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CES: Panasonic to unveil thinnest Blu-ray drive for laptops

Panasonic has developed a Blu-ray Disc drive for laptop computers and plans to unveil it at January's Consumer Electronics Show, the company said today. The drive is 9.5mm high, which is a standard height for many slim-line laptop optical disc drives. By squeezing the drive down to this height it should be easier for laptop makers to fit into their standard machines without the need for a redesign of the computers.

Panasonic has already begun offering samples of the drives to laptop makers with the hope that the companies will build it into new PCs. The drive supports 2X writing to single-layer BD-R (write-once) and BR-RE (rewritable) discs and 1X writing to dual-layer discs. Reading of both Blu-ray Disc formats is at 2X. Additionally the drive can read BD-ROM discs, read and write to DVD-RAM, DVD-/+R, DVD-/+RW, CD-R/RW discs and read both DVD-ROM and CD-ROM. Panasonic didn't disclose a price for the drive.

Blu-ray Disc is competing with HD DVD to become the de facto replacement for DVD. In the video market both offer a high-definition picture and audio quality well above that of DVD but most consumers have stayed away from both formats until a clear winner emerges in the format battle. In the PC market, the high cost of drives and plummeting cost of hard-disk drive storage has also meant that both formats remain relatively unused.

Between the two, Blu-ray Disc has the advantage in terms of capacity. A single-layer BD-R disc can accommodate 25G bytes of data while a single-layer HD DVD-R can hold 15G bytes but the difference isn't so simple. However despite Blu-ray Disc's superior capacity the blank media is also more expensive than HD DVD media.

Panasonic is scheduled to hold a news conference at CES in Las Vegas on January 6 at which the drive is expected to be unveiled.

Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle heats up as Christmas approaches

With Christmas fast approaching, movie studios, other HD content providers, and consumer electronics manufacturers are all focused on the performance of HD DVD and Blu-ray. As we've previously discussed, total sales of both HD DVD and Blu-ray movies since both standards launched in 2006 are only a tiny fraction of DVD sales. Samsung is hoping to tilt the scales in favor of Blu-ray; as of right now, Samsung's BD-P1400 Blu-ray player is selling for $279 on Amazon, down from a $499 MSRP.

That's not so much a discount as it is a steal, and it drops the BD-P1400 squarely within the price range for an HD DVD box. Unless Samsung is sitting on a mammoth heap of these things that it wants to move, I'd be surprised if the units stay in stock anywhere very long. If you've been waiting for a Blu-ray player, this definitely looks like one deal to jump on.

Earlier this year, Forrester Research predicted that the battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray would continue until at least 2009. Even then, we observed that Forrester's time frame seemed a bit optimistic, and current trends today have only reinforced that opinion. Up until now, Warner Brothers has backed both formats and released titles on each format, but that may be about to change. The New York Times reports that Warner will choose which format to back based on which sells more movies through the Christmas season. If that's true, the studio is almost certainly headed for Blu-ray land—Toshiba may have sold more standalone HD players, but Blu-ray continues to dominate total disc sales. Losing WB would be a significant loss for HD DVD.

Blu-ray's victory is by no means a foregone conclusion. Microsoft has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be a powerful competitor—the entire Xbox franchise, after all, was built from the ground up despite widespread predictions of failure and a weak start against the PlayStation 2. Microsoft has the financial wherewithal to push adoption of HD DVD more aggressively then it has done thus far—creating a higher-end Xbox 360 with an included HD DVD player would be one obvious place to start—but what, exactly, Redmond will do to bolster the fortunes of HD DVD versus Blu-ray is still unclear.

One thing that everyone engaged in these format wars understands, however, is that consumers heartily dislike such market struggles. Faced with confusion and uncertainty, the vast majority of customers will choose to sit on the sidelines. DVDs, after all, still look pretty good, and a DVD player or television with a built-in upscaler of reasonable quality makes them look that much better. In the eyes of an HD enthusiast, such substitutions are a poor, poor substitute, but the average buyer is more interested in saving money and staying on the "right" side of a format war than they are in investing in a technology that might prove useless a few years down the road.

Combo players, of course, could solve these problems, but the market is still waiting for an HD DVD+Blu-ray player that's cheaper than the cost of buying each unit separately. LG has just released its second-generation dual player (the BH 2000), but at $999, it's not a very compelling value. Consumers can buy a decent HD DVD player and a decent Blu-ray player for less then a grand, while anyone interested in gaming and HD content could buy an Xbox 360, its HD DVD drive, and a 40GB PlayStation 3 for close to the same price. The value proposition of a combo player may rise in the near future; Samsung is preparing to launch the BDP-UP5000 dual-format player for $799. Right now, however, the economics of a dual device don't make much sense.

Warner Denies Blu-ray Switch

Warner Bros. says it has not decided to back Blu-ray exclusively in the high-def disc format war against HD DVD.

Asked by syndicated columnist Don Lindich about reports that it would support Blu-ray, Warner Bros. General Manager Jim Noonan issued this statement:

“We have made no decision to change our present policy which is to produce in both HD DVD and Blu-ray.”

Warner is the last major studio to release movies in both high-def disc formats. (Four major studios are backing Blu-ray while two are supporting HD DVD.) But there have been rumors that Warner is considering abandoning its neutral stance and endorse one format. Pali Research analyst Rich Greenfield yesterday issued a report predicting that Warner will support Blu-ray. (As did this web site. He said that Warner's endorsement could end the format war in 2008.

“If Warner Bros. and New Line shift exclusively to Blu-ray in early 2008, Universal and Paramount/Dreamworks will not have enough titles to sustain HD DVD for much longer," Greenfield said, referring to the two studios that back HD DVD exclusively.

Transformers director blames MS for HD DVD/Blu-ray format war

Movie director Michael Bay has claimed that Microsoft is responsible for the HD DVD vs Blu-ray Disc format war, which he alleges is the Beast of Redmond's attempt to kill off physical formats and get everyone downloading instead.

Here's Bay's comment, posted in a forum on his official website:

"What you don't understand is corporate politics," he writes. "Microsoft wants both formats to fail so they can be heroes and make the world move to digital downloads. That is the dirty secret no one is talking about. That is why Microsoft is handing out 100 million dollar checks to studios just embrace the HD DVD and not the leading, and superior Blu Ray. They want confusion in the market until they perfect the digital downloads. Time will tell and you will see the truth."

We should point out that the payment of "$100m checks" is something Microsoft has denied - we only have the word of two anonymous Viacom executives that it did.

Back to Bay. His allegation is that Microsoft is essentially backing the weaker format to hinder the success of the other, thus preventing both from taking off in the way the studios and the likes of Sony and Toshiba hope. Microsoft is in the business of selling content downloads, so it's no great surprise that it might prefer physical HD media to fail. But would it back one format to make that happen? Bay's argument assumes Blu-ray is the best format, pure and simple, and that HD DVD wouldn't get a look in without Microsoft's money. That ignores the backing the format has had not only from its main developer, Toshiba, but also major tech companies like Intel and HP, so the format's going to be promoted no matter how much cash Microsoft spreads around (allegedly).

And HD DVD isn't the poor relative of BD. Plenty of myths have emerged about the benefits of both formats, but technically they're not so very different. BD has the capacity advantage, while HD DVD has the benefit of being associated with a very strong brand: DVD. HD DVDs are cheaper to make than BDs, but this is a red herring. First, disc manufacturers still need to adapt DVD production lines and that isn't cheap. It's not like they flick a switch and a production line starts churning out HD DVDs instead of DVDs.

BD requires a bigger equipment outlay, true, but no greater - allowing for inflation, modern capacity requirements and so on - than the cost of building DVD pressing plants in the first place, and manufacturers will always need to upgrade disc production lines, to replace older, inefficient machinery and to boost capacity. They'll be buying new equipment no matter what. The need to remain competitive will ensure they can handle multiple formats, the cost of the pricier ones being covered by sales of less expensive media. BD's data-storage layer is closer to the surface than HD DVD's is, but it's not yet certain the format is any less resilient than its rival is. Special coatings minimize damage and - frankly - if you can't look after your discs, of whatever format they are, it serves you right if they get scratched. Don't want damaged discs? Don't let your kids mess with them.

BD does suffer from incomplete standard syndrome. HD DVD isn't entirely immune - if Toshiba's proposed 51GB disc goes mainstream, most of today's players won't be able to handle them - but the specification can be relied on more than BD's can. These are the real issues hindering consumer take-up, and they're all a the result of both formats' immaturity. So are high disc prices and uncertainties over whether discs will play properly, as even Toshiba admits. To make matters worse, neither format provides as much a leap above DVD that that format offered over VHS, so it's going to be some time, if ever, that they become the mainstream choice, even if World+Dog has a 1080p flat-panel TV.

By which time, of course, we will be downloading movies. Actually, rather a lot of people are doing so already, albeit illegally. The bandwidth is there and it's increasing, and more and more movie rental services are offering downloads. It's not hard to envisage a world, not so very far off, where the vast majority of consumers, all of them casual viewers, get movies from video-on-demand services, whether they're download-based or delivered through a set-top box - only a small step up for the satellite and cable TV companies, some of whom are doing it already.

That leaves physical media to devotees - a specialist market. And as online catalogues expand, even these guys may find they can watch what they want, when they want as easily by download or VoD as they can buy buying a disc. No special features with a download? True, but while plenty of people do make sure they try out all the extras, we'd bet that the vast majority of viewers don't. So mass-market movie downloading is coming, no matter what happens in the HD disc format war. Microsoft doesn't have to spend a cent to ensure such an outcome - all it has to do is wait and gather content.

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