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HD DVD Backers Unveil HW, Plans

LAS VEGAS — Members of the HD DVD Promotion Group took an early lead in the brewing high-definition optical disc format war by unveiling the first players, titles and launch plans at International CES eve press conferences, here.

Toshiba, a key format developer, started the day by announcing plans to market two HD DVD players in March at suggested retail prices of $499.99 and $799.99, respectively.

Both players will output content in multiple resolution formats, including 720p and 1,080i high definition. Beyond that the differences between the two devices are primarily cosmetic, said Jodi Sally, Toshiba digital A/V products group marketing VP.

Toshiba will begin priming the U.S. market this February by releasing demo players to retailers in 38 key video watching markets.

In addition, retailers including Amazon, Crutchfield, Tweeter, Sears and Best Buy will soon begin promoting Toshiba HD DVD players on their Web sites, where customers will be offered the opportunity to place advance orders.

Toshiba’s IT products division also announced plans to offer a notebook PC in its advanced Qosmio line that will include an HD DVD drive with multiformat DVD and CD reading/writing ability. The notebook will ship in March at a price to be announced later.

Also on Wednesday, Thomson announced that it would market a $499.99 HD DVD player in March under its RCA brand. Sanyo is also expected to announce an HD DVD player at the show.

The $499.99 entry price was considerably lower than an $1,800 suggested retail price announced by Pioneer for an Elite-line Blu-ray Disc player that is scheduled to roll out in May.

Other Blu-ray Disc manufacturers declined to announce price points and indicated somewhat later launch dates.

Meanwhile, the HD DVD camp also made several new announcements that helped to gain some lost ground in the support of movie studios and video game system developers.

First, Yoshihide Fujii, HD DVD Promotions Group chairman, said Studio Canal and the Weinstein Company — a new studio formed by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who previously ran Miramax Studio — have agreed to release titles in the HD DVD format.

Then, Robbie Bach, Microsoft entertainment devices division president, repeated an announcement made minutes earlier in Bill Gates’ CES keynote address, that Microsoft will make an external HD DVD drive that will eventually be available for its newly launched Xbox 360 video game console.

“It’s our belief that HD DVD is going to provide the best customer solution,” said Bach at an HD DVD Promotions Group launch event, Wednesday. “Whether you think of that in terms of timely delivery of product, in terms of a strong title lineup, in terms of interactivity and the ability to distribute video around the home, or whether you think about it in terms of attractive price points — all of these are things that HD DVD will deliver.”

Bach also reiterated that Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Vista operating system will build in support for HD DVD, and that the high-definition experience on the operating system “will be incredible.”

Studios will begin releasing a handful of titles in March to support the hardware launch. That will gradually ramp up to about 50 titles by May, growing to nearly 200 titles by the holiday selling season, HD DVD Promotions Group members announced.

Releases will start out primarily with legacy titles, adding some new releases several weeks down the line. Titles will feature a mixture of stand-alone HD DVD discs and hybrid HD DVD/standard-definition DVD discs. Studio representatives said hybrid discs will sell for several dollars more than HD-DVD-only titles.

The format will support a number of key new interactive features that expand upon the abilities of current DVDs. These include the ability to call up picture-in-picture overlays of running video commentaries while a movie is playing, and download through the players various extra content, including multiple video trailers, from studio Web sites.

Still being decided is the final specifications for the AACS digital rights management system that is to be used in both the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats. Failure to sign off on a final spec could still further delay both the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats.