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Jim Bray

Could "Smart Cards" Replace Blu-rays?

By Jim Bray
January 22, 2009

Blu-ray is starting to become mainstream, thanks to lower player prices and increasing numbers of titles on store shelves. And it'll undoubtedly have a few years in the sunshine, just as DVD did.

But Blu-ray is still a disc-based technology, with moving parts that can wear out, and the discs themselves can be affected by fingerprints that can prevent them from playing properly – as I discovered over the Christmas season when one of my discs froze in the middle of a chapter. Fortunately, once it was cleaned the disc returned to its high def glory, but the point was made.

Next generations of high definition playback could eliminate these problems and it wouldn't surprise me if they end up coming from new generations of the same type of smart cards you may be using today, in your notebook PC, cell phone, digital camera, media player or whatever.  

Right now, such cards don't have the storage capacity to compete with Blu-ray's 50 gigabytes, but upping the card ante is happening already – and wouldn't you know there's more than one solution on the horizon and they'll undoubtedly compete with each other. Fortunately, this is a format war that should be solvable easily: card readers today let you play various smart media through a single slot and there's no reason this can't be true going forward.

One new, card-based format is being touted by the SD Card Association, of which Panasonic is a founder; Sandisk and Sony are pushing another.

The SD Card Association announced earlier this month its next generation SD Memory Card, called the SDXC (SD eXtended Capacity). Calling it a new standard for SD Memory Cards, they claim the new cards will provide capacities of up to two terabytes with read/write speeds of 300 megabytes per second. 

Panasonic plans to kick things off with a 64 GB massive capacity SDXC Memory Card, though it isn't specific as to when or how much it'll cost, But they do say it will "allow consumers to conveniently store more data, helping them to experience a true High Definition (HD) digital lifestyle." Whatever that means!

The info I received didn't talk about SDXC cards as being a replacement for Blu-ray discs, perhaps because Panasonic has a vested interest in seeing Blu-ray succeed – as do I, since I own two Blu-ray players, review the discs and am building a substantial library I'd rather not have to put into a landfill any time soon.

Rather, Panasonic pitches SDXC Memory Cards as a way "to bring to life a world where high-quality HD content can be easily handled and a large volume of professional-quality HD video and high-resolution pictures can be captured smoothly."  The company goes on to say the cards will allow for seamless transfer of large quantities of HD content from one device to another.

This seems aimed at the creators of HD content, who need ways to store, transport and exchange huge amounts of data at a time. But it isn’t much of a leap to envision buying your favorite movie on an SDXC card in its full 1080p glory, then slapping it into the slot mounted into your home theater's playback device.

Likewise, SanDisk and Sony have announced the development of  “Memory Stick format for Extended High Capacity", a tentative name I hope dearly they'll change to something one can actually speak, let alone remember.  The new mouthful of a moniker will expand the Memory Stick PRO format series to a maximum capacity of 2 terabytes, while the “Memory Stick HG Micro” format promises a maximum data-transfer speed of 60 megabytes per second. That speed pales in comparison with the SDXC's promise (assuming this isn't all just hype anyway!), but it's fast nonetheless.

According to Sony's release, "The demand for high-capacity memory cards capable of storing high-resolution pictures and videos is increasing as the image quality of high-definition digital still cameras, DSLR cameras, and camcorders continues to evolve." Can't argue that. And if you need such storage to hold the content you're creating, what's wrong with using that same equipment to play it back?

The new “Memory Stick Format for Extended High Capacity” (which doesn't even make a good acronym!) also promises to support “MagicGate” copyright protection technology, which is bad news for consumers tired of being treated like criminals for buying a product legally.

I don't know about you, but just once I'd like to see that FBI "You'll burn in Hell if you even think about copying this title" warning at the beginning of a disc replaced with one that says something like "Thanks for your business. We appreciate it."

According to Sony, "This technology provides a framework for us to develop products that will significantly impact mobile and consumer electronics markets.” That "consumer electronics" part sounds like it could at least open the door to an eventual replacement for Blu-ray, though Sony has at least as much of a vested interest in seeing that Blu-ray succeeds as Panasonic and so is undoubtedly not interested – yet – in seeing its investment go up in smoke before it has a chance to mature.

Regardless, something, some day, is going to replace today's best playback format just as Blu-ray promises to replace the DVD's that killed VHS (and just as CD's replaced vinyl records).

I have no problem with this, as long as it's far enough in the future to let consumers (and, to be fair, the developers) get value out of Blu-ray.

One thing that worries me, though, is that such cards and their readers won't be backwards compatible the way Blu-ray players and DVD players are – in that a BD player will play DVD's (and make them look even better) and DVD players play CD's (as do many BD players). This has the potential to backfire on the manufacturers and content creators because it could force consumers to toss out their existing libraries, and consumers may just decide to say "Screw you", deciding they'd rather keep what they have than start over again from scratch – especially since there won't be a lot of card-based titles available at first.

This should be easy to solve, however, with "universal" playback machines that handle BD discs (which means they should also play DVD's and CD's) while also sporting a universal card reader for the new formats.  And of course standalone HD card readers could merely be another component in the home theater stack, not replacing the disc player but co-existing with it.

That could create the ol' "win-win scenario".

Time will tell.

Copyright 2009 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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