CES - Product roundup

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 short story on blue

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 US$499 and US$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 US$1,000.

In fact, US$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.

DVD recorders evolve

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 US$550.

Samsung's industrial designs, now largely black, were also appealing. A new version of its current twin-tray recorder is on the way. LG Electronics had some nice designs, including the first slot-loading model intended for the living room that I've seen.

DVD everywhere

CyberHome, best known for its just-this-side-of-passable sub-US$100 DVD recorder, showed off more stylish designs at CES, including the new LAP-9100. This unit includes a base station designed to be mounted on a wall or underneath a cabinet, and a swiveling LCD that attaches to the base station. The display portion integrates a DVD player, a clock, an AM/FM radio, and a rechargeable battery pack; the travel kit includes a DC adapter, carry bag, and a car headrest mount.

LG was among a handful of vendors showing a 180-degree twisting design for the screen of its portable DVD players. This nifty approach allows you to turn an otherwise standard-looking portable player into a tablet-style device.

Philips had one of the most innovative players I've seen (which doesn't excuse its uninventive name). The circular Portable DVD Player, or PET 320, looks much like a Sony Discman of yesteryear -- a bit chunky, but nonetheless highly portable. And its heft can be excused: The US$129 device has a 3.5-inch crystal TFT embedded into the exterior of its clamshell lid, and it features built-in stereo speakers and an adjustable vertical stand. The PET 320 supports DVD, DVD+R/RW, CD, and MP3-CD formats; it can play discs with JPEG images; and it comes with a car adapter and a rechargeable battery, rated at up to 2.5 hours. Look for it in March.

Gold Media goes mainstream

Remember the days of gold media? Well, gold is in again -- using the same process that Mitsui perfected back in the early days of CD recording.

For years, MAM-A Matsui has been offering gold "archival" discs in specialty stores. The discs are so called in part because using a 24-karat gold substrate instead of the usual silver makes the disc less susceptible to oxidation, should the disc's polycarbonate bonding fail.

Now Memorex plans to go one step further, by adding its DuraLayer scratch-resistance technology to gold archival discs in order to protect them from wear and tear. The Memorex Pro Gold Archival CD and DVD Media come backed by a lifetime warranty. According to the company, the discs will be the only gold archival media available at retail in the United States.

Memorex says the discs are rated with an archival life of up to 300 years for CDs and 100 years for DVDs. In the lab, the company says it has found this media to be resistant to the usual artificial-aging torture tests such as ultraviolet light, heat, and humidity.

Splashy inkjet printable media

One of the most frustrating things about today's inkjet printable CDs and DVDs is how susceptible the surfaces are to moisture. One sweaty finger, one drop of water, and my carefully crafted label can become smudged, sometimes beyond recognition.

Imation made a big splash with its AquaGuard Inkjet media, which boasts an innovative printable water- and smear-resistant surface. The media uses ceramic-based nano particles as the foundation for the surface itself. When an ink droplet is placed on the surface, it's attracted to and bonds with a ceramic particle. As a result, when the disc comes out of the printer, it's dry to the touch. You can handle a disc immediately after taking it out of the printer, unlike standard inkjet printable media.

The media is produced by Imation's partners overseas, but the surface is applied to the discs in an Imation facility in Wahpeton, North Dakota -- the same facility where Imation still produces 3.5-floppy disks.

Imation expects AquaGuard Inkjet media to command a street price premium of about 50 percent over standard inkjet printable media. Even so, the company expects discs will come in at less than US$1 apiece. The media is already available in Japan; Imation plans to bring it to a store shelf near you around midyear. The media will first be sold via Imation's partner, Primera, which sells disc duplication systems.

Mini DVD+R DL, New LightScribe Media

Verbatim announced its Mini DVD+R DL Media, which can capture a full hour of video on a single disc; this is especially useful for camcorders that record to DVD. (Separately, Sony announced that more than half its camcorder line will now record to DVD.)

Also from Verbatim came some new developments for LightScribe media. The company announced 16X LightScribe DVD-R media, as well as LightScribe media with a coating that will speed up the label etching process, and LightScribe color discs. All are due in the first quarter, except for the color LightScribe media, which are due out in the first half of the year.

12X DVD-RAM, 18X write-once DVD

DVD-RAM will be hitting 12X this year, and 16X has already been achieved in the lab. LG and Panasonic showed drives capable of 12X DVD-RAM, which is currently the fastest speed available for rewritable DVD. I expect to see more drive vendors to jump up to 12X, as so-called Super Multi drives (which support DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW, and DVD-RAM formats) become more common.

Meanwhile, I heard more talk that 18X write-once DVD is in the works, but it isn't ready yet. Apparently, vendors are getting antsy for a way to eke a little more out of standard-definition red-laser DVD, and somehow think that the marketing appeal of labeling something as having 18X speed and then pushing the limits of the technology to get there will help them. Of course, I fully expect the standard industry-wide recommendation to prevail: To burn high-quality discs with fewer errors on them, you may need to step down the write speed.

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