HD DVD and Blu-ray: If this is (name the day of the week) you better believe there’s lots happening on the raging high def video disc war front.
On the Blu-ray side, the low cost hardware maker Funai is gearing up Chinese production of a Blu-ray deck that will land in the U.S. in quantities of “20,000-30,000” pieces before year- end, reports Consumer Electronics Daily. While best known for its own, bargain-basement Symphonic brand, Funai actually makes products under an “OEM” (original equipment manufacturer) agreement for a bunch of major brands, and will be supplying these Blu-ray players on an OEM basis. How cheap will they be? I’m guessing $299 – the current lowest price for a rival HD DVD player from Toshiba.
Also out of the Blu-ray group, a new summer long promotion (through September 30) offers five free high def discs to a purchaser of any BR disc player from Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung and Sony – the latter ‘s Blu-ray equipped PlayStation 3 also qualifies. Coming from Blu-ray supporting studios Disney, Fox, Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros, the titles include: “Babel,” “Black Rain,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Chicken Little,” “The Corpse Bride,” “The Devil’s Rejects,” “The Guardian,” “Hart’s War,” “Invincible,” “The Italian Job,” “Kiss of the Dragon,” “The Last Waltz,” “The Omen,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” “Species,” “Stealth,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Transporter 2,” and “Underworld: Evolution.”
The Blu-ray camp has finally resolved the specifications for the extra layer of security called BD+ that will ostensibly keep the high def discs and system un-hackable. Fox, the first studio to announce BD+ support, has reputedly withheld release of new, extra-features-rich titles on Blu-ray in the last couple of months because the studio wanted the content protected by BD+ . The software sniffs out if a player has been tampered with to play bootlegged discs. If it smells something stinky, BD+ will disable the player from thereafter spinning any new disc put in it, though previously played discs will still be viewable on the machine. The technology has been adopted by almost all suppliers of Blu-ray players, as well as chip set makers, and PC applications software developers. Disney, MGM and Sony have also signed off on it, though use on titles remains optional. Warner Bros. previously rejected the revocable technology (as had the HD DVD group) as security “overkill. “ Most Blu-ray players will need a firmware upgrade to handle the new security. If the studios want to keep things easy, and the firmware’s not that heavy, they should just pack it onto any Blu-ray disc that features BD+, at least for a while.
Over on the HD DVD side – Toshiba held a press event last Thursday to tout its recent sales lift (70 percent of all next generation player sales in April and May), to introduce new spokesman Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”) and to announce some cool stuff. For instance, those specially promoted (limited time frame) prices for its three current HD DVD players that raised Toshiba’s profile are now the “everyday” prices for the models, starting with $299 for the HD-A2, which puts out 720p and 1080i high def signals. And owners of the current upscale models that also do 1080p – the HD-A20 ($399) and HD-XA2 ($799) – will be offered a firmware upgrade in September allowing playback movies at a 1080p/24 frames per second frame rate, just as the movies were shot and shown in theaters. To appreciate this difference, you’ll also need a video display that can handle 1080p/24fps “native.”
HD DVD content partner Universal Studios announced an increased commitment to interactive content on its titles. Universal’s executive vp Ken Graffeo (also newly appointed chairman of the North American HD DVD Promotional Group) said that every title coming out from his studio in the fourth quarter of 2007 will have “full interactivity” – ostensibly that means with some on-line accessed, downloadable content, too.
And the night before Toshiba’s press conference, we spotted the first of Toshiba’s new Summer line of notebook computers featuring HD DVD ROM drives at the Digital Experience event. The glossy white cabineted Qosmio F45-AV412 offers high def movie playing capability on a crisp 15.4 inch display (1280 by 800 pixel native WXGA resolution) , with the audio tootin’ through Harmon Kardon Bass Reflex stereo speakers with a separate, down-firing subwoofer and Dolby Home Theater technology, at a decent price point of $1,645. Oh, and with its front slot disc drive and rear connections – including HDMI – you can slide this player into a rack of home theater components and use it as your big screen high def player. Also introduced were two larger, 17-inch gamer- oriented models, the Satellite X205-S9349 ($1,999.99) and X205-S9395 ($2,499.99) with five speaker Harmon Kardon systems, fancier NVIDIA GeForce Go 8700 GT graphics processing and other upgrades. Reportedly, all new Toshiba laptops coming in the next few months will boast HD DVD playback.
Bad news for HD DVD, perhaps – Warner Bros. won’t be releasing its high def movies in the “Total HD” format this year, as previously promised. The hybrid flipper disc was to offer an HD DVD version of a movie on one side, and a Blu-ray version on the other side. The dual natured discs would have given HD DVD some continued presence in the 1,450 Blockbuster video stores which will only carry Blu-ray next generation high def titles this fall. A Warner exec said the studio hasn’t given up on the concept, but is holding off on releasing the hybrid discs until early 2008 when it has enough titles ready – like a dozen or so – to warrant an impactful Total HD display in stores.