Burning Questions: Report From the Consumer Electronics Show

The big talk of last week's Consumer Electronics Show was all about blue: blue-laser DVD, or more precisely, the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc to be the next-generation optical disc format. Watching the posturing and positioning for the upcoming smackdown was both entertaining and frustrating. But, as I learned from roaming the show floor, today's DVD format has plenty of life still left in it.

That shouldn't surprise anyone. Analysts such as IDC's Wolfgang Schlichting, who tracks current-generation DVD and the upcoming high-def formats, predict that the market for blue-laser products won't really take flight until 2007 or 2008. In the meantime, DVD is expected to continue thriving.

What follows is a summary of the more noteworthy optical disc products and announcements--for both current and future formats--from the show.

The bottom line on the battle of the blue-laser formats: Neither camp is budging. It is clear that both are careening to market. HD-DVD took an early lead at a splashy pre-show evening event with the announcement that Toshiba would begin selling its two HD-DVD players in March. The players are aggressively priced at $499 and $799, respectively--amazing prices considering that just a year or even six months ago insiders were expecting blue-laser-based players to sell for as much as $1000.

In fact, $1000 is the price Pioneer announced for its BDR-101A Blu-ray Disc recorder for the PC, due in March. It will be the first Blu-ray Disc burner that will fit into a standard PC drive slot. Pioneer is targeting this model at the disc-authoring community, but expects it will also attract early adopters eager for the removable media capacity offered by 25GB Blu-ray discs. The recorder can write to write-once BD-R and rewritable BD-RE, as well as to DVD±R and DVD±RW. It can't, however, read or burn CDs--an omission Pioneer said was made in order to bring the product to market at a timely moment. Future versions will have this capability, Pioneer officials say.

Companies backing the Blu-ray Disc format--including Panasonic, Pioneer, Samsung, and Sony--all announced players at CES; but sadly, no one announced a stand-alone Blu-ray recorder. The Blu-ray camp had long cited its ability to bring a recorder to market at launch as a distinction between it and rival HD-DVD. In most cases, vendors announcing players quoted late spring or early summer for release.

Even though DVD recorders haven't been around nearly as long as their videocassette counterparts, they've rapidly evolved into aesthetic and functional units. Of course, it's hard to tell much about a DVD recorder from the outside alone, and none of the ones I saw at CES were hooked up to a display so I could see their interface.

What caught my attention was the newfound widespread support for MPEG-4 video and DiVx: Everyone from Panasonic to Samsung seemed to be supporting these formats. Also ubiquitous in new models were HDMI support and the ability to convert standard-resolution content to high-definition resolutions. Most of Panasonic's sleek, brushed silver models also included a prominently placed Secure Digital Card slot for viewing and burning still images captured by a digital camera.

I was particularly intrigued by the Panasonic's new top-of-the-line DMR-EH75, the company's first device to offer the ultimate trifecta: DVD recorder, hard-disk recorder, and VCR for dubbing from tape to DVD. It's due in April for $550.

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