HD VMD to Battle Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD

At the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) trade show in Denver, a company promoting a new high-definition optical disc format demonstrated set-top players and high-definition movies that cost far less than ones that use the competing Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD formats. The only faux pas: Arriving late to a two-party format war that consumers are already reluctant to support.

Next month, New Medium Enterprises' 1080p set-top players, which use the HD VMD (Versatile Multilayer Disc) format, will go on sale on Amazon.com and in stores such as Radio Shack and Costco for around $150--about half the cost of the least-expensive 1080p HD DVD player, and perhaps a fourth the cost of the least-expensive Blu-ray player. The movies that work in them are similarly inexpensive.

"Expect a small premium over DVD [discs], and a big discount over Blu-ray and HD DVD," says Jim Cardwell, an advisor to the company and former president of Warner Home Video.

Instead of the blue-laser technology embraced by the Blu-ray and HD DVD camps, the HD VMD format uses the red-laser technology already used to create DVDs, and as a result, keeps the cost of manufacturing discs and drives low, says Eugene Levich, director and chief technology officer of New Medium Enterprises. He said that manufacturing a Blu-ray drive costs ten times as much as manufacturing a DVD or HD VMD drive, because the latter two are essentially the same drive but with different firmware.

HD VMD discs, which hold up to 30GB on a single side, are encoded with a maximum bit rate of 40 megabits per second; that's within halfway between HD DVD's 36 mpbs and Blu-ray's 48 mbps. The format uses MPEG-2 and VC1 video formats to encode at 1080p resolution for the time being, and will possibly move to the H.264 format in the future.

Levich said the video quality is "at least as good" as that of the other formats. Using a projection system, HD VMD reps showed me clips of "We Were Soldiers" and "Apocalypto." The movies looked very good--not as stunning as I expected, but I'd just arrived from the CEDIA show floor, where every television vendor uses phenomenal, highly doctored content to show off their products.

The HD VMD format supports up to 7.1-channel Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS audio output, though it will not offer the high-bit-rate Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio surround-sound codecs.

The ML622S and the ML775S players each have a single HDMI 1.3 connection and can play HD VMDs, DVDs, CDs, and MP3 CDs, as well as a few other formats. The ML622S costs about $150; the ML775S will cost slightly more. The ML775S adds USB ports and a media-card reader for displaying photos and playing video content from devices such as thumb drives and external hard drives. Both players have Ethernet ports designed for downloading firmware updates, not the interactive features supported by HD DVD and Blu-ray. They come in black, red, gray, and white.

At launch, 20 U.S. movie titles will be available, including many from Mel Gibson's Icon Entertainment International. That's pretty sparse, and the list doesn't include that many hot titles. Of course, Blu-ray and HD DVD didn't start out with many more than that either, and New Medium Enterprises says that much more content from around the world, including many Bollywood titles, will be available.

Cardwell says that if the set-top players sell well, that will convince more major studios to sign on for HD VMD. But without content, buyers may be reticent to buy the set-top players. However, HD VMD players work with other, non-HD VMD content--and because they're inexpensive, buyers may be willing to take a chance.

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