Hi-def DVD race is now on

Toshiba to start shipping in March

HD DVD players will be available in March at prices as low as $500, beating Blu-ray Disc players to the market by several months and at less than half the cost.

At CES in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Toshiba America Consumer Products announced that its first two HD DVD high-definition models (players only, not recorders) will start shipping in March at prices of $500 and $800.

Warner Home Video will release 24 HD DVD titles in 2006, and the first of them, to bow March 28, will include “Batman Begins” and “Million Dollar Baby,” followed on April 11 by “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and later in the year by summer tentpoles such as “Superman Returns” and “Poseidon.”

Universal Home Entertainment’s first 10 titles will include “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Jarhead,” “Cinderella Man,” “Doom,” “Apollo 13” and “The Bourne Supremacy.”

The player prices are much lower than many had predicted and clearly send a signal that the HD DVD camp, which has built its next-gen format on the base of the existing DVD and therefore has lower development and manufacturing costs, plans to try to beat the entirely new Blu-ray format on aggressive low pricing.

Blu-ray Disc player models announced Wednesday by Pioneer Electronics (USA) and to be announced today by Samsung are priced two to three times as high at $1,800 and about $1,000, respectively. Pioneer’s player will arrive in June, while Samsung promises to have the first Blu-ray player on the market in the spring.

All three will be backward compatible, playing standard DVDs.

In related news coming out of CES, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group plans to announce tonight that shipments of DVD software rose less than 10% from 2004 to 1.657 billion units.

Based on data from the Consumer Electronics Assn., DEG reports 37 million DVD players sold to U.S. consumers in 2005, nearly half of those in the fourth quarter alone, raising the number of DVD players sold since the inception of the format to 164 million in 82 million homes.

An estimated 89 million homes, more than 80% of all U.S. TV households, have DVD capability when factoring in computers and videogame consoles.

(Paul Sweeting of Daily Variety sister publication DVD Exclusive contributed to this report.)

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