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Could it be a Blue Christmas for Blu-ray?

This holiday buying season is going to be the first big market challenge for Blu-ray. This will be Blu-ray's first holiday season as the unquestioned HD format leader, but with the economy in the state that it is, will it be able to actually manage to assert itself as the dominant video format and finally overtake DVDs? I'm having my doubts, and I'm not the only one. A study recently released by ABI Research indicates that 47 percent of holiday buyers expect to decrease their spending from previous years and a comparatively low 40 percent expect to spend the same amount. Specifically on the Blu-ray front, the research found that only 8 percent of holiday buyers were considering the upgrade to a Blu-ray player, despite the fact that prices have reached the sub-200 dollar sweet spot.

One of the biggest problems? The cost. Even though the Blu-ray players have dropped in price, in order to actually get the benefit of Blu-ray you need to own an HDTV, which is still a very expensive investment (though Sharp has unveiled an HDTV with a Blu-ray recorder built in). Then when you consider that each Blu-ray movie costs about double the price of a DVD the numbers don't add up in Blu-ray's favor. Of course, the cost wouldn't be as much of a problem if the perceived value of Blu-ray was higher. Unfortunately for Blu-ray, most people still don't see the change in quality between DVD and Blu-ray to be significant enough to be worth the cost. Many of those that already have an HDTV are perfectly happy with the quality of the DVDs they already have.

Then there's the Netflix factor. Convenience is of high importance, and it doesn't get much more convenient than streaming Netflix movies through a computer, TiVo, Roku box, or Xbox 360. Even Blockbuster is joining in, introducing its own set-top box to stream movies straight to your TV. Sure, it isn't in HD like a Blu-ray movie, but it's quick, cheap, and easy, all of which are highly valued features. Acknowledged, Netflix has pledged to support Blu-ray, so you'll be able to get it if you want it.

Since Thanksgiving is near and it's the time for family, I'll end with a second opinion from my cousin. He's an avid movie watcher, has an HDTV, and plans to buy a Blu-ray player. "But not yet," he told me. "It's something that I want, but not something that I need. I'm going to wait until it's the industry standard or they stop making DVDs." Unfortunately for Blu-ray proponents, he has lots of company.

Samsung to launch new LCD, Plasma TV models

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd will unveil its new Series 8 and 7 Full HD LCD and Plasma TVs, in Qatar. This new premium lineup sets a new standard for media solution and multimedia home entertainment. New product offerings that will be on show in the Qatari market go beyond pure technological advancement, as Samsung places new emphasis on value-added contents and services, such as the unique InfoLive function in the 7 and 8 series TVs. InfoLive allows viewers access to streaming news, weather and stock info directly through the internet. The TVs are also shipped with a variety of professionally created content, such as an art gallery, cooking and yoga programmes, and games.

“The new series 8 and 7 TVs offer an even more sophisticated crystal design with an inlaid pattern as well as genuine stylishness, made possible by a slim design and bezel,” said B J Kim, General Manager, AV Division, Samsung Gulf Electronics. “Samsung has strengthened its technological and stylish leadership in the Audio Visual industry by becoming the number one TV maker in the world. We are happy to launch in Qatar our new technology with the Series 8 and 7 to the rest of the region,” added Kim. The Peninsula

Samsung incorporates its stunning new crystal design that has been so well received by consumers in Series 8 TVs (46, and 52 inches). The key upgrade is a startling 50% reduction in thickness, producing a slim and narrow bezel measuring just 44.5mm.

Series 7 is filled with the type of innovative features and advancements required by the industry’s most tech-savvy consumers who enjoy a range of self-created or downloaded multimedia content as well as Media Solution with HD peripheral devices. Recognizing that TVs are no longer just for viewing broadcasts, Samsung has installed Media Solution features such as the USB connection, through which users can instantly enjoy their photos and downloaded content. The innovative InfoLive feature brings informative content feeds to the TV, enabling users to quickly scroll through news, weather and stock quotes in real time.

Flat TV Sales Are Up, But Slowing

Despite the weakened economy, television sales continued to climb in the third quarter, with LCD and plasma TVs seeing the greatest gains, according to DisplaySearch.

TV shipments from manufacturers to North American retailers grew 6 percent from last quarter and 12 percent from last year to 10 million units. LCD and plasma TVs were most popular among consumers, seeing 21 percent and 20 percent gains respectively from last year. However, the firm also viewed the combined sales in a negative light, noting that during the previous six quarters, growth was at least 41% percent on a unit basis. During the third quarter, combined flat panel TV shipments in North America were up only 21 percent.

Sales of rear-projection TVs saw a 50 percent decline over the last year, but that decline was not as steep as expected due to consumers looking for an inexpensive digital TV in advance of February's DTV transition.

The results are stronger than expected, DisplaySearch said. It "seems to indicate that retailers maintained strong purchasing levels during the first couple of months during the quarter, before the retail demand difficulties emerged during the latter weeks of September."

Among manufacturers, Samsung was on top for sales for flat-panel and LCD TV sales, capturing 19.4 percent and 18.8 percent of the market, respectively. Panasonic was number one in plasma TV sales with 39 percent.

Rounding out the top three for flat-panel and LDC sales were Sony and Sharp, while Samsung and Vizio took the number two and three spots for plasma TV sales. Sharp had the strongest growth from the last quarter among the top five flat panel TV brands at 41 percent. Sony and Samsung, meanwhile, were the only brands to ship more than a million units during the quarter.

Sony Brings Blu-ray Technology to New CDs

Watching a movie on a Blu-ray Disc is certainly more enjoyable than a regular DVD, and now Sony wants to bring the same kind of enjoyment to audio CDs as well. Using the same Blu-ray technology underpinning movie discs and PS3 games is a new audio CD that offers higher sound quality. Dubbed the Blu-spec CD, this new disc standard makes use of a new structure of some kind. New machines are used to manufacture the discs and the resulting master CDs are said to be of higher quality. The copies of the master disc, not surprisingly, are better too.

While your regular DVD drive can't handle Blu-ray Discs, Sony says that the new Blu-spec CD will be backwards compatible with existing conventional CD players. This means that you won't have to invest in a whole new set of hardware for your home theatre or car stereo, though I imagine that you will need new hardware to take full advantage of the new benefits.

Considering that more and more people are moving toward digital delivery, I don't know if going with a new disc media for the music industry is such a bright idea. People are growing accustomed to using services like iTunes for their music, so why would they fork out the extra money for a hopped-up CD? Can you even tell the difference on a relatively inexpensive stereo system? The first set of Blu-spec CDs are expected to his Japanese streets on Christmas Eve. Sony will have discs with classical music, Aerosmith, Miles Davis, and more. MSRP on a music Blu-spec CD is about $25.

Blu-ray Holiday Primer

This holiday season marks the first in which consumers interested in replacing old, standard-definition DVD collections with high-definition discs and players have a clear choice. Earlier this year, Sony's pet project, Blu-ray, vanquished HD-DVD and became the industry standard for high-definition movies as studios like Warner, Universal and Paramount lined up behind it.

Yet even though there are no longer two competing formats, there are plenty of Blu-ray options that can leave shoppers scratching their heads. Much like how high-definition televisions are far more complicated than their standard-definition predecessors, Blu-ray introduces a number of new features and variables to consider when seeking the right player for your needs.
In Pictures: 10 Blu-ray Players And Technologies

First, let's explore what makes Blu-ray discs superior to traditional DVDs. Although Blu-ray discs and DVDs are the same size (120 mm in diameter), Blu-ray discs are capable of holding more data. Data--like movies, music and other files--are burned onto DVDs and Blu-ray discs using a laser that etches tiny pits onto the surface of the disc. A blue laser, with a wavelength of 405 nanometers, etches tiny pits onto the surface of a Blu-ray disc. The wavelength of a red laser, used to burn DVDs, is 650 nanometers. The smaller wavelength of a Blu-ray laser makes smaller pits, leaving room for more pits--and thus more data.

This minute difference accounts for Blu-ray's substantial advantage in capacity over DVDs. A single-layer Blu-ray disc can hold 25 GB of data and dual-layer discs can hold up to 50 GB, while single- and dual-layer DVDs are limited to 4.7 GB and 8.5 GB, respectively. This makes Blu-ray discs well-suited to hold the vast amounts of data required to properly display a movie in high-definition. While you could burn HD content to a DVD, it would be impossible to hold more than a few minutes on a single disc, making it less than ideal for HD feature films or television shows.

Even with an HD movie on it, Blu-ray discs have a lot of space left over, and content producers are taking advantage of this available capacity with new multimedia and interactive elements. Some Blu-ray titles have picture-in-picture commentaries, where you can see the directors and actors providing behind-the-scenes insight on the film. Others Blu-ray discs allow users to download additional content via an Internet connection and store it on the player's built-in memory. The rub is not every Blu-ray disc player is capable of utilizing these features. Your ability to access them depends on what version, or "profile," of firmware your player has.

There are three major Blu-ray player profiles: Profile 1.0, Profile 1.1 and Profile 2.0. The first, Profile 1.0, was called the "grace period" profile, meant to be a bare-bones set of criteria that manufacturers had to meet on the first wave of Blu-ray players. Devices with Profile 1.0 could play back the disc's content and nothing else. This profile was phased out after November of 2007, so it's rare to find a Profile 1.0 player in a retail store. But if you're buying second hand on eBay or Craigslist, make sure to watch out for these models if you're not interested in the basic Blu-ray package. If you are looking for a real cheap, no-frills player, however, the year-old Sharp BD-HP20U is still being sold and offers Profile 1.0 for just around $250.

Profile 1.1 is confusingly referred to as the "Final Standard Profile," though it is by no means the last, most recent or most versatile Blu-ray profile available. It's more commonly referred to as "Bonus View," which is the name of the picture-in-picture functionality.

Profile 1.1 players are readily available in stores and some, like the Samsung BD-P1500 ($299), can be upgraded to Profile 2.0 with a firmware update. Unfortunately, the Profile 2.0 requirement of an Ethernet input means that any Profile 1.1 player that lacks this hardware is incapable of being updated to Profile 2.0. For most consumers, Profile 1.1 is probably the smartest pick, especially since many of the advertised advantages of Profile 2.0 have yet been fully realized.

Profile 2.0 is the apex of current Blu-ray technology. Profile 2.0 players feature BonusView and throw in BD-Live, the ability to access updates and additional content on the Internet via the player's built-in Ethernet port. These players also come with at least 1 GB of internal storage to hold downloadable content. Though BD-Live special features are few and far between at this point, the growing proliferation of Profile 2.0 players is incentive for studios to make their discs more appealing with new content.

The PlayStation 3 (80 GB, $399) was the first Blu-ray disc player to feature Profile 2.0, and is still perhaps the best value 2.0 player, as it provides not only Blu-ray playback, but access to a large library of video games, as well as media center extender capabilities for a relatively low price. If you're more interested in a stand-alone player, Panasonic's DMP-BD35 ($299) is a competent Profile 2.0 player capable of providing excellent high-definition playback fro Blu-ray discs, and features an SD-card slot so you can access the AVCHD videos produced by modern high-definition camcorders.

While Blu-ray should be celebrating its dominance as the sole high-definition home video media on the market, critics are already speculating about its demise, putting plenty of fear in consumers still worried about betting on a losing horse. Significant threats to Blu-ray include upscaling DVD players, which improve the quality of standard-definition DVDs for use on HDTVs, and the emergence of video-download services from Netflix, iTunes and Amazon.com.

Though neither upscaling DVD players nor video-download services can match the level of quality afforded by Blu-ray discs at the moment, they are far easier and more affordable alternatives to adopting a new video player and amassing a collection of expensive new discs. Consumer confidence is not reassured when people like Andrew Griffiths, Samsung U.K.'s director of consumer electronics, is only willing to forecast a five-year lifespan for the format--a claim angrily rebutted by Sony.

HD downloads are definitely the biggest long-term threat to Blu-ray, but it will be some time before broadband availability and increased speeds make it worth the while of movie studios to invest heavily in the technology and open their libraries to the wild Web. If what you want is full high-definition video and you want it right now, Blu-ray is still your best option.

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