Japanese makers show VCRs based on hard disks

Japan's largest consumer electronics manufacturers all showed off prototype hard disk drive (HDD) -based video recorders with a range of innovative features.

          Japan's largest consumer electronics manufacturers all showed off prototype hard disk drive (HDD) -based video recorders with a range of innovative features at the CEATEC electronics show here last week.

          The products, all of which are expected to hit the market late this year or early next year, all differ slightly in their features but one thing is common among them -- a high price. Most of the companies showing off prototypes were unwilling to talk about price but Sony has already put its HDD recorder, the Clip-On, on the market. It retails for between 188,000 yen (US$1,744) and 227,000 yen depending on the size of the hard disk drive.

          That's quite a jump from the Tivo and Replay TV hard disk-based machines which are selling for around $US400 in the U.S. although all companies were quick to come to the defense of their products. "The business model is very different," said Aki Shimazu, spokeswoman at Sony "This is a stand alone piece of hardware whereas the Tivo is a subscription-based price model. Those companies can make their profit from selling the electronic program guide service but we make no more."

          The basic model Clip-On packs a 30Gb hard disk drive which, according to Sony, is enough space to record 20 hours of television in long play mode. Standard play mode halves the time and high quality mode halves it again to 5 hours. A second more expensive version has a 60Gb hard disk drive and can record twice as much.

          The machine also features an integrated electronic program guide (EPG) service which allows one-touch recording of TV shows although this is broadcast as a data signal on TV stations in Tokyo and Osaka only leaving users in the rest of Japan with no EPG.

          This doesn't put Sony at too much of a disadvantage as few of the competing machines feature an EPG either and those that do, including Sony's, only cover the main broadcast networks and three most popular direct broadcasting satellite channels. Data on the nation's cable and other satellite channels are not on any of the EPG systems.

          But competitors have built in a range of features that distinguish their players.

          Matsushita Electric Industrial., which is better known by its Panasonic brand name, was also showing off a prototype of its new HDD video recorder, the NV-HDD2. The machine is based on an audio-visual hard disk drive -- a special HDD developed to better support long audio and video files. What's more, additional drives can be added to the system to increase the storage capacity.

          Other features of the machine include an built-in tuner for digital satellite broadcasting and IEEE1394 ports for connection to a high-speed home network and the additional hard disk drive units.

          Toshiba's new machine, also showing in prototype form, boasts a DVD-RAM (digital versatile disc RAM) drive in addition to the HDD so that favorite programs can be recorded onto a removable optical disc and stored separately. The drive also supports DVD-Video, Video CD and audio CDs making it a complete optical disc/digital video station for the home.

          Victor of Japan (JVC) had a similar idea but integrated its recorder with an S-VHS deck. This way, explained representatives, users could copy off the digital recordings onto high quality S-VHS or basic VHS tapes and also playback their existing video tapes in a single machine. The HM-HDS1 will go on sale in November in Japan at 188,000 yen.

          Hitachi Ltd. too was showing a hard disk drive based machine. Its model incorporates a digital satellite tuner and a 30Gb hard disk drive and is capable of recording the high-definition broadcasts expected on soon-to-be-launched satellite channels. The machine is also capable of interpreting the EPG signal broadcast via the satellite to give users and on-screen program guide.

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