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High-Def: Reinventing the Wheel

DVDs is long over; Blu-ray having been declared the winner this past spring when Toshiba finally conceded defeat.

It's been a few months since I last visited the HD DVD versus Blu-ray battle. Of course, the war for supremacy in blue-laser "next generation" DVDs is long over; Blu-ray having been declared the winner this past spring when Toshiba finally conceded defeat.

Pete Putman, CTS

Pete Putman, CTS

Many analysts figured that, with the format war settled,sales of Blue-ray players and packaged media would ramp up considerably. According to an August 2008 press release from Futuresource Consulting, sales of Blue-ray titles in the United States were expected to hit 45 million by the end of 2008–an increase of 400 percent over 2007.

Problem is, actual sales have not met those expectations. One obvious reason is the slowdown in sales of larger-screen HDTVs (50 inches and up) in favor of smaller screens, a phenomenon noted by analysts such as DisplaySearch. Basically, customers are keeping a tight eye on their budgets, setting a specific price ceiling, and buying the largest screen they can get for their money. For many, that translates into 32-inch and 37-inch sizes.

For further proof of the decline in large-screen sales, you need go no further than the advertising circulars in Sunday's newspaper. I recently purchased a Panasonic TH42PZ80U 42-inch 1080p plasma HDTV from regional chain Boscov's, which frequently undercuts Best Buy. It cost me $1,499, but I wound up getting $400 of that back within a week on two successive trips to the store to match lower advertised prices from Sears. At the same time, Boscov's also had a 42-inch 720p Panasonic plasma for $799, and as of this writing it was advertising a 46-inch 1080p set for $1,199, along with a 50-inch 720p plasma for $1,099. Think about that–a 50-inch first-tier plasma for just over a grand.

Red-Laser Enhancements

OK, enough about HDTV prices. After months of staying quiet, Toshiba announced in August that it would bring a new DVD player to market. That news alone would elicit a big yawn these days, except that this player offers an improved video image processor for upconversions and, here's the icing on the cake, 1080p/24-frame output for the first time in a red-laser player.

Now, that last part certainly got my attention. Was Toshiba trying to keep its feud with the Blue-ray format going? Not really, said the company's press release. Its new XD-E500 player was not a competitor to Blue-ray players at all, just an exciting new way to enhance picture quality for red-laser DVDs at an affordable price.

Hmmm, "affordable prices"–a phrase not usually used in the same sentence with Blu-ray. Remember that the first Blue-ray players retailed for $1,000 to $2,000, and even now they are still costly compared to red-laser players, with the lowest prices currently at $399 and most models ticketed at over $500.

In contrast, the XD-E500 has a suggested retail price of $150. It scales red-laser discs to 720p/60, 1080p/60, and 1080p/24 formats, all through the player's HDMI output connection. For the past two years, one of the big selling points of Blue-ray players was their support for 24-frame playback into compatible HDTVs. Now you can have 24p output with any red-laser DVD for half the price of the cheapest Blue-ray player.

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