Mobile Systems: Video For The Road

Keep the kids happy with movies and games

Vacation season is just around the corner, but let's face it: The allure of a cross-country trip in the family minivan is often undermined by "I'm bored," "He's bothering me!" and "Are we there yet?" Auto makers have heard the whining, too, and they have responded with a bevy of new backseat entertainment systems that can help keep the peace on those long family drives.

Customized mobile video systems have been available through new-car dealerships or high-end car-audio shops for years. Now, major carmakers, sensing a missed profit opportunity, are beginning to build rear-seat entertainment systems, priced at $1,000 to $2,000, right into their vehicles at the factory. General Motors' Oldsmobile division was first to offer a factory-installed system, on its Silhouette minivan. Most other manufacturers now offer them as dealer-installed options on virtually every minivan and, soon, on most sport-utility vehicles. Some minivans, such as the Nissan Quest, include the video system as standard equipment.

Whether you choose a factory-installed system or a customized add-on, don't expect your automobile to be transformed into a luxurious theater on wheels. In most cases, the screens are only 5 or 6 in. wide. They're the flat-panel liquid-crystal display (LCD) screens you've probably seen on airplanes. In a vehicle, they're mounted on a center console between the two front seats, or they flip down from the ceiling.

Neither location is ideal. The floor-mounted system is fine for minivan passengers in the middle row of seats. But those in the back row usually can't see the screen. The drop-down version provides better viewing for all rear-seat passengers--but also for motorists behind you, who should be paying attention to the road.

AROUND THE CORNER. The best screen location is in the seat back or headrest, but that requires extensive modifications and multiple screens, which drives up the cost. Such systems are available at high-end customizing shops, but depending on the features and number of screens, you could easily spend $10,000 to $15,000. But screen prices are starting to fall, and soon auto makers will be installing multiple TV screens in headrests. Mercedes-Benz, in fact, will likely be first with a seat-back "home theater" option on its S-class sedans this fall.

The units typically come with a compact videocassette player and jacks for plugging in popular video-game systems, such as Nintendo or Sony Playstation. Most carmakers intend to replace their systems' videocassette players with more advanced digital video disk (DVD) players down the road. But they're holding off for now because many families have large collections of videotapes they want to play in the car. Other technology is coming, too. Eventually, mobile entertainment systems will be linked to a vehicle's computer and navigation system, allowing rear-seat passengers to access the Internet.

There are less expensive choices, of course. Most home-electronics stores offer portable mobile-video units for as little as $500. Auto makers caution, however, that these units, often wedged in between the seats, can be dangerous in a crash because they're not built into the car.

Or you can rent a system online from Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs David and Liz Walsh of Havertown, Pa., rent floor consoles for $49 a weekend, or $99 a week, and ship them overnight anywhere in the country. They're catering to families that want a TV in the car only for special occasions. On those long trips, for instance--when they know counting out-of-state license plates won't keep the kids quiet for long.

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