Toshiba invokes SD cards to battle Blu-ray

Toshiba is trying to battle the Blu-ray high-definition DVD format by delivering movies through SD cards.

A new service to dispense digital content, which involves using self-service kiosks to download movies and music to flash memory cards, was jointly announced by a group of companies including Toshiba on Thursday.

Self-service kiosks placed in public locations -- like retail stores, airports and cafes -- will dispense movies that can be downloaded to cell phones and SD (Secure Digital) Memory cards. The content can then be replayed on multiple devices with SD slots.

Toshiba will make TVs and set-top boxes with SD slots that can replay the movies downloaded using the service. Prototypes of the devices will be shown at the Consumer Electronics Show being held in Las Vegas Thursday through Sunday.

Toshiba is developing the service with NCR, which will make the self-service kiosks, and MOD Systems, which is providing the technology to manage and securely distribute digital content.

By offering movie playback via SD cards, Toshiba is beginning a new chapter in its high-definition media-format battle with Sony. Toshiba suffered a major setback last year when the HD DVD format it backed lost favor among top retailers and movie studios, which opted for Sony's Blu-ray DVD format.

SD cards are removable media commonly used into portable devices to store or move images, video or other data. SD card slots are available in 8,000 devices in more than 400 brands, including digital cameras, game consoles and camcorders, claims the SD Association, which provides the specifications for SD card development.

Users will be able to download close to 4,000 titles from top studios including Warner Brothers and Paramount Digital Entertainment, and 4 million [M] music tracks from self-service kiosks. Pricing will be determined by the retailers holding the self-service kiosks, according to MOD Systems.

The kiosks will be in stores later in 2009, though neither company provided an exact date. NCR hopes to install the kiosks internationally, a MOD Systems spokeswoman said.

It takes two to three minutes to download a standard-definition full-length film from a kiosk to an SD card, according to MOD Systems. Toshiba is trying to improve the download speeds and capacity of SD cards to make high-definition movies downloadable in the future.

SD cards saw a major jump in storage capacity and transfer speeds on Wednesday. The SD Association announced the SDXC (extended capacity) memory card specification, which could increase the size of SD cards to 2TB and transfer speeds up to 104Mbps. Current SD cards can store only 32GB of data and are limited to transfer speeds of up to 25Mbps. Toshiba was one of the original founders of the SD Association in 2000.

SD technology is evolving faster than DVDs, though both offer benefits like portability and compatibility across devices, said Mark Phillips, CEO of MOD Systems, in an interview.

"In the past 10 years the capacity of optical disc technology has increased less than 10 times [while] NAND flash has increased about 100 times," Phillips said.

Files can also be securely downloaded to SD cards, while the DVD faces challenges in securing content.

"Because content protection is tied to the disc, the disc must be manufactured, merchandised and transported -- it lacks the benefits of a pure digital system," Phillips said.

SD cards support digital rights management, which allows music and video files to be secure. The host controller manages SD card drivers and security.

But more work is needed for the SD format to reciprocate the success of the DVD format, which was the fastest consumer format ever adopted, Phillips said. People lapped up DVDs because of its consistent user experience and support for a broad range of players.

"We certainly think more awareness and education is needed though for consumers to widely adopt and understand the benefits of SD," Phillips said.

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