Format Battle Brews Over Next-Gen DVD

The DVD Forum is meeting in Seattle this week and one of its goals is the approval of the first commercial version of the HD-DVD blue-laser based disc format aimed at high-definition television and movies.

If the forum approves the HD-DVD-ROM format, as expected by several people involved in its development, it will make official what has been looking increasingly likely for the last year: a battle between two formats and their supporting companies to become the de facto replacement for today's DVD.

Both of the new formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, are based on blue lasers. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than the red light used in CD and DVD systems, allowing the laser beam to make a smaller spot on the disc surface. With each bit of data taking up less space on the disc, more data can be stored on a 4.7-inch disc.

As a result, discs can hold between 15GB and 30GB of data, depending on the variant of the format used, compared to current DVDs that can hold between 4.7GB and 9.4GB of data. That extra space is important if discs of the same size as DVDs are to be used to distribute movies and other content in quality comparable to high-definition television.

The main backers of the HD-DVD format are NEC and Toshiba.

Earning Approval

Approval of version 1.0 of the read-only variant of the HD-DVD (High-definition/high density DVD) format is on the agenda at the DVD Forum steering committee, which began on Wednesday, and is expected to pass, says Hiroshi Inada, chief research manager of NEC's media and information research laboratories.

A preliminary version of the HD-DVD-ROM format, version 0.9, was approved in November last year. It specifies a storage capacity of 15GB on a single-layer disc. A dual-layer read-only disc will hold 30GB.

Three video codecs are expected to be mandatory: MPEG2 for legacy support of DVDs, MPEG4 AVC (H.264), and Microsoft's Windows Media 9 (VC-9).

The format is expected to be approved, Inada said Thursday in Tokyo after unveiling NEC's latest work towards commercial HD-DVD drives.

In the seven months since NEC first showed a prototype HD-DVD drive, engineers at the company have succeeded in reducing the size to a conventional half-height form-factor. The company claims one of its biggest advances to date has been development of a pickup head that is compatible with both the new high-definition format and existing DVDs and CDs. The head is in the new drive.

If the format is approved this week as expected, the first commercial drives from NEC should be available in about a year, according to Inada. The company plans to sell the drives to manufacturers of personal computers and also to consumer electronics companies for use in digital video players and recorders, he says.

Competing Format

The competing format, Blu-ray, comes from a group of companies led by Sony and including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic), Mitsubishi Electric, Philips Electronics, Pioneer Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, TDK, and Thomson Multimedia.

Sony stole a lead on the competition when it launched the first commercial Blu-ray recorder last year. However, with a price tag of around $2715, the device is still far from becoming a mass-market product. With several other companies planning to launch commercial Blu-ray products this year, prices are likely to fall still further.

NEC's Inada, however, isn't worried about Blu-ray's apparent early advantage in the market place.

Hollywood movie studios--not consumers--will likely decide the fate of the two formats, he says. The HD-DVD format could have the edge with the studios, he says.

The reason: HD-DVD discs are similar to current DVDs in that the recording layer is sandwiched between two 0.6 millimeter layers of plastic in the middle of the disc. This means existing production lines can be easily converted to manufacture HD-DVD discs--a possibility that was confirmed in conversations with Taiwanese disc makers at the Computex trade show in Taipei last week.

Because the recording layer in a Blu-ray disc is 0.1 millimeters below the surface on the top of a 1.1 millimeter substrate, this disc will require a new production line.

Hollywood studios, which produce billions of DVD discs a year, are very sensitive to even a slight rise in the price of production, Inada says.

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