Not that long ago, watching a movie in a car was the exclusive domain of high-end brands and recreational vehicles. Over the last decade, the ability to watch a movie, stream a show, or play a video game has found its way into all sorts of cars and trucks. These days, you can add the ability to watch videos in your car with ease and without spending a ton of money.
In this article, we’ll share the most common ways to add video to any car and give you the pros and cons of each method. We’ll also share some products that we’ve used recently that work great.
Considerations for Watching Videos in Your Car
You should consider the location where you intend to mount the video monitor, first. If the monitor is going to be for back-seat passengers, you’ll want to look at designs that attach to the back of the front seats, replace the headrests, or mount to the headliner.
If you intend to use the monitor from the front seats, you’ll want to consider options that either mount to the windshield or you may think about upgrading your head unit to a design that allows for video streaming.
There are also options available when you want to use several monitors, either to play different content on separate screens or the same images on all screens.
Finally, you should also think about how you intend to listen to audio. Some designs use the car’s stereo system for sound, others use built-in speakers. Most designs also provide options for headphones, while some of the most modern include options for wireless headphone use.
A video/ audio source is what supplies the information about the movie to the screen and speakers. The video source will determine the quality of video and audio you can get and will affect everything from screen placement to audio options.
Many of the better head units on the market these days have the ability to stream movies. Some use USB inputs allowing streaming from thumb drives or other media players, while some have the ability to stream wirelessly. You can even use things like a Fire TV stick with many head units provided that you also have a Wi-Fi hotspot active.
One of our favorite head units that has the ability to play video is the Sony XAV-8100ES. The head unit is considered a multimedia car stereo one of the few on the market that offers an HDMI connector so you can play movies, stream shows, and even hook up a Playstation for a little road-side gaming.
Pros & Cons
The obvious pro about using a head unit to watch videos is that you are right there. Not only will you get the ability to play videos in your car by upgrading your head unit, you’ll almost certainly end up with a better sound stage in the process.
The downsides are also pretty obvious. Watching videos while driving is incredibly dangerous, illegal in most places, and blocked by most streaming apps, though it is possible to do. When using the head unit for video, the screen is optimized for front passengers and won’t be very easy to see for back seat riders. Finally, the screen resolution on even the best head units is typically lower than that of a decent tablet, which is an easier way to watch videos anyway.
Blu-Ray/ DVD Players
There are a ton of options on the market these days for Blu-Ray and DVD players designed to be used in the car. Some designs use hangers or straps to attach the unit to the back of the seat to allow for easy access to the player and viewing of the screen.
Headrest and Flip Down Designs
A common way of adding a Blu-Ray or DVD player to your vehicle is to use headrest players. These designs replace your factory headrest with an aftermarket design that includes built in screens and players. Alternatively, you can also mount a screen to your vehicle's roof via a flip-down dvd player design.
Check out the Buying Guides section and you’ll find our Best Headrest DVD Player list. One of our favorite headrest designs at the time of writing this article is the Audiovox 9” headrest. This product offers a decent screen size and convenient use, but has somewhat low resolution and is rather expensive considering they are sold individually.
Pros & Cons
Using a headrest design gives you the convenience of a plug-and-play design that won’t require wiring or a professional installation. Many of the best devices are simple to use and offer a good image resolution for watching videos.
Limitations of the design include screen size, angle of viewing adjustment, and the need to plug many units in. In some cases, a headrest monitor will make good sense, but in too many cases, you’ll be paying a premium price for a product that isn’t better than a tablet and is less easy to use.
Hang-ons offer good convenience and resolution. These designs look very similar to modern tablets and function much the same as well. Often, you’ll find good prices on these designs, so you’ll want to do a little research to determine what a quality affordable product is before jumping in.
We can help you narrow down the options you are considering with our Buying Guides. Our overall favorite hang-on design is the Pumpkin 10.1-inch headrest DVD player. This one is easy to use, has a great screen, and isn’t over priced.
Pros & Cons
The hang-on designs are nice because they are portable. It is easy to take them to the office, use them at home, or have them handy for taking a break while wrenching in the garage. Many of these designs have the best built-in speakers of any of the options.
The design can mean that you’ll need a sturdy way to mount the monitor to the back of the seat to prevent it from moving around while you drive. Many of these designs will need to be plugged in during use, adding one more cable to your car interior.
These products aren’t necessarily designed for use in your car, but they will work just as well in the car as they do when you are sitting around your den or kitchen. A stand-alone DVD or Blu-Ray player typically has built-in speakers but usually also provides inputs for headphones. Like the designs intended for use in an automobile, many of the stand-alone designs also have the ability to take advantage of wireless headphone technology.
The key thing to look for if you want to use one of these types of players in your car is how to power the device. DVD players that are intended for 120 volt wall power require an AC-to-DC converter, however some of the best designs have a built-in ability to switch from 12v to 120v as needed. One of our favorites is the Jekero 16.9-inch DVD player that offers the convenience of anywhere-use with high-demand performance.
Pros & Cons
The most useful thing about stand-alone devices is that you can easily take the player inside and connect to a computer monitor or your television, while also offering the convenience of use around a campfire, at a tailgate party, or when you are on a road trip and you’ve got children that need to be entertained all the time.
Downsides to these designs are the need for power cables which impacts where you are going to be able to use the device. Along with the need for power, mounting these devices in a way that is both safe and secure can be problematic in the car.
Of course, a major consideration should be how you intend to listen to the audio on the video you are playing. You’ve got a few options to consider here that can impact how much you like the system you develop.
By far the best and most useful way to improve the audio quality of any DVD player in your car is to use the best headphones you can find. When you are shopping for a DVD or Blu-Ray player for your car, keep in mind that not all designs will allow the use of wireless headphones.
We’ve got an article that breaks down some of our favorite headphones for use in the car, and it’s a great jumping-off point to begin learning about the advantages of high-fidelity headphone technologies.
Pros & Cons
Headphones are among the best solutions because, let’s face it: you’ve heard that ridiculous song your kid loves so many times that it feels like maybe it has become seared into your brain. Headphones keep the distractions and annoyances of the program from affecting the driver, making them one of the best options out there.
The obvious downside is that some players will only allow for one set of headphones which doesn’t work great if you’ve got two people watching. Wireless headphones need to recharge, something that gets overlooked all too often. You’ll also deal with wires that are either too long or too short for your uses.
Some designs will allow you to stream the audio directly through your car speakers. This can give you a great sound stage when you have the right combination of speakers, but keep in mind that most car audio systems are designed for listening to music, so some aspects of video, like sound-effects and complex dialogue, might not sound very good.
For this option, you’ll want to run the best quality speakers you can. We are particular about our speakers, and we’ve found that the ES-line from Sony does an excellent job of handling both car audio sources like big-bass music as well as cinema-quality sound. We’ve also got tons of articles about buying the right speakers for your car you can check out for inspiration and reviews, including our recommended best car speakers, best car subwoofers and best car amplifiers.
Most of the designs out there these days use some type of built-in speaker. Most of the time, this is a tiny speaker that does a poor job of conveying the range of audio frequencies available, leaving you with disappointing audio range.
In our experience, headphones are the best solution, while in-car audio ranks a distant #2. Relying on the built-in speaker doesn’t usually end up providing very good results, but it does offer superior convenience over other situations. If you plan to use the player’s built-in speakers, try devices that use two speakers that are as large as possible to enhance the frequency range available to you.
One of the biggest things that impacts portable DVD technology is the lack of high-resolution screens capable of handling the video for in-car use. In most cases, an inexpensive tablet is going to offer a superior viewing experience over most portable DVD players, but you won’t have the convenience of being able to switch to a different disc.
Today’s top head units have better and better screens every year. While you’ll find a few high-end options offering 1080p and higher resolutions, the vast majority of head units are going to be limited to 780p or lower resolution. Given that most in-dash head units have screens smaller than seven inches, the lower resolution won’t be as big a factor as it would on, say, a 16-inch monitor. One of our favorite HD screens is the Pioneer DMH-C5500NEX but check out our list of best dvd and multimedia car stereos for our most current list of recommended units.
Pros & Cons
The only pro to using the head unit is that it is located right in the center of your dash for easy viewing.
The negatives for this setup are many. First, you’ll have to deal with the fact that almost all head units have a 0-degree offset, meaning they face directly to the back seat of the car, not the optimal viewing angle for drivers or passengers in the front seat. The low resolution and anti-glare coatings tend to cause a loss of detail, particularly on action sequences. Since very few of the head units on the market are intended for viewing video -and it is illegal in most places- this isn’t a great option.
Hang-on screens come in a wide variety of sizes and resolutions, but you’ll quickly get into home-theater territory when buying a hang-on unit that approaches 1080P resolutions or better. Most of these designs rely on lower resolutions that allow for faster frames per second to provide smooth video rather than high-quality details. Our top pick is the Pumpkin 10.1-inch hang-on and we like the 1280×800 resolution it offers.
These designs tend to offer larger screens in the 15-18-inch range with decent resolution and fast enough frame rates. They are certainly better than most in-dash solutions, but nowhere near as good as you’ll get from a tablet or Chromebook.
Expect to pay a premium price for hang-on designs that offer better-than-average resolution.
When you are using a stand-alone DVD player, you’ll need to add a screen, so the sky's the limit. You might opt for a high-resolution screen capable of 2k or higher resolution and a player that offers Ultra-High-Definition 4k resolution to get a good compromise.
If getting the highest possible resolution is your goal, this is the way to go. Like hang-on units, you are going to pay for the experience, so choosing a high-quality product is essential.
Finding the right screen that is compatible with the player you want to use isn’t always easy. We’ve found that most of the time, this solution doesn’t end up making very much sense when it comes to outfitting your car with screens for watching movies simply because that isn’t the task these products were designed to do.
Adding the ability to watch DVDs and Blu-Ray discs to your car doesn’t have to be a major issue. These days, some of the most elegant solutions are also the simplest. When you are trying to decide which option will work best for your application, you should check out some of our buying guides and product reviews for the straight truth about these devices.