Jump Starting High Definition Disc Systems

Visiting the recent Japan electronics show CEATEC, I was struck by the abundance of newly unveiled Blu-Ray and HD-DVD components that do a lot more than just play zippy looking/sounding movies.

These much more elaborate (and expensive) black boxes are also multi-function recorders. They’re packed with a sizeable hard disk drive as well as a recordable Blu-Ray or HD-DVD drive, plus a digital tuner or two. All to nab high def programming beaming terrestrially and/or from Japan’s digital satellite TV service…

Now going on sale in Japan for $2,000-$3,000, these super flexible devices let users record the HD signals either to the hard drive or the removable disc format. Plus, there’s the option to transfer content from one disc to the other.(barring copy protection..) And unlike discs burned on those first gen, non-standardized Blu-Ray recorders available in Japan the last couple of years, both single and dual -layer discs burned on the new multi-tasking BD machines (and also Toshiba’s HD-DVD variant) should play back fine in any stand-alone high def disc player.

In spirit, these marvelous toys reminded me of the first wave of Betamax and VHS VCRs, which were marketed primarily as “time shifting” and home library building devices,. Until, that is, Hollywood started seeing a profit and eventually a necessity in releasing movies in the formats.

So why isn’t the electronics industry pushing the new high def disc variants, for the early adopter set here? Truth is, a multi-tasking, multi-purpose machine would be a much easier “sell” than just a player. Isn’t that why Sony is putting most of its Blu-Ray eggs into the Playstation 3 basket? (“It’s a high def game machine! A movie player! A downloadable content recorder! Stop, you’re all right!”)

A Toshiba executive cornered at CEATEC was asked if/when we’d see such combo recorders/players in the U.S. Essentially he said “don’t hold your breath.” He opined that consumers here neither wanted nor needed such multi-taskers, since we record our shows to hard drive-based digital video recorders. Yeah, but hardly with total satisfaction. As any HD satellite TV or cable customer knows, a hard drive-equipped set top box quickly runs out of storage space, if you don’t stay totally on top of your viewing game. (15 hours of HD recording capacity is the norm for cable boxes, 25-50 hours for satellite DVRs.) And once you’ve reached the limit, you’ve then got to decide which of those unwatched or treasured programs to sacrifice, to make room for another recording. If only you could dub those shows onto another, removable high def disc. . . .

Yes, there are major problems (technical barriers, copyright restrictions, royalty solutions) to resolve, before removable disc-based recorders that capture pay HDTV channels in the U.S. might come to market. Getting the cable TV industry to finally make good on its promises (and legal obligations) to offer two-way CableCards and allow electronics companies to compete in the set-top business would be a major start in the right direction.

But there’s no reason why the Blu-Ray and HD-DVD camps can’t build and sell a recorder today that features an ATSC broadcast high definition tuner. The FCC demands that every broadcast TV station’s primary digital signal must be sent “in the clear” – meaning, free of copy protection technology that would inhibit recording for personal use.. Since half of us are still watching network TV, even in this age of 300 channels, I’m guessing that the arrival of HD player/recorders on these shores would get a lot of fence sitters to stop fretting about those two incompatible HD disc formats and just jump for one.

Jonathan Takiff

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HD Report provides news, commentary, and information about 4k & HD channels, programming, digital media, Blu-ray, technology, video gaming, and more. We have been a Google News partner since 2006, and can also be found on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.

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