Some parents still see the car as a sanctuary from all the cartoons, TV shows, and music videos that kids watch at home. Others just want the whining on long driving trips to stop. This latter group has helped make handheld video players such a big hit since toymaker Hasbro (HAS ) began marketing its VideoNow machine with a tiny black-and-white screen last year.
Hasbro is back this year with color and junior versions, and Mattel (MAT ) has joined the party with a player called Juice Box. While the size and content differ, the competing devices exist for the same purpose: so your back-seat inhabitants can take SpongeBob SquarePants or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the road with them.
The players cost about $70 each, and the cartridges that contain the programming run $9 to $17. You also need a set of headphones and a car power adapter for $10 each. For $39 more, you can buy a USB port and software that allows kids to download MP3 music files and photos from a computer to the Juice Box. (VideoNow doesn't have these features.) All told, a complete package costs a lot less than those elaborate video systems people are installing in their cars.
The picture quality is comparable for both VideoNow and Juice Box: It's not as sharp as that of a computer or TV, but it's acceptable. The VideoNow players weigh about 14 oz. with batteries, vs. 8 oz. for Juice Box. VideoNow is slightly bigger too: Unlike Juice Box, it won't fit easily into a handbag or a pocket.
The size difference relates to the way content is delivered. VideoNow plays little CDs, proprietary to Hasbro's system. Juice Box uses much smaller cartridges that look like computer chips. VideoNow has the content edge with more than 100 titles including SpongeBob, Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, and Tony Hawk's Secret Skatepark Tour. Juice Box leans heavily toward programming built around Mattel's Barbie characters and Cartoon Network shows, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Yu-Gi-Oh! from Cartoon Network.
If you want your kids glued to videos, those six and under who can sit and watch the same show over and over will be good candidates for VideoNow Jr. But children ages 6 to 12 will probably be better off with a Game Boy Advance SP than the regular VideoNow or Juice Box. Nintendo just cut the price of that popular game gadget by $20, to $79. It also sells cartridges that allow kids to watch TV shows and cartoons for around $19.
Of course, you can always forgo the electronic babysitters and play CDs as the kids keep their eyes on the passing scenery.
By Chris Palmeri in Los Angeles