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Panasonic to deliver the Blu-ray living room

Attention cinephiles: Nearly every big consumer electronics company is going to be hunting you down this year.

Panasonic wants to remodel the entertainment center around Blu-ray.

In September, the company will begin to sell a Blu-ray player, as well as an audio-video receiver and a set of speakers tuned to work with the player. Panasonic will promote these components alongside its plasma TVs: In fact, it will deliver a 65-inch plasma TV to coincide with the Blu-ray launch.

The equipment comes in the midst of the high-definition optical disc wars. Toshiba earlier this year released an HD-DVD player as well as a notebook with an HD-DVD drive. On the other side, Samsung, Sony and other Blu-ray supporters are coming out with their first products now.

Panasonic has already released recordable Blu-ray drives for PCs and has come up with tools to make video authoring easier. HD video cameras now cost close to $2,000, but relatively inexpensive HD video cameras--costing $1,000 or less--will emerge over the next 18 to 24 months, manufacturers have said.

Right now, HD-DVD players are considerably less expensive than Blu-ray players. Blu-ray backers, however, say their discs will hold more data. A single-layer disc will hold 25GB, and a multilayer disc will be capable of storing 200GB on eight layers, which is more than enough for a high-definition movie and a lot of extras.

Like all things Blu-ray, Panasonic's living-room components won't be cheap. The player, which plays discs but can't record, will retail for 1,299.95, while the receiver will sell for $999.95. The speakers will go for $2,999.95. Consumers will be able to buy the components separately, or as part of a package.

The cost of Blu-ray players will come down over time, according to Kazuhiro Tsuga, executive officer in charge of digital network and software technologies at Matsushita, which sells products under the Panasonic name in North America. The biggest problem when it comes to cost right now is the laser and the lenses. As volume manufacturing kicks in, prices will decline, Tsuga said.

The price of Blu-ray media will also drop, he added. Panasonic has developed a spin-coat method for disks that should lower the price. Right now, recordable Blu-ray disks cost $19.95.

Price, he added, is one of the reasons consumers won't see a combination Blu-ray HD-DVD player from Panasonic.

"It would be considerably more expensive," he said. A single drive that could play both types of discs would also be thicker, and as a result, unwieldy in notebook PCs.

"In Japan, Blu-ray is dominant," he said. Sony and a few others actually released Blu-ray equipment in that country a few years ago, he said. (The companies behind Blu-ray also stand to earn royalties for the invention, other executives at Blu-ray companies have said.)

Blu-ray, he asserted, also has stronger support from film studios and equipment makers. Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Dell, Apple Computer, Philips and several Japanese companies stand behind Blu-ray. The HD-DVD side, though, isn't exactly weak: It includes Intel, Microsoft, Toshiba and Universal.

Hewlett-Packard, Paramount and Warner Brothers have opted to support both.