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The DVD953's attractive, silver face is largely empty on the left and has just the correct number of controls on the right, including a dimpled circle pad to operate the menu. In contrast, the tiny remote feels chintzy and poorly designed. Its closely spaced, nonbacklit keys resemble one another too much to allow easy navigation by feel, and buttons for eject and forward-/reverse-scan are missing.
As noted, a couple of oddities mar the 953's interface. To scan, you must hold down the Skip button, which is a real pain since the controls respond slowly and tend to engage chapter skip by mistake. Inexplicably, when we held down the Stop button for a few seconds while testing whether the player would eject, the 953 switched from progressive-scan to interlaced mode! The stripped-down system menus look simple, but their lack of comprehensible icons or explanatory text will confuse inexperienced users.
Features, useful and otherwise
Philips gave the DVD953 a modest feature set by today's standards. The deck handles MP3 and High Definition Compatible Digital playback and includes a Dolby Digital analog 5.1-channel output. The last feature is hardly useful since almost all 5.1-channel receivers have digital inputs, and the 953 cannot play Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio (DVD-A) discs.
Loading an MP3 CD causes a playlist to appear onscreen with the first 14 characters of each song's filename. Playback order is easy to program, although the 953 can't play an MP3 CD in random order. This Philips handled all of our MP3 CDs, as well as finalized DVD-Rs and DVD+Rs, but it wouldn't accept either of the rewritable DVD formats.
The 953's connections consist of outputs for 5.1-channel analog audio, optical digital audio, A/V and S-Video, and component video. You won't find a coaxial digital output, so there's one less hookup option for your A/V receiver. Also, you can't output both S-Video and component video simultaneously; instead, there's a little selector switch to activate either.
Image isn't everything
Progressive-scan images looked good overall, though in darker scenes, the Philips introduced a bit more noise than the best players. For instance, in the Ku Klux Klan rally from O Brother, Where Art Thou, dancing motes appeared in the shadowy faces and the clothing of the escaped convicts.
That said, the reds of the Grand Wizard's satin robe remained impressively free of blocky MPEG artifacts, which can be a problem with inferior players. The 953's line-doubler also performed well with film-based material, providing steady reproduction of difficult details, such as the rocking wicker weave of Governor Pappy's front-porch chair.
On the downside, if you use this player with an interlaced 4:3 TV, you may notice some jagged edges and moving lines when watching anamorphic--enhanced-for-wide-screen--movies. Another potential problem is the 953's lack of aspect-ratio control. Since some wide-screen 16:9 TVs cannot change aspect ratio when fed a progressive-scan image, owners of those sets will have to watch letterboxed, nonanamorphic DVDs in interlaced mode.
For $299, the 953 lacks polish but still makes good pictures. Unfortunately, the nation's shelves and Web sites are full of more refined units that also offer good performance, such as Toshiba's , which supports DVD-A discs, and Zenith's , which carries a lower price. In light of that, look for a street price of $200 or less before strongly considering this model.