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High-Def Hardware on the Horizon

15 Apr, 2005 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Toshiba HD DVD player

The high-definition format war is no clearer on the hardware front than it is on the software side.

Principal HD-DVD hardware manufacturers Toshiba, NEC and Sanyo continue to say they will release recorders and players this fall and in early 2006.

Sony, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Dell, main backers of Blu-ray Disc, have unveiled prototype high-def recorders at select trade shows, with retail launches set for early 2006. Players also are expected to debut in early 2006. No pricing expectations for Blu-ray machines have been released.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toshiba said it would bow an HD-DVD/DVD/CD player-recorder for around $1,000. Ditto for Thomson, which said it would offer HD-DVD players through its own name and RCA brand.

One advantage HD-DVD proponents have long touted over Blu-ray is the format's backward compatibility with current DVD and CD packaged media, both in its replication and in its hardware.

NEC has developed technology capable of playing back HD-DVD, DVD and CD with a single optical head so small the company also incorporated it in a hard drive for desktop computers.

Sanyo also developed a three-format-compatible playback pick-up system using a single-optical scanner. The system uses a blue-violet (HD), red (DVD) and infrared (CD) laser diode, respectively, as the light source.

This plays into HD-DVD's disc replication process that allows it to assimilate into current DVD replication lines with moderate adjustments. “Due to its similar disc structure, HD-DVD achieves a seamless transition from standard-definition DVD; no other format is capable of this,” said Jodi Sally, VP of marketing, Toshiba America Consumer Products Co.

Josh Peterson, director of strategic alliances for HP Optical Storage Solutions Business, a Blu-ray supporter, countered that backward compatibility is not unique to HD-DVD.

While the Blu-ray optical pick-up design does not allow for the playback of standard DVDs, a manufacturer could build in backward compatibility. Peterson said it is up to each manufacturer to decide how compatible the company wants its Blu-ray player to be.

“HP's position is that it would be product suicide to have something that wasn't compatible,” Peterson said. “And from a PC and digital entertainment perspective, backward compatibility is an absolute must.”

He said there is nothing inherently complex about Blu-ray to make it less backward-compatible than HD-DVD. “It is our perspective that an HD product wouldn't be successful in the market if it didn't have compatibility with at least DVD, if not CD and DVD,” Peterson said.

He said five manufacturers aligned with Blu-ray have announced single-optical pick-up units similar to HD-DVD.

The major challenge to market availability, Peterson said, is not compatibility, but rather copyright protection and digital rights management (DRM) issues.

Peterson acknowledges HD-DVD will probably come to market ahead of Blu-ray, but he cautions the first-to-market goal may provide only a temporary victory.

He said Blu-ray's long-term advantage is based largely on market acceptance of digital entertainment centers that have time-shifting and DVR functionalities. Blu-ray is critical for the time-shifting of high-def television, he added, because the programming takes up an immense amount of storage space that will quickly fill up a conventional DVR hard-disc drive. Blu-ray offers more storage than HD-DVD.

Experts contend having the future ability to record HD broadcasts on media center PCs will be paramount to driving high-def packaged media. Ditto for data backup or storage of HD videos, photos or music.

“When we launch a Blu-ray player, you will be able to time-shift or record HD broadcasts,” Peterson said. “Having 50GB of capacity on a single disc is very compelling.”

Blu-ray devices unveiled so far in Japan are recorders and not players compatible with Blu-ray packaged media discs. This is largely due to comparatively higher HD adoption rates in Japan and Korea compared to the United States.

Indeed, Panasonic last summer launched a Blu-ray recorder for NBC's HD broadcast of the Athens Olympics. “Our expectations are that there will continue to be a fairly fast adoption rate of HDTV monitors in the United States, about 15 million homes by the end of 2005,” Peterson said. “That's only about 15 percent of the market, which gives us a very good market to pursue.”

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