NEC, Toshiba unveil blue-laser PC drives

NEC and Toshiba have unveiled the first prototypes of desktop computer drives that are based on Advanced Optical Disc (AOD), a next-generation blue-laser based format that supports storage of 20G bytes of data on a 12-centimeter disc.

The drives, unveiled at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany, included a working prototype on the NEC booth and a non-working prototype on the Toshiba booth. They are around 41 millimeters high, which is the same size as most optical drives, and the prototype demonstrated on NEC's booth was running high-definition video.

High-definition video is expected to be one of the major uses for the format because of its higher data storage capacity. The rewritable version of the format supports storage of 20G bytes of data while a read-only version comes in both 15G-byte and 30G-byte versions depending on whether a single-sided or double-sided disc is used.

The higher data storage capacity is possible largely because of the use of blue lasers. The wavelength of blue lasers is shorter than that of the red lasers used in DVD and CD systems, meaning that the laser beam can be focused into a smaller area of the disc surface and so one bit of data is recorded in a smaller space.

The AOD format is being jointly developed by Toshiba and NEC within the DVD Forum, the standards setting body for the DVD format, as a replacement for today's DVD systems.

The format is competing with Blu-ray, which is also based on blue-laser and a 12-centimeter disc and is backed by nine companies headed by Sony Corp. Blu-ray supports either 23G bytes, 25G bytes or 27G bytes depending on the version.

The first version of the Blu-ray system has already been finalized, licensing has begun and Sony will soon put on sale its first video recorder based on the standard. The machine, the BDZ-S77 will land on Japanese retail shelves on April 10, at a price of ¥450,000 (US$3,815).

In comparison, AOD is a little behind. Version 0.9 is due to be approved in April and version 1.0 is expected to be finalized in the middle of this year, said Ryoichi Hayatsu, an assistant general manager at NEC's storage products division. Parallel to these efforts, companies are working on development of key components for the drives and the first commercial products based on AOD are likely to be launched in the second half of 2004, he said.

Toshiba has slightly more aggressive plans and said its first products could be on sale late this year or early next year.

Blu-ray was also on display at CeBIT. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known as Panasonic, was showing a working prototype system based on 50G byte rewritable discs. The discs are one of a number of areas where enhancements are being considered for Blu-ray, said Atsushi Nakamura, an engineer from Panasonic's system device group.

Companies are also working on a 2X version of the format which will increase the data transfer rate from 36M bps (bits per second) to 72M bps, he said. Blu-ray is targeted at high definition TV recording and the higher data speed is being developed to halve the time it will take to copy content from one disc to another.

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Martyn Williams.

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