Panasonic launches five DVD video recorders

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known as Panasonic, unveiled five new DVD video recorders on Wednesday and outlined plans to put into higher gear its marketing effort for such devices, which it sees overtaking VHS recorder sales in Japan within two years.

All of the new models are capable of recording onto DVD-RAM or DVD-R discs. Two basic models record to DVD only. Another model also includes a VHS deck, while the two high-end models can also record to a hard disk drive. Sales of the devices begin in Japan from March and Matsushita is planning to put the two basic models on sale overseas.

Rolling out the new devices on Wednesday, Matsushita said it expects sales of DVD recorders to overtake those of VHS video recorders in Japan in 2004, and also said it hopes to increase its share of the DVD recording market. The company is targeting combined monthly production of all five models at 85,000 units, or around 1 million units a year. Matsushita estimates the total world market for DVD recorders will be 4.4 million units in 2003.

Replacing VHS is about more than just technology for Matsushita and Japan's other consumer electronics makers. Prices of VHS machines have plummeted in recent years and basic models can now be picked up for less than US$100, a price at which the profit margin is thin. In comparison, the most basic of the DVD recorders unveiled on Wednesday will cost around ¥60,000 (AUD$850).

The DVD recording functions of all five machines are similar. Using DVD-RAM discs it is possible to store a maximum of 12 hours of video per disc, when the highest capacity (9.4G byte) disc is coupled with the lowest quality recording mode. The same disc can store four hours of video at standard quality or two hours in high quality mode.

The two basic players, the DMR-E50 and DMR-E60, have similar functions. The E60 adds support for DVD Audio and has PC Card and Secure Digital (SD) card slots. This makes it possible to insert a memory card from a digital camera and view images on the TV screen. The E60 also has a DV input socket to allow direct copying from a DV camcorder to a DVD-RAM disc.

An unusual feature of the two decks is the ability to play back video at 1.3 times normal speed. Matsushita said this speed is slow enough for people to still understand the video, but also allows them to watch a recording in a shorter time -- for example, a one hour TV show would take around 45 minutes to watch -- and thus to make their TV watching more efficient.

The DMR-E70V combines a VHS deck with the DVD-RAM video recorder. Its dual tuners allow recording of two TV channels at the same time, and it can also be used to copy material from VHS tape to a digital format that does not deteriorate with repeated use.

The two high-end machines, the DMR-E80H and DMR-E90H, both include hard disk drives. The former has an 80G byte drive which can hold up to 106 hours of video at lowest quality, and the latter a 120G byte drive holding up to 160 hours. The hard disk drive is intended to serve as the day-to-day recording medium while the DVD is used for either playing DVD discs or for permanent storage.

A feature missing from all five machines is support for the HighMAT technology, which was developed by Matsushita and Microsoft Corp. The system is designed to make it easier to access content recorded on Compact Discs (CDs) through DVD or CD players. Announced by the two companies in Tokyo in October 2002, the HighMAT system supports digital images, video and music in the Windows Media Audio, MP3, JPEG, Windows Media Video and MPEG4 file formats.

"There is no support for HighMAT in these players," said Etsuji Shuda, manager of the DVD recording section of Matsushita's home audio-visual business unit. "In the future, we will take interoperability with HighMAT into consideration." A company spokesman explained that support was missing because there was not enough time between the technology's announcement and the completion of design of these products.

The first of the five machines, the E50, will be on sale in Japan from March and the others will follow during March and April. Matsushita did not provide prices for each model but said they will range from ¥60,000 for the E50 to ¥150,000 for the E90H. The E50 and E60 will be available in North America in March and April respectively. Matsushita has set the price of the E50 at US$599 and the E60 will cost US$700 to US$750. No pricing information has been made available for Australian consumers.

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Martyn Williams.

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