Blu-ray Format Adds Capacity, Functionality

Artwork: Chip Taylor
The Blu-ray Disc format will soon be able to perform some nifty tricks--if manufacturers adopt new specifications that the Blu-ray Disc Association, the format's governing body, is likely to finalize soon. For starters, Blu-ray disc capacity could jump to hold 128GB; today's maximum is 50GB. In addition, a single Blu-ray disc will be able to store fixed data on one layer and rewritable data on another. Before either of these upgrades to Blu-ray can occur, however, a consortium of Blu-ray manufactures must agree upon them--which observers expect to happen by the end of the summer. But the fledgling disc types will still face significant adoption challenges.

Problem number one for consumers is that existing Blu-ray hardware won't be able to take advantage of the new Blu-ray disc enhancements. But requiring everyone to buy new Blu-ray players won't be an easy sell; and on PCs, where Blu-ray Disc burners have yet to supplant rewritable DVD burners, the task may be even more daunting.

The two distinct Blu-ray disc format enhancements are BDXL (which increases storage capacity) and IH-BD (which adds a read/write layer to Blu-ray discs). The question is, why do we need these new formats?

BDXL

"In the regions of the world that have BD recorders [linked to their home entertainment center], there's perception that more recording capacity is very useful," says Andy Parsons, Blu-ray Disc Association chairman. In Japan, Parsons says, Blu-ray Disc recorders for use with high-definition televisions account for about 70 percent of the market. In the United States, however, consumer electronics manufacturers have yet to ship a Blu-ray Disc recorder geared toward home theaters.

Even if BDXL doesn't become the standard way for U.S. consumers to record television programs, it could make a splash in the professional storage market, as a medium for computer backups and archival storage. And if BDXL gains traction among hardware makers and media manufacturers, it could evolve into a viable alternative to hard drive storage, especially in data-driven professional markets like medicine, media, and document imaging.

IH-BD

The IH-BD format is highly specialized, too. Parsons notes the most obvious use of IH-BD will be in gaming, where games can be stored in a single 25GB read-only (ROM) layer, while scores and game progress are stored in a 25GB rewritable (RE) layer.

New Hardware Hardship

BDXL discs have more layers than IH-BD discs, which is why you'll need new hardware to read the discs. "Existing recorders can't support these multilayer discs," explains Parsons. "The discs have three or four layers, depending on the capacity. On BD-R, you can have up to four layers, for up to 128GB. For BD-RE, up to three layers, for up to 100GB. The drive's optical pickup has to be redesigned to accommodate both reading and writing through multiple layers."

The technology for the BDXL disc is similar to what TDK described four years ago when it launched prototypes of its 200GB Blu-ray Disc. "Fundamentally, it's the same idea [of multilayer-disc technology]; it comes down to the practicality of mass-producing the discs reliably. The only thing different this time around is the capacity per layer is different here," says Parsons.

Parsons wouldn't hazard a guess as to when products that support either BDXL or IH-BD might start to appear. "It really depends on media companies and hardware manufacturers," he notes diplomatically. "Impossible to predict what applications other companies may have for it, and what product lines may lie ahead relating to those applications. BDXL is a forward-looking format."

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