Hi-def disc players: DVD – the next generation

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The last year has seen the introduction of the second generation High Definition (HD) formats Blu-ray (developed by Sony) and HD DVD (developed by Toshiba). The sector is now gathering pace, largely due to the rapidly growing popularity of HDTVs, with a handful of manufacturers having now released hi-def disc players into the market.
John Binks, commercial director, retail and technology at data specialists GfK explains the market’s potential: “High Definition is now a standard feature on all flat screen TVs over 26in and some under this size.

“Already by the end of May 2007, some 4.5 million HDready sets have been sold which means that 18.2% of homes have an HD-ready set. This represents a great opportunity for HD broadcasting and HDTV. The sets are in homes, so the target is now to persuade consumers to invest in the products to fulfil the full potential of the TV set”.

A new sector

So what have been the main factors influencing sales so far? According to Nathan Sheffield, senior product manager, HD DVD at Toshiba, there are several, including hi-def gaming. He explains that: “The launch of the Microsoft Xbox HD DVD add-on drive has been hugely popular, because it makes HD DVD the most affordable by some considerable distance. In addition, hardware prices on standalone HD DVD units have come down, making the format more affordable to the mass market, and we’re also seeing the arrival of web-enabled interactive features with the release of Blood Diamond and 300 on HD DVD. We’ve also reached a significant milestone in terms of content availability, with over 100 HD DVD titles available in Europe today – a number we expect to see double by the end of 2007.

Sony UK’s home video product manager, Rachel Banin, also states that hi-def gaming has had a significant influence on take-up of hi-def discs, with the Sony PlayStation 3 (which incorporates a Blu-ray Disc player) proving to be something of a ‘trojan horse’, thanks to its high household penetration. She reiterates the point that content is key, commenting: “For consumers, the availability of movie titles is of primary concern, whether they are looking to update back catalogues or purchase new releases”.

The products

Along with the launch of its DMR-BD10A Blu-ray player, Panasonic has a SB-TP1000 Blu-ray theatre speakers system, along with a range of full HD panels and HD camcorders.

Sony has entered the market this year, firstly with the much-delayed launch of its PS3, followed by the recent introduction of its first standalone Blu-ray deck.

Pioneer’s BDP-LX70 is the first Blu-ray deck to not only play back content at a full HD 1080p resolution, but also at 24fps (frames per second), the same speed at which most films are shot and mastered for the cinema. Pioneer’s latest HD panels also provide support for 24fps pictures.

The other players currently available include Samsung’s BD-P1000 and Toshiba’s HD-E1, HD-XE1 and HD-EP10. Denon has also recently announced that it will launch a Blu-ray deck in the UK around November.

LG has taken the product sector one step further with the introduction of its Super Multi Blue (BH100) dual format player which will play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. Daniel Aziz, marketing manager for Digital Media at LG explains how the player works as an interim measure: “There is an element amongst consumers, who are unsure which format is best. The BH100 takes away that difficult decision”. However, it should be noted that this is a Blu-ray player first and foremost, and although it will play HD DVDs, it does not offer full support for all of their interactive features. A duo player is also expected from Samsung towards the end of the year.

Retailer support

So, it is possible that both formats will prove to be successful? Toshiba’s Nathan Sheffield believes this is possible, commenting: “In very much the same way that the games industry has a number of competing console formats, it’s theoretically possible that both HD formats can continue to operate in the future”.

Pioneer’s product manager, Jim Catcheside believes that this issue will ultimately be decided by the film studios, depending on which formats they back.

It may be that confusion over formats is delaying some potential customers from making a purchase, however, Stephen Mitchell, product manager at Samsung, explains: “High Definition DVD formats are in the early stages of introduction and as such are targeted initially at the more technologically aware consumers”.

Nevertheless, it’s vital to explain that there are two competing formats, and that consumers will require a full HD (1080p) panel to fully appreciate them. LG’s Daniel Aziz also stresses that it’s important to point out to customers that standard DVD players with HDMI connectivity will not play the new formats. He also highlights the importance of explaining the difference between standard definition and HD discs.

Toshiba’s Nathan Sheffield reiterates this point, but warns retailers not to forget the audio as well as the visual benefits, explaining: “HD doesn’t begin and end at better picture quality – there’s also support for lossless 7.1 cinematic surround sound from Dolby True HD and DTS HD”.

Several manufacturers, including LG and Toshiba, have initiatives such as training schemes and PoS material in place to help independent dealers to sell hi-def players, while Sony is giving away a copy of Bu-ray copy of Casino Royale with every BDP-S1E deck.

It may seem obvious, but the key to selling products in this burgeoning sector is showing the consumers what the products are capable of. As Panasonic product specialist Steve Lucas sums up: “Demonstration is the best tool, the difference is clear to both see and hear”.

Porn again?

During the VHS Vs Betamax ‘format war’ in the 1980s the porn or ‘adult industry’ played a major role in deciding the victor. The makers of Betamax, considered by many to be the technologically superior format, did not wish to have adult films released in their format, unlike the people behind VHS, who were only too happy to associate their format with this huge home video market, and who were the eventual winners.

It seems that history could repeat itself with Sony claiming that it will not replicate any adult titles on the Blu-ray format, which could potentially put a large dent in the sale of Blu-ray Discs. However, the Blu-ray Disc Association has stated that this is not the official stance of all of the companies behind the format. Only time will tell.

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