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Here we go again: another battle for the hearts and minds of the TV-viewing public. This time its not Blue America vs. Red America, but Blue vs. Blue in a conflict between two high-capacity blue-laser DVD standards: Blu-Ray Disc and HD-DVD (HD stands for high definition). At stake is the ownership of an optical storage standard for movie distribution, TV recording, computers and games.

Blue laser technologies have been in the works for years, but products are only now reaching the market. Sony shipped a Blu-Ray DVD recorder in Japan this spring, and Panasonic will follow suit this month. Demand for blue-laser devices should grow along with the expansion of high definition TV, which requires far more capacity than is available with todays red-laser DVDs.

Both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD drives use a blue-violet laser with a wavelength of 405 nanometers, as compared to a red lasers 650 nanometers. This shorter wavelength light can be focused into a smaller spot, allowing engineers to cram more data within a given space. Together with tighter track density and other enhancements, the blue-laser capability boosts capacity far beyond 4.7-gigabytes of a conventional DVD. HD-DVD provides 15 gigabytes for read-only discs and 20 gigabytes for recordable ones, while Blu-Ray boasts between 23 and 27 gigabytes. Thats enough to store five or six full-length movies on a single disc, relegating the DVD bonus disc to the dustbin of history.

The chief impact, however, will be with HDTV. Both blue laser standards provide sufficient access speeds (36 megabits per second) to record HDTV content in real-time, and with proper compression, even the 15-gigabyte format can hold a two-hour high-definition movie. Both camps also promise dual-layer versions in the coming years that will double capacity.

Blu-Ray products should begin shipping in the United States next year, with prices between $2,000 and $3,000. In addition to Sony and Panasonic, expect other recorder products from fellow Blu-Ray members Hitachi-Maxell, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi Electric, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, and Sharp. Blu-Ray has also earned endorsements from TDK, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard, giving it an edge in the computer market.

HD-DVD builds upon the existing DVD format, promising cheaper media production and easier backward compatibility than Blu-Ray. Having finalized version 1.0 of the spec in June, the two companies pushing this formatNEC and Toshibaplan to ship products in 2005. HD-DVD has won the endorsement of the official DVD standards body, the DVD Forum, as well as Microsoft, which is contributing its VC-9/Windows Media Video technology as the formats video compression and digital rights management technology.

The two blue laser technologies are quite different and its unlikely that they could be merged, as occurred with two rival formats that contributed to the original DVD standard in 1996. Blu-Ray uses a single-sided disc whereas HD, like DVD, is a double-sided format. (These sides are not to be confused with the additional layers in a dual-layer disc format, which both the Blu-Ray and HD camps are promising to double capacity.) Blu-Rays ability to hold more information than HD is due primarily to its use of a thinner transparent plastic layer covering the data layeronly .1 millimeter compared to the .6 millimeters of DVD and HD. Blu-Ray proponents claim the that the thinner layer minimizes the threat of errors introduced due to laser-beam splitting and disc-tilt problems. These improvements, however, require new disc manufacturing equipment and could make Blu-Ray DVD players more expensive than HD ones.

HD-DVDs early standards victory may not be enough to stop Blu-Ray. As it was, even with the lobbying of Microsoft, HD-DVD won approval by only a single vote. There seems to be a consensus around Blu-Ray, says Danielle Levitas, director of consumer research at IDC.

If Blu-Rays momentum slows and the standoff continues, the market could be further Balkanized by two other blue-laser contenders: Enhanced Versatile Disc (developed by the Chinese government) and Forward Versatile Disc (a government project from Taiwan.) Even if the impact of these formats are limited to their home countries, by the time blue laser DVDs are ready for prime time, China will represent an enormous consumer electronics market.

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