CES - LG unveils combo high-def disc players

LG Electronics took a big step on Sunday towards the end of the next-generation DVD format battle with the unveiling of a player and PC drive that support both the Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD formats.

The two products, which carry the "Super Multi Blue" brand, will be first available to consumers in the U.S. and will go on sale from the first week of February. It is hoped it would help kick-start the high-definition movie disc market. The first HD DVD player went on sale in Japan in March and the first Blu-ray Disc player followed in the U.S. in the middle of last year but to-date sales of both formats have been disappointing.

Total HD DVD shipments during 2006 totaled 370,000 units, Paul Castellana, senior director of HD DVD business development at Toshiba's storage device division, said on the sidelines of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Toshiba is the major backer of HD DVD. Comparable figures for Blu-ray Disc, which is currently the more expensive of the two formats, were not available, however the format got a boost in November when Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. launched its PlayStation 3 game console, which carries a Blu-ray Disc player.

LG developed the player to end confusion in the market caused by the battling formats.

"The growth of this exciting new technology and industry is slower than it could be," said H.G. Lee, president of LG Electronics, during a news conference at CES in Las Vegas on Sunday.

He believes that both standards are here to stay.

The BH100 player will be available in the U.S. in February for around US$1,199. That makes it more expensive than Toshiba's two HD DVD players, which cost $500 and $1,000 and some Blu-ray Disc players, but it also works out cheaper than Pioneer Corp.'s high-end $1,500 BDP-HD1 Blu-ray Disc player.

The player supports all interactive features on Blu-ray Discs as well as common DVDs. The player supports "most, but not all" of the features on HD DVD discs, Lee said. It also will not play CDs.

LG will also launch a dual-format drive, the GGW-H10N for personal computers, during the same time frame. The drive will cost under $1,199 and can read and write Blu-ray Disc and read HD DVD-ROM. It will support CDs and DVDs.

The compatibility in the drive is thanks to a newly-developed optical pickup from LG, the company said. The optical pickup contains a laser and lens and is the device responsible for getting data on and off the disc. The two battling formats are technically similar: they both use a blue laser. But while the optics in Blu-ray Disc are unique, those used for HD DVD are similar to those used on current DVD discs.

Blu-ray Disc is backed by Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (Panasonic) along with a long list of electronics makers and achieves a capacity of 25G bytes on a single-sided disc. HD DVD's main backer is Toshiba and the format also has broad support in Hollywood. A single-sided HD DVD disc can store 15G bytes of data. In comparison a DVD stores 4.7G bytes.

The launch of the dual-format products isn't a total surprise. LG said last year it was considering such a device and last week said it would show a dual-format player at CES. However the announcement likely came late enough to throw the promotion plans of HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc hardware makers into the air. The question on everyone's lips at the show will likely be: if LG has a dual-format player, why should I bother considering a single-format player from any other company?

Attendees will get a chance to ask that question on Monday when CES officially opens its doors. The same question is likely to be asked Sunday night at a scheduled HD DVD news conference and Monday evening at a similar Blu-ray Disc event.

(Melissa Perenson of PC World contributed to this report.)

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