Blu-ray Disc Goes Home

You've just set up a slick, new 42-inch plasma HDTV and you're ready to record your favorite shows in all their high-definition glory. But there's a problem: Today's DVD recorders can't handle HD content or the super-sized video files the content requires.

Next-generation recorders that will be able to record more on a disc are unlikely to be on sale widely until the end of 2005 at the earliest. And when they get there, you'll find two competing--and incompatible--formats: Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD.

Blu-ray Disc has broader backing among big-name consumer electronics and PC companies, but HD-DVD, a standard from Toshiba and NEC, has gained some momentum in Japan. The sole commonality between the two formats is that both use a blue-laser to increase disc capacity and record high-definition video (as opposed to standard DVD's red-laser).

Formats Fight It Out

When it comes to maximizing how much data you can store, Blu-ray Disc has a distinct edge. For rewritable media, Blu-ray Disc supports 23GB, 25GB, and 27GB single-layer BD-RE discs (and double that for double-layer discs); HD-DVD supports 20GB single-layer HD-DVD rewritable discs and a dual-layer version is under development that will hold at least 32GB. The capacity difference is greater for single-layer read-only discs: Blu-ray's discs will hold 25GB of video, 10GB more than HD-DVD.

Each format plans to use similar video codecs for prerecorded content, such as Hollywood movies: MPEG-4.AVC, VC-1, and MPEG-2. Rewritable HD-DVD discs will use the three codecs as well; however, Blu-ray's BD-RE is limited to just MPEG-2 at this time (the Blu-ray Disc Association expects BD-RE will encompass the other codecs, but doesn't have a timeline as to when).

At present you won't find any HD-DVD machines in stores, but a trip to Japan will reveal two Blu-ray Disc recorders are already available: the Sony BDZ-S77 (released in April 2003) and the Matsushita Electric Industrial (Panasonic) DMR-E700BD (released in July 2004). Both models write to BD-RE media (the Panasonic system uses single and dual-layer discs, while the Sony accepts single layer only). Each model also supports playback of existing optical formats--DVD-Video, DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW, DVD-RAM (Panasonic only), and audio CDs.

And both machines are leaving a widescreen-sized hole in the wallet of adventurous early buyers in Japan. The going price for either model is about $2700. Still chomping at the bit? Put your credit card away: You can't import either of these units, since they're designed for use in Japan, and are incompatible with HDTV standards and broadcasting systems used in other countries.

Put to the Test

I had the opportunity to glimpse the future of disc-based recording and test drive these two Blu-ray Disc models at my Tokyo home--and I liked what I saw. In my informal, hands-on tests, both units produced recorded images that I found comparable to live HDTV. When comparing the units' outputs, I also couldn't discern a difference in the image quality at the default recording mode for HDTV.

Compatibility is king when it comes to establishing a new standard for content recording and playback, and consumer electronics manufacturers know this. That's why I was surprised I had difficulty mixing and matching the discs produced by these first-generation Blu-ray Disc recorders.

Using the Sony machine, I recorded some HDTV onto a pair of Sony 23GB discs. When I inserted them into the Panasonic unit for playback, one worked fine but the second disc could not be read and the machine insisted it needed to be reformatted--something that would have erased the programs I had already stored on it. I put it back in the Sony and it worked fine. Eventually I reformatted the disc and it gave no problems in both machines.

Conversely, the Sony machine successfully played back both 25GB BD-RE discs from the Panasonic--although it did so only after thinking long and hard about it. Of the 10 times I tried it, the fastest loading time I recorded was 47 seconds and the worst was a wait of three minutes before it recognized the disc. It recognized its own Sony discs in about 25 seconds. The 50GB dual-layer discs I made on the Panasonic wouldn't load at all on the Sony.

The upshot is, yes, the first generation of Blu-ray Disc recorders are shipping--but there's a reason the technology hasn't made it overseas just yet. The sluggish response times and compatibility issues are something that I'd expect from prototype machines but not commercialized products and certainly not such expensive ones.

More critically, these early models lack support for future prerecorded Blu-ray Disc content. That means you won't be able to watch Gandalf take on Saruman in The Lord of the Rings--assuming it actually comes out in high-definition BD-ROM.

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