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Blu-ray recorders doing well in Japan, players struggle

While Blu-ray recorders now outsell their standard DVD counterparts, research firm NPD reports that outside of the PS3, Blu-ray players are not selling well. Japanese research firm BCN said that revenues from sales of Blu-ray recorders in that country increased more than threefold since January, when high definition players only comprised 12.4% of all sales -- and that figure included HD DVD hardware.

At least in Japan, the data shows that consumers did indeed hold back on purchases of high-definition equipment while the two formats duked it out for supremacy. BCN says it expects sales of Blu-ray recorders to continue to rise as the Beijing Olympics near, and consumers wish to record the events in high definition.

While supporters of the format may be quick to point to the news as evidence it is moving forward, NPD says not so fast. In the period from January to February of this year, sales in the US decreased by some 40 percent, and only managed to crawl back up by two percent from February through March, according to a report from NPD analysts including director Ross Rubin.

These numbers reflect unit sales (as opposed to revenues) for stand-alone players (as opposed to game consoles or PC drives) in the US (as opposed to Japan or worldwide). Sony's saving grace though may be the Blu-ray enabled PS3, which continues to see increasing demand in light of better marketing and lower prices.

Even so, most analysts say it will be at least a year if not more before Blu-ray catches on with the average consumer. That's not stopping companies like Amazon from attempting to draw them in. Recently, the online retailer put about 116 titles on sale at savings of up to 50% off the list price. With the discounts, prices of discs are roughly the same as the standard DVD versions.

HD DVD demise hasn't affected Blu-ray sales

Sales of Blu-ray disc players haven't been helped by maker Toshiba's capitulation over producing the rival HD DVD format, the research firm NPD Group said recently.

Toshiba Corp. announced on Feb. 19 that it would stop making HD DVD players, already doomed by Warner Bros. Entertainment's announcement Jan. 4 that it was dropping HD DVD to focus on Blu-ray. Sales of Blu-ray players, excluding PlayStation 3 game consoles, dropped 40 percent from January to February in the U.S., according to NPD. Sales grew only 2 percent from February to March.

While DVD players cost less than $100, Blu-ray players generally cost $400 or more.

Another factor that may be holding back sales of Blu-ray players is that anticipated models with Internet connectivity haven't hit the market yet. Current models can't be upgraded. But sales of PS3s seem to be recovering, perhaps with help from their built-in Blu-ray players. Sony Corp. sold 257,120 units in the U.S. in March, nearly doubling last year's figure. Another firm, ABI Research, estimates that PS3s will account for more than 85 percent of Blu-ray players in use this year.

Camera memory card tags location info using Wi-Fi

A wireless memory card for digital cameras now comes with an added twist: Besides making it easier to store and share photos, the latest version of the Eye-Fi card also helps sort images by location.

Eye-Fi Explore, due out next month, taps into a database run by Skyhook Wireless. That company sends trucks up and down streets to scan for home wireless routers or commercial hotspots and record the unique identifying code and location of each.

The Eye-Fi card can sense the Wi-Fi access point that happens to be nearby, regardless of whether that access point is open or password-protected. The unique code for that access point gets matched with what's in the Skyhook database. When you take a photo, Eye-Fi automatically attaches data about the current location, as determined by Skyhook.

"Today, that's a very manual and time-consuming process," said Jef Holove, chief executive of Mountain View, Calif.-based Eye-Fi Inc. "We're saving people the time and the hassle."

Like GPS-based "geotagging" products, Eye-Fi tag photos with latitude and longitude coordinates. That could boost geotagging, which remains limited to more tech-savvy or professional photographers.

Without the aid of Eye-Fi or a GPS device, location information needs to be entered manually.

The $129 Eye-Fi Explore comes with 2 gigabytes of storage and works with any camera using SD memory cards.

Like previous Eye-Fi models, Explore can also automatically send photos over Wi-Fi from your camera to your computer or photo-sharing sites when within range.

Blu-ray not on the top yet

Mid-February was a good time to be a Blu-ray backer. Media moguls who had championed the technology were busy floating on yachts in the Pacific, chomping cigars, and stroking white longhaired cats; the billion-dollar payday was at hand. But numbers out last week indicate that standalone Blu-ray player sales plummeted in the early part of this year, and enthusiasm for the hi-def format appears as lukewarm as the applause at an REO Speedwagon concert. Where did all the buyers go? Last week, both ABI Research and The NPD Group delivered the news: the standalone Blu-ray player market did not suddenly rise up and walk after HD DVD quit the market. Instead, it remained in its bed and took a turn for the worse. NPD reports that player sales dropped by 40 percent from January to February 2008 and increased by only 2 percent the following month.

ABI argues that the Blu-ray player market won't improve to full health for more than a year, perhaps as long as 18 months. "BD player prices remain high, and supplies are limited," says ABI Research principal analyst Steve Wilson. "This is good for the market because most current players do not support all the functions that studios place on the discs. Lacking support for—or upgradability to—BD Live! or Bonus View (picture in picture), consumers cannot utilize all the available options. Manufacturers would rather sell more fully-featured models."

This is "good" only because the collective companies involved in supporting Blu-ray haven't been able to get their collective act together. In fact, the only real beneficiary of the current high-prices, underperforming standalone players has been Sony's games division, which produces the PlayStation 3, a solid (and future-proof) Blu-ray player in its own right. In answer to the question posed above, it appears that buyers have gone in several directions simultaneously.

PS3. The reported declines in Blu-ray player sales aren't actually declines at all; they only apply to standalone players. Sony's PlayStation 3 has been moving serious units, and while standalone player shipments can be numbered in the thousands, Sony sold 257,000 PS3s in March 2008 alone. That represents a 98 percent growth rate in year-over-year sales. Given the high cost of standalone players and the fact that the price didn't fall after the HD DVD announcement, it's clear that most people are getting their Blu-ray fix from the PS3.

ABI believes that PS3s will account for a full 85 percent of all Blu-ray players in the wild by the end of 2008. Despite dire headlines regarding Blu-ray that are based on the recent ABI and NPD reports, it's clear that the format is actually growing the number of players in the field, and in significant ways. HD players from both contending formats have long had to face questions about whether the quality boost they offer is "good enough" to drive users to make a pricey upgrade away from a DVD player. While the PS3 represents a good value for money, standalone players typically don't. They still exist far above the $100 magic number for broad adoption of new consumer electronics devices, and upconverting DVD tech continues to look quite good. On my new 52" LCD TV, for instance, Battlestar Galactica upconverted over an HDMI connection looks simply spectacular. Sure, it would look better in HD, but good enough that I want to drop hundreds on a new player?

NPD notes that upconverting DVD player sales are up 5 percent in the first quarter of 2008 over 2007, while those that cannot upconvert dropped by 39 percent. But not everyone sees the need for a disc-based player anymore. The 360 has a well-regarded content download service that delivers HD movies right to the console, for instance, and Microsoft has been talking up to the direct download model for content distribution now that its pony is out of the race.

Apple has its own iTunes infrastructure that can serve up video content to iPods, iPhones, Macs, PCs, and TVs, and it now offers 720p rentals for the Apple TV. Amazon and TiVo provide further video download and rental options, while Netflix has been adding to its ever-increasing stable of films that can be streamed online instead of ordered through the mail.

Given the array of such services available, it's not hard to see how even tech-savvy folks might hang on to a decent DVD player as backup but make use of newer streaming and download services to grab on-demand fare.

HD DVD is dead, and Blu-ray is arguably well positioned to take advantage of that fact. But the format has a long way to go before it supplants DVD as the physical media of choice for the living room. Remember, it took nearly a decade for sales of DVD players to overtake those of VCRs. It was only when DVD players began dropping down around $100 that they truly took off, and Blu-ray has a long way to go before it gets there.

 Analyst: HD DVD demise hasn't meant scramble for Blu-ray

Sales of Blu-ray disc players haven't been helped by maker Toshiba's capitulation over producing the rival HD DVD format, research firm NPD Group said Wednesday. Toshiba announced on Feb. 19 that it would stop making HD DVD players, already doomed by Warner Bros. Entertainment's announcement Jan. 4 that it was dropping HD DVD to focus on Blu-ray.

Sales of Blu-ray players, excluding PlayStation 3 game consoles, dropped 40 percent from January to February in the U.S., according to NPD. Sales grew only 2 percent from February to March. The firm didn't release numbers of players sold.

"When we surveyed consumers late last year, an overwhelming number of them said they weren't investing in a new next-generation player because their old DVD player worked well and next-generation players were too expensive," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD. "It's clear from retail sales that those consumer sentiments are still holding true."

While DVD players cost less than $100, Blu-ray players generally cost $400 or more. Another factor that may be holding back sales of Blu-ray players is that anticipated models with Internet connectivity haven't hit the market yet. Current models can't be upgraded. But sales of PS3s seem to be recovering, perhaps with help from their built-in Blu-ray players. Sony Corp. sold 257,120 units in the U.S. in March, nearly doubling last year's figure.

Another firm, ABI Research, estimates that PS3s will account for more than 85 percent of Blu-ray players in use this year and that the number of stand-alone players and Blu-ray-equipped PCs won't surpass them until 2013.

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