The Latest in Home TheaterDo-it-all convergence devices, plus a MiniDisc player, both tiny and high-end cameras, and big LCD TV debut this fall.
Martyn Williams, IDG News Service
Martyn Williams is Tokyo bureau chief for the IDG News Service, a consortium of IDG publications.
TOKYO-- The hottest new gadgets usually come from Japan's big-name consumer electronics companies, but this month sees a noteworthy pair of products from two firms that aren't major brand names: Buffalo and IO Data. Their claim to fame is that they really push toward the convergence of living-room electronics and the PC.
Both products are multimedia players that at first glance resemble exceptionally well-equipped DVD players. They support a multitude of optical disc, video, audio, and image formats and allow you to play the content on a television. Look a little closer and you'll see they can also connect to a PC to play content from the hard drive on the television.
Better yet, these new devices from Buffalo and IO Data both support high-definition content encoded with the recently introduced Windows Media Video 9 codec, or WMV9. They also feature digital output sockets so they can hook up to a HDTV and record high-definition video without losing quality.
With such features, the players help bridge the gap between living-room entertainment systems and PCs. They should be especially popular with people who have a large volume of digital content on their computer hard disks, whether from ripped CDs, copied DVDs, digital video, still cameras, or music downloads.
The home theater devices' almost identical features and close launch dates are no coincidence: Both use Sigma Designs' EM8620L digital media processor.
IO Data AVeL Link Player
Almost every type of digital content can be played with IO Data Device's AVeL Link Player. This optical drive accepts all the major DVD formats, except DVD-RAM and DVD Audio, and supports a variety of CD formats including Video CD. The drive can play MPEG1, MPEG2, DivX, XviD, and WMV9 video; as well as JPEG, bitmap, GIF, and PNG image files; and MP3, AAC, Windows Media Audio, PCM, and Ogg Vorbis audio.
Its connectivity is good, too, with an Ethernet socket, USB 2.0 port, and built-in 802.11b/g wireless connectivity to hook up to a computer, and D4 (Japanese digital video), DVI-I, component video, S-video, and analog and optical audio outputs to connect to a TV or audio system. You can also attach a device like a digital camera or external hard drive to the USB port.
The AVLP2 is scheduled to ship in mid-September in Japan priced at $285. It is expected to become available in the U.S. in October for less than $300.
Buffalo PC-P3LAN/DVD Link Theater
Buffalo's PC-P3LAN/DVD Link Theater is similar to the IO Data player. It offers the same broad support for DVD and CD media, and accepts the same wide variety of file formats. Among the differences is the Buffalo device's lack of a built-in wireless LAN adapter. However, the device does support RMP4 video and DVD Audio discs, which the IO Data device does not.
Buffalo expects to ship its player in Japan in mid-September priced at $270, but has not disclosed plans for international availability.
Sony HDR-FX1 High-Definition Camcorder
Sony has taken its first step in promoting high-definition video as the standard format for home-use camcorders. Its new HDR-FX1 digital high-definition camcorder supports the HDV tape format and has three recording modes: 1080-line wide screen, 480-line wide screen, and 480-line 4:3 mode.
The camcorder records high-definition video at 60 frames per second in MPEG2 at 25 megabits per second. Behind the Carl Zeiss 12X optical zoom lens is a 1.12-megapixel CCD.
The camcorder weighs 4.4 pounds without batteries. The basic battery provides 65 minutes of recording time, according to Sony. The company plans to release the HDR-FX1 in Japan in mid-October, and distribute it worldwide by the end of the year. It will cost $3644.
Sony Qualia 005 TV
The newest member of Sony's high-priced Qualia product family is an impressive 46-inch LCD television, the Qualia 005.
The panel is the largest LCD currently available, so this is the biggest flat-panel TV you're likely to find without going to a plasma display or projection TV, which means a drop in image quality and sharpness. Sony says the new set also delivers a better, more colorful picture than competing flat-panel TVs because it uses an LED backlight. The picture certainly looked good at a demonstration in Tokyo in August.
The Qualia 005 TV also has a handy, easy-to-use, on-screen content navigator system called Xross (pronounced "cross") media bar, or XMB, that makes navigating multiple digital and analog sources and channels a snap.
Sony plans to start shipping the TV in Japan in early November priced at about $10,000. The company hasn't announced its plans for overseas sales.
Casio Exilim Zoom EX-S100 Digicam
Casio's Exilim looks like it's been on a crash summer diet: The new Exilim Zoom EX-S100 digital camera is the same height and weight as earlier models, but much skinner.
The EX-S100 is little larger than a credit card, at 3.5 inches high by 2.2 inches wide and 0.6 inches deep. This slim profile is thanks in part to a new lens that is part of the camera's 2.8X optical zoom system. The lens is made from a transparent ceramic material called Lumicera and developed by Japan's Murata Manufacturing. It's about 20 percent thinner than a comparable glass lens, according to Casio. The camera weighs 4 ounces.
The new camera has a 3.2-megapixel CCD sensor and a 2-inch TFT display.
Casio says the rechargeable lithium-ion battery can provide enough power for around 180 pictures. The EX-S100 is scheduled for release in Japan in late September and will become available in major world markets during October; Sony expects to price it at about $445.
JVC XM-C31 MiniDisc Player
The digital music buzz may be about hard-disk players, but JVC's XM-C31 MiniDisc player shows that when it comes to battery life, hard-drive players are still in the minor league.
JVC's new player can manage an impressive 58 hours of playback on a single charge, or 116 hours when music is recorded in the lower-quality LP4 mode and power-save is enabled. The player weighs 3.75 ounces with the battery inserted, and measures 3 by 0.75 by 3.2 inches.
JVC plans to ship the XM-C31 in Japan only, beginning in October. The player will have a price tag of $190. (JVC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Victor of Japan.)
Sanyo Xacti DMX-C4 Digital Video Camera
Sanyo expects to ship in September an updated version of its distinctively styled Xacti digital video camera.
The handheld device records movies in MPEG4 format onto a Secure Digital memory card. The latest DMX-C4 release has a 4-megapixel image sensor, although the full resolution is available for still images only. The highest-quality movies it records are VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels) at 30 frames per second, which isn't far off the quality of conventional digital camcorders.
You'll need an appropriately capacious memory card if you're going to use the highest-quality mode: A 256MB card will be full after about 10 minutes of recording. The same card accommodates over an hour of video at the lowest-quality mode, which is 176 by 144 pixels at 15 frames per second.
The Xacti DMX-C4 will cost $688 in Japan, and Sanyo has not revealed its plans for overseas sales.
Canon EOS 20D Digital SLR Camera
A couple of years ago, digital single-lens reflex cameras of the class of Canon USA's EOS 20D were well out of the reach of anyone but the wealthiest photographers. Competition has helped push prices down, but that's not to say this type of camera is cheap. Digital SLRs like Canon's new EOS 20D still represent a considerable investment, especially when you consider the additional cost of lenses: These cameras are generally sold without the lens.
The Canon EOS 20D has an 8-megapixel image sensor and maximum image size of 3504 by 2336 pixels. Canon has made several improvements over its earlier EOS 10D. For example, the EOS 20D's shutter has a maximum speed of 1/8000th of a second. Canon has also added a joystick-like multicontroller button for the range finder.
The EOS 20D can shoot five images per second for up to 23 consecutive frames. It is scheduled to become available worldwide in September. In the U.S., the EOS 20D will cost about $1500--without a lens.
In the Labs: Optware Holographic Storage
Out of the research and development laboratories this month comes a prototype optical disc from Optware.
The company has demonstrated what it says is the world's first reliable recording and playback of digital movies on a holographic recording disc. The 200GB disc is 4.72 inches in diameter, the same as DVDs and CDs, and could be on the market for commercial use in the first quarter of 2006. That's the good news.
The bad news is that compatible recorders are expected to cost about $20,000 and the discs will cost $100 each. A less-expensive version for home use could be on the market as soon as 2007, the company says.
That could be good for consumers but possibly bad for electronics companies, which will be trying to persuade us at about the same time to invest in blue-laser storage discs like Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD media that offer about a fifth of the capacity.