get any consoles to work on it. I don't think most of them composite in.

You could just buy an inverter for your cigarette lighter and bring a small TV and wedge it in between the two front seats, if it'll fit. That's what my parents did for long roadtrips with my brother and I.
posted by borkingchikapa at 8:37 AM on March 26, 2005

bring a small TV and wedge it in between the two front seats, if it'll fit

I love that idea, but that's a _lot_ of weight to have flying around the car if anything ever went wrong. I'm not criticizing your parents, but it really kind of harkens back to the old days, when so many things that are so patently unsafe now were just routine.

When I was growing up, my sister and I used to just sit on the floor, and use the back seat as a playtable, or just make the back section of the station wagon into a playroom. Today, that's totally unacceptable, for good reason. It does provide a whole new level of argument for why these sorts of distractions are only fair for the kids, though. They are being strapped in place for 15 hours straight.
posted by LairBob at 8:46 AM on March 26, 2005

For the price range you're looking at, you might be better off looking at rentals, mostly because games alone will eat up $200 fast. Game Boy rentals would be the easiest, but if you want the movie option too, PS2 or Xbox rental plus purchase of an inverter and a portable (CRT) television (which will be half the price of the same LCD) will do it.
posted by mendel at 8:49 AM on March 26, 2005

Response by poster: Really, there are three kids to entertain, as one child is 11 months old. We'll try to keep her entertained as well, but not with a portable dvd player. I'd thought about a portable playstation I with rentals too, but it looks like we'll go the portable dvd player route. I've seen the circuit city house brand players, and the buttons seem kind of chintzy, so I may go with a Liquid Audio as it has louder speakers, better reviews and seems more durable.

We had a tv/vcr that we strapped down in the past, but it no longer ejects tapes, is bulky, and takes up too much room now that we have a fourth child.

I have access to a modded PSI, I just remembered. Too bad there's no way to port movies to that. All I'd have to do is find a decent portable screen for it.
posted by craniac at 9:09 AM on March 26, 2005

does it have to be a hi-tech solution? Why not let each kid bring games, and books and coloring books and comics and whatever they want, in a bag? Take tons of breaks too--at least once every 2 hours.

i don't know how much your kids fight, but when i was little, my brothers and i could not sit together in the backseat at all unless we each had our own (essentially sacred and not allowed to violated) space, and things like books and games and comics.
posted by amberglow at 9:20 AM on March 26, 2005

I'd take them out beforehand to stock up on whatever they wanted too, and not let them see/read/use them until you were on the road.
posted by amberglow at 9:24 AM on March 26, 2005

I've seen the circuit city house brand players, and the buttons seem kind of chintzy, so I may go with a Liquid Audio as it has louder speakers

I'm sure all the private-label players are not quite top-rate, but we just decided to get as much screen real-estate as we could get. With the little credit-card remotes they all come with, though, the buttons are kind of moot, anyway.

Regarding the speakers, though, you're probably asking a lot for the tinny little speakers in any portable player to fill up a car. If the kids aren't using headphones, you're not going to be using the car stereo for yourselves no matter what, so you should definitely think about hooking up the player to your car stereo. It's easy, cheap, and it'll make a huge difference for the kids (like whether or not they can even hear the movie).
posted by LairBob at 9:27 AM on March 26, 2005

This makes me feel so old - it feels like that whole culture of "are we there yet" and "I spy" and license plate games and all the other road trip distractions are really specific to this little period of history, like the 60s- 80s (both because flying is more common now & because technology allows for isolated entertainment, like watching movies or playing video games.)
posted by mdn at 10:15 AM on March 26, 2005

I don't know how old your kids are, but if books have worked to some extent in the past, then you should consider getting either the fourth or fifth installment of Harry Potter on tape (or CD). They are not cheap, but they are not much more than the cost of two or three DVDs, and they got me and the kids all the way to Kentucky and back, which was about ten hours each way.

Jim Dale does the reading on the tapes, and he does a really first-rate job. The first, second, and third books are also very good, but they are not as long.
posted by anapestic at 10:41 AM on March 26, 2005

Take them to a bookstore, let them pick whatever comics/books they want, and save reading them for the trip.

Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Jenny B. Jones, all solid series.
posted by ruwan at 11:14 AM on March 26, 2005

Response by poster: You darn luddites--we've already got the book angle covered. I am tempted to borrow a ps1, and put the rest of the money into some decent books and other unwired items that would have a life between car trips.

According to the PS1 faq, you can't play dvds, but no mention of burning stuff to other formats for playing, which seems like it should be possible.

posted by craniac at 11:25 AM on March 26, 2005

You can indeed play movies on a PSX or PSOne, though obviously not DVDs since there's only a CD reader in there.
posted by majick at 11:39 AM on March 26, 2005

When I was a kid, happiness was a 4" B&W portable TV that plugged into the lighter socket and trying to tune in whatever TV channel was local at the moment.

Eventually I hooked it up to a regular Nintendo, that was nice.

I'd suggest considering a small portable colour TV of some kind (probably LCD now) and bring along the "non-portable" DVD player and game console you already own plus an inverter, if you have a large enough vehicle. But that's just me, a tightwad. :)
posted by shepd at 12:26 PM on March 26, 2005

I have nothing against the in-car DVD, craniac. I suggest the books-on-tape angle only because they are far more absorbing than a printed book in a car, they also entertain the driver (who can't watch the DVD), and they don't cause motion sickness.

My sister got her car video player off ebay, and she spent less than $100, by the way.
posted by anapestic at 12:33 PM on March 26, 2005

TV and Games are good, when we were (older) kids my mom always got mystery or thriller book tapes for us to listen to in the car.

Some of my fondest memories from those trips is the time we got to spend talking to eachother and working out problems or just sharing with eachother.
posted by prettyboyfloyd at 1:12 PM on March 26, 2005

My parents did what Amberglow suggests when we were kids. Our favorite game by far was Travel Bingo. The roadkill sets are disgusting, but the traffic and automotive sets were great fun.
posted by ontic at 1:43 PM on March 26, 2005

We used to pick a book together and take turns reading out loud on long trips. Something aimed at young adults seems to work best. The older kids are in college now but we still all remember the plot of The Face on the Milk Carton!
posted by LarryC at 2:56 PM on March 26, 2005

This is kind of goofy, but my husband and I recently went on a long car trip.

About 4 hours in, he rolled down the window and then something hit me in the back of head from the backseat. It was a box of Animal Crackers.

"Oh look! The Surprise Bird dropped something!" he shouted gleefully. I demanded an explanation since he had obviously reached around and chucked this at me from the backseat. I guess his mom (who I adore) used to throw surprises at him and his sister at various times during long road trips. Mad Lib books, car bingo, card games, snacks, puzzles, you name it.

It was the most fun road trip I've ever been on. He chucked surprises at me every couple of hours. Very creative. We also amused ourselves by taking very stupid pictures with the digital camera. We illustrated a whole made up story that way.

Being poor and going on roadtrips in the 70's, my mom would go crazy trying to think of ways to entertain us. We were allowed to help plan "detours" (one per child) in advance. (Favorite detour was usually a crazy named town...we used to count the exits until it was our turn.) We used to make as many words as we could out of our last name (12 letters...we had a lot to work with). We stopped every couple of hours and had races to work off energy. I think Stupid Body Tricks in our family started as the result of a trip between NYC and Ohio.
posted by jeanmari at 5:43 PM on March 26, 2005

how fun that is, jeanmari! i love that! all those ideas are great--who needs electronics when you have fun and surprises? : >
posted by amberglow at 6:54 PM on March 26, 2005

What a great story, jeanmari. We did some long car rides when I was a kid (two parents, three girls in the 6-12 age range), and my Mom would bring surprises for us, too. I remember one time, around Easter, she got us each an inflatable Easter egg. We had *so* much fun batting those eggs around.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:32 PM on March 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

You can get em a Nintendo DS bundled with a game for about 180.00. Not trying to Pepsi Blue you guys or anything, I'm just a 21 year old nerd who happens to think the ds rocks.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:22 AM on March 27, 2005

jeanmari - that's great! Your husband sounds like a pip!

I'll reiterate what anapestic alluded to. Be careful of going the reading route. When we were kids, my older brother (the voracious reader) would get sick if he read in the car.

But back in those days, we would play the "license plate" game. Try to find plates from every state. Or "alphabet" - finding letters (from A-Z) in signs. The tougher version limited letters to license plates only. Botticelli was also big with us. And our parent's favorite - the silent game. The rules: last one to talk, wins. We actually got really into this. As I'm sure our parents did as well...
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:01 AM on March 27, 2005

Response by poster: These are great ideas, and we will use them. I want to reiterate that I am not a soulless borg, and I'm aware of the social alienation TeeVee can contribute to. I teach English for pete's sake.

It's just that the portable dvd is really useful for the last four hours of the trip when it's dark outside and they are worn to a nub, and they can be gently coaxed into a waking rem state courtesy of Blue's Clues or some Nova rerurns.

I love the silent game, and it is one of my favorite psy-ops techniques.

Anyway, please keep suggesting *any* method of trip entertainment, this stuff is great!
posted by craniac at 7:30 AM on March 27, 2005

My wife has used the strategy that Jeanmari mentions, little presents spaced out over the trip. She would pick up stuff at the dollar store and thrift shops, looking for little toys like puzzles, etc., that would keep the kids occupied for the maximum amount of time WITHOUT needing help to understand how it worked. She would gift wrap each and give them out at preordained intervals, by time or mileage.

What a fun thread. The silence game is brilliant!
posted by LarryC at 8:59 AM on March 27, 2005

I used the silence game with my sunday school class of eight year olds when they got fidgety. It was scary how well it worked, but I felt like the interrogator in The Prisoner...
posted by mecran01 at 10:28 PM on March 27, 2005

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