Two Blues Too Many at CES Show

This week Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry reports from the big

Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.



Tekla S. Perry

The ongoing format war in blue laser disc formats means that high-definition digital disc players did not fly off retail shelves in 2006. To recap, Sony, Philips, Panasonic, and Apple are among the lead players in the Blu-ray camp, and Toshiba, NEC, Microsoft, and Intel lead the competing and incompatible HD-DVD camp. Attempts at negotiating some mutually agreeable compromise format failed, and companies on both sides launched products last year. This was no surprise: consumers, for the most part, stayed out of the market rather than attempt to choose, for choosing wrongly would eventually require one to replace not only an expensive player but an entire digital library.

Hee Gook Lee, president and chief technology officer of LG Electronics, opened Press Day of the Consumer Electronics Show on Sunday by acknowledging that format unification wasn't going to happen anytime soon. LG's Super Multi Blue Player (okay, LG isn't as talented as Apple when it comes to naming its products) is the first device to play both blue disc formats as well as standard DVD discs—three movie formats in all. And it does this with only two lasers and two sets of optics, not three of each. The blue laser reads Blu-ray discs through one set of lenses and HD-DVD discs through a second set of lenses. That second set of lenses also channels the red laser, which reads standard DVD discs. This sharing works because HD-DVD and standard DVD disc data is embedded in a similar location below the disc's surface; Blu-ray data is closer to the surface.

Both formats aren't necessarily equal citizens in the LG world. LG implemented more Blu-ray control functions than HD-DVD ones, and that allows the Blu-ray discs to be more interactive. And the Multi Blue Player, at US $1200, is a bit pricey for the average consumer. But it may convince at least a few more consumers to go blue.

It was no surprise that Philips, Samsung, Panasonic, and Sony announced new Blu-ray products and that Toshiba announced a new HD-DVD player. But Thomson chose to opt out of the fight altogether. A Thomson spokesman stated candidly that the company has "no plans to sell HD-DVD or Blu-ray players until it becomes clear what consumers want." One wonders if some of the other companies are tempted to do likewise.

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