Burning Questions: HD DVD Burning--Soon, but Not Yet

Blu-ray burners are shipping today from a host of companies, and more are coming soon. In comparison, the HD DVD realm has been a silent wasteland, with no PC burner in sight, and no word on when we might see one. Until now.

The first whispers of HD DVD burning surfaced this summer at the Computex trade show in Taipei, where Toshiba demonstrated a slim-line HD DVD writer for notebook PCs. The company declined to announce a ship date for the product at the event, although media manufacturers such as Imation, RitekUSA, and Verbatim announced impending media availability at that time.

Later in June, Toshiba introduced the first HD DVD recorder for the living room: the $3600 RD-A1, also the first high-def-capable disc recorder to support the Advanced Access Content System (AACS, required for playing back Hollywood movies). However, that model--like the already-shipping (but non-AACS-compatible) Blu-ray Disc recorders from Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony--was designated for sale only in Japan.

The June announcement came as a bit of surprise, since, when last quizzed on recording for the home, the HD DVD Promotion Group had told me that recorders likely wouldn't hit until next year. Clearly, this will still be the case in the U.S. market, for which Toshiba has made no recorder announcements--although the company has announced its second-generation HD DVD players. (For that matter, manufacturers using rival format Blu-ray Disc have yet to announce any recorders for the living room, beyond what has been shipping in Japan; moreover, the Blu-ray Disc Association can't commit to a time frame for recorder availability.)

Now, we have the prospect of PC HD DVD burning--but according to Toshiba, we won't see this technology in products until 2007.

HD DVD Recording Timeline

Last month, Toshiba announced it would ship the slim-line drive it showed during the summer. Maciek Brzeski, vice president of marketing for the Toshiba Storage Device Division--which supplies the internal drive component to notebook manufacturers and to makers of external drives--expects to start shipping the slim-line drive by the end of the year: "We don't expect to see [the drives] in holiday [products], but certainly we expect to see them shipping in notebooks by late Q1 of next year."

Brzeski anticipates seeing the drives in high-end notebooks, those that cost around $3500. Such pricing would put laptops with HD DVD burners in line with Sony's VAIO VGN-AR190G, which shipped this summer with a slim-line Blu-ray burner.

That Toshiba is offering a notebook drive for its first HD DVD recorder, instead of a half-height drive for use in desktop PCs (as Blu-ray Disc makers have offered from the outset), is curious. However, this choice represents part of Toshiba's strategy and attitude toward HD DVD disc burning. "We focused on delivering a slim drive for lots of reasons," says Brzeski. "There is a bigger opportunity in the mobile form factor than there is in the desktop form factor. If I go out and buy a movie, I want to be able to watch it on the road. And with the writing capabilities, you'll be able to back up--though I'm not sure people are going to use these for backing up. Plus, you can always use a slim drive in a desktop enclosure, but it doesn't work the other way around." Brzeski says half-height HD DVD recorders are in the works, "but those aren't ready yet."

Blu-ray Disc burners have been shipping for months now--why is HD DVD taking so long to catch up? Chalk it up to a philosophical difference, not a technological one, says Brzeski. Toshiba, he says, views HD DVD more as a technology for delivering prepackaged (Hollywood) high-definition video, not for creating your own disc-based content. "I honestly don't believe in these early days that many people will be using HD DVDs and Blu-rays to back up content. If you look at the cost per GB to back up to disc, it's not cost-effective."

The HD DVD specs of the first drive will be limited to recordable, write-once HD DVD-R media at 1X, to both single-layer 15GB and dual layer 30GB discs; the drive won't support any of the HD DVD flavors of rewritable discs. However, the drive will support writing to standard DVD: 4X DVD±R (2X for double- and dual-layer), 4X DVD±RW, 3X DVD-RAM, and 16X CD-R.

External Peripherals: Playback Only

Other news on the HD DVD front: In September, Hewlett-Packard--a one-time supporter of Blu-ray Disc that hopped sides to become a vocal proponent of HD DVD--became the first company to announce a stand-alone external HD DVD-ROM drive for the PC. (At the same time, HP also became the first U.S.-based PC manufacturer to announce a desktop PC with an HD DVD-ROM drive, but the company has been mum on the subject of HD DVD burners.)

Due out in late November, the USB 2.0 drive, dubbed the HP hd100 External HD DVD-ROM Drive, will play back HD DVD-ROM, DVD-ROM, and audio CDs. It will also read recordable and rewritable DVD discs--but, surprisingly, it will not handle vanilla DVD burning (counter to what the notebook HD DVD drives can do).

A company spokesperson says that the drive's supply will be tight for two to three months; after that, the company will ramp up to full availability. The drive is due right around the same time as Microsoft's HD DVD player peripheral for Xbox 360, which is expected to sell for $199--a steal in comparison with HP's PC peripheral.

HP's initiatives--as well as the announcements from Toshiba--are welcome news for the HD DVD format, which until now had a big question mark over the status of its burners and PC peripherals. However, these developments don't erase the fact that HD DVD is clearly late to the burning party, and people who want to start burning content to high-capacity discs today still must go with Blu-ray.

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