Blu-ray, HD DVD players: Clunky, unimpressive

At CES, the Blu-ray and HD DVD players on display were reminiscent of VCRs and CD players from earlier eras.

LAS VEGAS--Amid the glitz and ultra-cutting-edge high-tech gadgets spread over what seemed like the 20 or 30 square miles of the Consumer Electronics Show here, if you wanted to find a 1980s-era VCR, there were two places to look: The Blu-ray and HD DVD exhibits.

All kidding aside, it was shocking how entirely un-high-tech most of the Blu-ray and HD DVD players on display looked. Each of the formats was represented by machines from many of the leading consumer electronics manufacturers--Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, RCA, Mitsubishi and so on--yet one would have walked away from perusing each of the exhibits with a sense that the companies had neglected line items for design in their budgets.

Photos: Worst-dressed gadgets? Blu-ray and HD DVD players

On the plus side, the players produced some of the crispest video I've ever seen. Pumping movies like "Chicken Little" onto equally impressive HD televisions, the players' video output trumped nearly everything else on the gargantuan CES floor.

But to look at the machines, one definitely got a sense of being in an electronics store in 1983. Except there weren't any price tags--the companies didn't provide pricing info--and not all the machines were store ready, only the ones with model numbers. The rest were prototypes.

The first machine I saw was Mitsubishi's prototype Blu-ray player. It was big and kind of intimidating. It had few visible buttons, and I couldn't decide if that meant the machine would have a simple and elegant user interface or whether it had only a small number of features. Either way, it was not at all impressive to look at.

On the other hand, it was positively sleek compared with Panasonic's first production Blu-ray player, the DMR-E700BD. This thing was big and bulky and plodding, even as it produced stunning video. It felt odd seeing such great looking pictures from something that looked so utterly out of date.

Yet, even that machine wasn't the worst-looking of them all. That honor went to Sony's BDP-S1, its first attempt at a standalone Blu-ray player. The machine is huge and thick and had the same kind of buttons on its front as Sony's old Trinitron TVs. Coming from the company that's championing Blu-ray, the BDP-S1 felt like a betrayal of the principles of modern industrial design.

That's not to say, of course, that all the Blu-ray machines were ugly. Not all. Some were merely pedestrian.

LG Electronics' BD199, for example, was perhaps the thinnest and smallest of the Blu-ray bunch and had a nice collection of back-lit buttons on top. And its design spoke of simplicity and thoughtfulness, especially in comparison with some of the other companies' offerings.

Pioneer's BPD-HD1 reminded me of a high-end CD player. But it had a collection of very low-tech lights on the front that definitely detracted from its overall appearance.

Meanwhile, the players over at the HD DVD exhibit were no more impressive than their Blu-ray counterparts.

The worst of the HD DVD bunch was RCA's prototype, a huge, bulky monstrosity of a device that looked like it should have had "Betamax" imprinted on it somewhere.

A little better was the prototype player from HD DVD backer Toshiba. It was bigger than I would've liked, and had some pretty unimpressive looking buttons behind a flip down door on the front, but at least it had one somewhat modern feature: two USB ports.

Hewlett-Packard also had an offering in the HD DVD camp, a digital entertainment center that reminded me a lot of an old dual cassette player I had when I was in college in the early 1990s. Its sole design nod to the 21st century was its pleasant blue-backlit power button.

And LG had an HD DVD player that had exactly the same design as its Blu-ray offering.

In the end, the experience of looking at both the Blu-ray and HD DVD offerings can best be described as unsettling. There's been so much hype in recent months about the two formats because of what they offer from a technological standpoint.

Blu-ray promises discs with 50 gigabytes of storage, which means nine hours of high-definition storage or 23 hours of standard-definition storage. It also offers bit rates of 48mbps, stunning compared with standard DVD bit rates, which weigh in at just 10mbps. For its part, HD DVD will offer up to 45GBs of storage and up to 12 hours of HD playback.

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