A company that stamps out half a billion DVDs a month has developed a way for movie studios and other software makers to track discs from factory to store to your home. The strategy is yet to be tested but the underlying technology is nothing fancy. It's RFID, or radio-frequency identification, the same chip-based system increasingly used in driver's licenses, U.S. passports, stores like Wal-Mart, and the EZ-Pass booth on toll roads. RFID can operate in a range from two inches, like the new credit/debit-card readers, to 69 feet. In this case the range for "chipped" discs will be six meters, or just under 20 feet. The RFID reader can be built into players, which would shut down when fed discs with the wrong regional coding. The AACS system built into the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats already allows copyright holders to shut down players in the home, but thanks to RFID, it will soon be possible to do the same in existing DVD as well. Developers of the new technology are iPico, an RFID specialist, and Ritek, whose U-Tech subsidiary manufactures discs for Disney, Fox, Warner, and other studios in factories all over the world. The first RFID-enriched discs will be made in Taiwan and tested in Australia.
The future of HD DVD and Blu-ray is neither boom or bust, according to The State of Home Video (11th Edition) from Kagan Data Services. Kagan sees the two new formats together grabbing 13.9 percent of the market by 2009, 53.7 by 2012, and 68.7 by 2015: "The first wave of high-definition DVD homes will consist primarily of those homes with non-dedicated players, such as PS3, Xbox 360 and PCs.... We estimate the balance will shift in 2009 as dedicated player prices drop and the dust from the format war has settled." However, revenue growth in hard-copy software will be slowed by downloads, Kagan said, citing CinemaNow. Meanwhile, obstacles to the long-awaited combi player have continued to fall, most recently with NEC's announcement of a video processing chip that handles both formats at no extra cost. Ricoh had already announced a pickup lens that reads the disc at two depths, to accommodate the differing demands of each format. With NEC shipping the new part in 2007, we might see a combi by the end of that year. Maybe. But don't hold your breath waiting for a recorder.
"A Full-Blooded Approach, with Surround Sound," promised the New York Times headline of a piano-recital review. I knew I wouldn't be able to resist quoting it when the concert venue, the Frick Collection, was described as "perfect for the iPod generation, offering intense surround sound, minus the hearing damage." I thereupon combed the Apple website for hours looking in vain for the new surround-capable iPod before realizing that critic Vivien Schweitzer was, quite reasonably, designating surround sound as a virtue lacking in earbud-tethered devices. She praised British pianist Leon McCawley for his performances of the Mozart "Sonata in D," Rachmaninoff's "Études-Tableaux," and the "Suite for Piano" by Hans Gál, with its "Debussy-like harmonies, Schubertian lyricism, echoes of Brahms and Prokofiev and a hint of atonality.... The listener, meanwhile, was enveloped in an acoustical cocoon of bright, passionate sound." If you think the sole purpose of this blog is mockery, think again. Chamber and symphonic concertgoing offers an all too rare chance to build an acoustically pure frame of reference, unmediated by electronics, that can be applied to gauge the quality of equipment. I treasure my experiences in the Vienna Musikverein and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. You'll never hear better surround sound than in the right seat of a first-class concert hall.
We interrupt this blog to bring you a commercial message about Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems (2007 Edition). Now moving into its sixth edition, it is the only annually updated book on home theater. This year the looong chapters on digital television and surround sound have been compassionately subdivided and reorganized. There are 40 more pages of content than in the first edition, including 16 new pages for this edition alone. Digital, or "on demand," printing technology lets me refresh the book every October, pulling the old edition and activating the new one. However, there are still old editions in the pipeline, and if you search the title on retailer sites, the new edition may not be the first to come up. Further complicating this year's switchover is the transition from the 10-digit International Standard Book Number (ISBN) to the new 13-digit variety on January 1, 2007. To ensure that you order the latest edition, look for the following identifiers...
Starting last week, I've been trying to explain the new Dolby and DTS surround codecs little by little. The reason each camp is hawking two new codecs for HD DVD and Blu-ray is that one is lossless (Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio) and the other is lossy (Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio). Lossless codecs reconstruct the original signal without discarding data; lossy ones use perceptual coding to discard the least important data, achieving greater efficiency in a limited bit bucket. Together these formats represent the first qualitative step forward for surround sound since the ill-fated debuts of DVD-Audio and SACD. High-res surround is baaack! Here are the basics on Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and how they're supported in BD and HD DVD. DTS devotes a whole new website to the two new DTS-HD codecs including heaven-sent wiring diagrams. Has anyone mentioned to you that DTS Encore is simply a rebranding of DTS 5.1 and DTS-ES 6.1? You'll find it only on software packaging. There, I'm glad we've had this little talk.
Memo to early adopters of HD DVD and Blu-ray: HDMI 1.3 will support every surround codec in the Dolby and DTS stables. How I wish I could leave it at that. However, only DTS-HD Master Audio requires the full monty of HDMI 1.3, which is a good thing, since HDMI 1.3 isn't here yet. Because HD DVD and Blu-ray players have surround decoders, panners, and mixers built in, lowly HDMI 1.1 or 1.2 will transfer decoded signals for Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, and DTS-HD High Resolution Audio. In fact, even the player's 7.1-channel analog-outs will support all these new surround goodies at full resolution. Using the old-fashioned digital coaxial or optical outs will down-res the signal to Dolby Digital at 640kbps or DTS at 768kbps. There you go. Knock yourself out. I'll continue milking this thing Monday.
If you hate the vulture's nest of ridiculously expensive cables lurking behind your rack, relief is spelled with four letters: HDMI. Someday signal sources will connect with just one HDMI cable. However, depending on what audio formats you want your system to support, you may have to seek out specific versions of HDMI. Having just nailed this for the next edition of my book (not out yet, to appear on Amazon sometime in the next 30 days) I might as well give you this little cheat sheet:
Have you ever thrown your iPod into the washing machine...on purpose? That's what the folks at ArsTechnica—a website worthy of daily visits—did with the new second-generation nano, following gushes of interest in similar tests inflicted upon the first-gen nano. And guess what? The nano continued to be playable. "Despite many requests to drop the nano into the toilet, boiling water, and cups of beer, I decided to quit with the washing machine," said tester Jacqui Cheng. Before that, it survived being sat upon. It also did well with scratch testing in a bag full of coins, keys, cellphone, camera, and other knickknacks, which left only minor blemishes on the new aluminum finish and none on the screen. Only with the sidewalk-drop test did the unit acquire a serious problem—one impact on concrete was all it took to render the screen useless. Note from our lawyers: Don't try any of these stunts, and if you do, we're not liable.
Ever wondered what's inside an iPod's inscrutably screwless design? There actually are people who pry these things open and look at every part, and some of them work for iSuppli's Teardown Analysis. Apple has reduced the "bill of materials" cost for the second-generation 4GB iPod nano from $89.97 to $72.24, according to iSuppli. Considering that the price has dropped from $249 to $199, that's only fair. Among the changes, the "system on chip" has been changed from a "semi custom" PortalPlayer PP5021 to a Samsung chip. And the latter includes a flash disk controller previously implemented in a separate part. The analysis leaves only one question unanswered: What would happen to the new nano if you put it through a washing machine? Details tomorrow.
When we last discussed Zune, plucky little Microsoft was getting ready to take on mean monolithic Apple with an iPod-really-wannabe but details were scarce. They got less scarce last week with the announcement that the 30GB player, at $249.99, would cost almost exactly the same as the new 30GB iPod video, at $249. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the 80GB iPod video may better serve a large library at just a hundred bucks more. But the iPod doesn't let you wirelessly share tracks with another user. The DRM catch? Three plays for three days, then the play privilege expires unless you pay. Another thing you won't get in the iPod/iTunes ecosystem is an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription like the Zune Pass, $14.99/month. Like some wacky city-state, Microsoft even has its own currency—Microsoft Points—described as "a stored value system that can be redeemed at a growing number of online stores, including the Xbox Live Marketplace." A track costs 79 Microsoft Points, at 80 to the dollar. Zune accessories include home, car, and travel packs at $79-99 with various cables, adapters, and things. Among many single-packaged accessories are the Zune Premium Earphones ($39.99) which, the 'softie site assures us, "produce superior sound." Finally, if you've had your heart set on a brown player, Zune's got one, along with black and white. Actually, it doesn't look bad. For more details, see the press release. Zune's D-Day is November 14. Wish it luck. Or not. Really, it's up to you.