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TechNewsWorld.com

The Skinny on High-Def Formats

By Jack M. Germain
Oct 5, 2006 4:00 AM PT

Autumn is here. That means the start of the holiday shopping season, the traditional time for electronics makers to introduce their new product lines. This buying season, consumers interested in one of the new high-definition DVD players being introduced over the next two months risk buying a player that may not be around very long. Remember the format war between the Betamax and VHS video tape machines in the late 1970s?

The Skinny on High-Def Formats

At issue is whether consumers should invest US$500 for one of Toshiba's HD DVD units or $1,000 for Samsung's Blu-ray entry. A third choice might hit the U.S. market from Europe. VDM, an as yet unpriced virtual multilayer disc technology from New Medium Enterprises, promises a massive 50 GB of storage -- double that of the competition -- and the ability to play on existing DVD players with the addition of a high-definition encoder.

No significant technological differences separate Toshiba's player from Samsung's unit. The VDM disc, however, is based on considerably different technology that has not yet raised much interest.

Battle Brewing

Ultimately, the winner of this format war may be determined not by consumers but by the content masters. Movie studios might want to avoid creating and distributing duplicate entertainment content to play on more than one format.

"Content is everything," Andy Parson, senior vice president of new technologies at Pioneer Electronics, told TechNewsWorld.

In light of the VHS-Betamax fallout, the industry formed the DVD Forum to prevent a similar format battle as newer technologies were developed, noted Mark Knox, advisor to the HD DVD Promotion Group at Toshiba. Despite the DVD Forum's hopes that new formatting wars would not occur, nobody wanted to compromise on design standards.

"The forum chose recordable DVD technology we know as 'DVD-R' over the competing DVD+R formatting standard. When the +R proponents continued to sell that formatting methodology, it caused consumer confusion," Knox said, adding that similar confusion exists over the audio DVD standard.

What's the Difference?

The only significant difference between the new high-definition players from Toshiba and Samsung is storage capacity. HD DVD stores the content of three conventional DVDs, while Blu-ray stores the equivalent of five DVDs. Compare 15 GB of data stored on an HD DVD disc to 25 GB stored on a Blu-ray DVD, or 30 GB versus 50 GB on dual-sided discs of each format, respectively.

Both Blu-ray and HD DVD look about the same, but one fundamental difference between the two is how they handle data. Blu-ray places the data much closer to the surface of the disc, Parson explained. This requires less plastic for the laser to pass through, so the data has much better resolution.

"There is no inherent technological difference that would enhance the picture quality to make one type DVD disc better than the other," said Parson. "Picture quality is the same since both technologies use the same compression codecs." Those codecs are existing industry standards based on MPG technology.

By comparison, the VDM disc can store up to 50 GB and is backward-compatible with existing DVD players. While HD DVD and Blu-ray discs are limited to dual-sided capacity, the VDM technology allows for 10 layers of plastic and much greater capacity, using a red-ray laser recording process instead of the blue laser burning technology of the other two formats.

However, the New Medium Enterprise format scheme hasn't gained traction.

"There is no consortium supporting this technology in the U.S. In all likelihood, the VDM product will find marketing in China," Knox suggested.

Design Decisions

The high-definition format initially provided three times the data boost over conventional DVD, according to Knox. Refining the manufacturing process has ensured that the laser point never reaches the center of the disc, producing the breakthrough necessary to store five times the data capacity of conventional DVD.

Conventional DVD discs are 1.1 mm thick and use a 0.1 mm thick laser beam. The laser light shines through the thin part of the disc and has a working distance of 1 mm off the surface.

"By comparison, the Blu-ray disc is 0.1 mm thick, so the design of Blu-ray is much more critical than the HD DVD design," added Knox. "HD DVDs are made just like standard DVDs, so disc makers can use the same machines."

The spacing process is similar in both technologies. Both manufacturing processes use blue laser discs. There is only a slight difference in how each process writes to disc.

Supporters of the Toshiba format for the new DVD standard claim that its ease of use will gain the favor of consumers. As Knox sees it, HD DVD is just an extension of what consumers already know now as "DVD." That gives the HD DVD proponents a leg up over the competition.

Also, HD DVD's features are easier to use than those of the Blu-ray standard, Knox said. For example, consumers will be able to navigate the menus on HD DVD while the movie is playing. In addition, the menu interface will be much easier to operate.

Decision Due

Sigma Designs, the chip maker for the new DVD players, sees the decision between formats coming down to a photo finish of sorts. Ken Lowe, vice president for business development and strategic marketing for Sigma, said that since the studios can provide content in either new format, the studios may have the final say as to which standard wins.

"There is a huge industrial force behind Blu-ray. Toshiba has fewer companies signing on for the HD DVD standard," said Lowe.

What could be a tide turner is Sony's expected release before Christmas of its PlayStation 3. Pioneer's Parson said the game console will ship with a Blu-ray disc drive.

"It will be a very interesting game. Over the next six months, we expect to hear a lot of talk, but we'll see little substance from manufacturers. But six months after that, it will be put up or shut up time," Lowe predicted.


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