Get Ready For Blu-ray and HD-DVD

Now the PC market is on the cusp of another leap in optical disc technology: Blu-ray and HD-DVD. Blu-ray discs store 25 GB per layer, and the standard supports dual-sided discs. HD-DVD, by contrast, stores 15 GB per layer, and it also supports dual-sided discs. But this time, computers and the optical media format are marching hand-in-hand to the starting gate.

If anything, the computer market will represent the majority of the high-density optical market. Howard Locker, director of new technology at Lenovo, predicts the three major suppliers of the players of these new next-generation discs will be PCs, consumer electronics, and gaming machines. "If you look at the volumes, PCs are now more than 50 percent of that total space," Locker recently told Wired News. "So we'll have a big say on who wins."

Both the Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats rely on blue-laser technology. The main advantage: greater storage capacity. While using the same surface area as a conventional CD or DVD, the new blue-laser discs store much more. In fact, a blue-laser disc holds at least 15 GB, and some roadmaps call for as much as 200 GB on a single disc. For the sake of comparison, CD-ROMs max-out at 700 MB, while a double-sided DVD tops out at 9.4 GB.

Also, blue lasers can penetrate through more layers. For instance, while CDs are always single-sided and single-layer and DVDs max out at two layers each on two sides, some Blue-ray discs reportedly offer four layers on a side. More layers per side means that more data can be accessed without having to manually turn over the media or use another disc.

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Best of all for user adoption, the physical size and shape of the media for both Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats is essentially unchanged. It's still the familiar round-platter-with-a-hole made famous by music CDs.

Although high-density optical discs and drives are still thin on the ground, this Recipe will give you the tools you need to understand the two new optical formats. Right now, your best tool in the high-density optical market is knowledge. Next-Gen Optical: Eight Talking Points

Now's the time to get ready to discuss Blu-ray and HD-DVD with your customers. Here are nine major talking points you should know about and understand:

* Blue Laser Technology: The most important thing to understand is that neither Blu-ray nor HD-DVD is the first blue-laser optical media in the data-center space. Instead, the most successful blue-laser optical format to date is Ultra Density Optical (UDO), marketed by Plasmon. UDO stores 30 GB on an optical cartridge, and Plasmon does not sell a bare-media version. The vendor plans to soon take the format to 60 GB. Customers tend to be in the medical, video, and legal industries, users who need both high-capacity, long-term data storage and quick data recovery.

* Disc vs. Cartridge: The bare-media approach which both Blu-ray and HD-DVD seem intent on promoting may actually slow their adoption in the data center. There, cartridge formats remain popular due to their durability and ease of robotic loading. Just as DVD-RAM offered an early cartridge-based format for 4.7 GB discs, expect some caddy/cartridge support among the new high-density players attempting to make a play for the data center. However, the push into consumer and SOHO markets could cause cartridge support to wane as the majority of the market takes up the bare-media drives.

* Format vs. Format: Make no mistake, this is a format war, plain and simple. The DVD Forum, the intellectual property consortium that remains responsible for the DVD format, developed and promotes HD-DVD. Meanwhile, the Blu-ray Disc Association champions the Blu-ray format. Key players in the DVD Forum include Apple, Sony, Mitsubishi, and Matsushita. Promoters of HD-DVD include Toshiba, Intel, Microsoft, and NEC.

All the major film studios have announced support for at least one of the two formats, but some will initially publish titles for both. Unlike the conflicting "dash-R" vs. "plus-R" battle fought over writeable DVD media, the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD skirmish looks to be more protracted. If it sounds like Betamax vs. VHS all over again, you're right. Most likely, hybrid drives will emerge that support both Blu-ray and HD-DVD media types. The question is, who will build it?

As of now, there is no clear winner in the format war. HD-DVD has a slight advantage, since it was the first out of the gate with consumer products, and since manufacturing process proponents say the technology is more accessible to existing CD/DVD plants. But Blu-ray is looking at a major boost when the Sony Playstation 3 is released, reportedly in November, as the PS3 will sport a Blu-ray drive.

* Vendor Stability: The good news is that all the major proponents of both Blu-ray and HD-DVD technology are large, solid, and reliable organizations. While an investment in either Blu-ray or HD-DVD could be lost if one or both formats fail to gain traction with consumers, media suppliers are lined up on both sides of the blue-laser aisle. They should provide blank media for many years to come.

Buyers may remember the Iomega Zip vs. SyQuest-EZ removable-media battle of a decade ago, which ended in an early-round knockout victory for Iomega. But none of the companies leading the blue-laser charge are betting their entire company on a single technology, the way both Iomega and SyQuest did. In other words, you can buy either disc technology today without worrying too much about the vendor going out of business.

* Backwards Compatibility: The short version: Backwards compatibility from either Blu-ray and HD-DVD is not completely guaranteed. To be sure, the HD-DVD format includes regular DVD compatibility as part of the specification. But for Blu-ray, DVD compatibility is only recommended, not strictly mandated. Both CD audio and CD-ROM support remain questionable. There have already been a couple of Blu-ray drives for early adopters which are not CD-compliant.

Given the sheer quantity of data entrusted to CD-ROM and CD-R over the past 15 years, it seems almost a given that any serious contender for desktop space will need to include full CD-reading capabilities, even if not all will write to CD-R media. But be forewarned: There are, and will likely continue to be, next-generation optical devices that do not have complete read/write compatibility with DVD and particular CD formats. In other words, read the specs carefully.

* Writeable Discs: CD makers took several years to get field-writeable discs into the mainstream. By contrast, specifications for writeable Blu-ray and HD-DVD are already well-entrenched and understood, and the first drives to ship for these platforms tend to be write-capable. So early adopters can get everything from one single drive: They can instantly boost their backup capabilities with writeable discs, even if the software they buy or exchange does not ship on blue-laser formats for a matter of years.

* CD vs. DVD: DVD-ROMs have still not completely supplanted CD-ROMs; similarly, blue-laser discs will not shove either DVD or CD media production completely into the drawer for some time. On that basis, there's no reason for a system builder to pitch blue-laser drives as a necessary, immediate upgrade. Instead, this is a cutting-edge technology that seems likely to quickly become a necessity for imaging and video applications where huge sums of data are king. In mainstream computing, where 700 MB on a CD is still perfectly acceptable, adoption of blue-laser discs will likely be slower.

* Early Adopters: While not all companies use optical as a serious alternative for near-line storage or backup, the high capacities of Blu-ray and HD-DVD give them a perfect opportunity to start considering such a move. System builders should talk to corporate and small-office clients about their current near-line storage strategy, and look for ways that a flexible format delivering 15 GB to 50 GB per instance would add value to their business. Those are ideal opportunities for the early adopter blue-laser drives available now.

There are still plenty of questions about the blue-laser discs that we'll have to wait for the market to answer. But that shouldn't stop you from taking an active role in the high-density optical market today. The drives offer clear opportunities in the significant media storage today. And the inevitable downward march of media prices will quickly give adopters a high-performance, low-cost alternative to additional hard drive arrays.

JASON COMPTON is a technology writer who has covered topics ranging from 8-bit entertainment to supercomputing for more than a decade.