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Here Come HD Optical Discs

THE DVD may be the most successful electronic gadget of all time. DVD players are everywhere, and they're cheap, too. Every new computer sold today has at least one DVD-ROM drive in it.

The competition could be decided simply by who gets there first. As of late June, Toshiba already had its player (HD-A1, $499) to market, and at least 13 HD-DVD movies were available from Warner Home Video and Universal.

Blu-ray also made its appearance in late June with Samsung's BD-P1000 ($999), to be followed later this year by Sony, Panasonic, Philips, LG, and Pioneer. (Lurking in the shadows is Sony's PlayStation 3, a Blu-ray compatible design scheduled for a November 2006 launch.)

Too expensive, you say? Well, Sony's offering is about $999, while Panasonic and Pioneer will come in at $1,300. Only the yet-to-be-seen PS3 box offers a competitive price for Blu-ray, tentatively in the $500 to $600 range.

And there's the crux of the problem. We've been conditioned over the past 10 years to understand that DVD players are cheap (and they really are), and that DVD media is also cheap and ubiquitous (and it is). Of course, when the first DVD players appeared on store shelves back in 1997, they also cost much more than $1,000.

But their winning combination of speed, image quality, durability, digital surround audio, random access, menu navigation, and support for widescreen modes ensured that market demand would follow, driving prices down. That's not a sure thing for either HD-DVD or Blu-ray, and they've complicated things with a format war.

To be fair, both camps have also announced plans for PC drives to burn and read blue-laser DVDs. Numerous companies have already announced pricing for and availability of blank 25 and 50 GB Blu-ray disc media, and Pioneer is now showing a Blu-ray burner. While the HD-DVD folks haven't specifically announced any burners or drives, at least three companies will offer the blank media in 15 and 30 GB capacities.

Several movie studios have lined up behind each format, with Warner Bros, New Line, Paramount, and Universal in the HD-DVD camp, and Sony Pictures, Warner Bros, Fox, MGM, Paramount, and Disney backing up Blu-ray. (Sony's choice is obvious, but also note how Warner and Paramount have their feet firmly planted in both camps. Future-proofing, perhaps?)

What's standing in the way of success? How about non-proprietary storage media such as flash drives? Using MPEG-2 encoding, you'd need about 9 GB per hour of recording capacity, and Samsung recently announced the development of 16 GB flash memory. Given that 1 GB flash drives are now selling for less than $50, it won't be too long before we'll have enough storage capacity for a two-hour movie on a pen drive, which could be moved to any number of playback devices.

Portable hard disc drives are also plummeting in price. Verbatim now has an 8 GB Stor'N'Go drive for less than $200. How long before those become 16, 32, or 64 GB drives? What's more, you can already record an hour of HD with constant bit rate to an 8.5 GB red-laser DVD. With additional efficiencies from MPEG-4 or WM, that could be enough to store almost two hours with a little tweaking.

Here's another thought: With expanded HD video-on-demand from cable and Telco (IPTV) service providers, do you really need to buy or rent high-definition DVDs? Perhaps the real appeal of recordable HD discs would be that you could buy a VoD HD movie you just viewed and burn it to a blue-laser disc in your set-top box.

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