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CES 2008: Home video wrap-up

HD DVD's on the ropes--but will online video be the next big challenger to Blu-ray?

Blu-ray's on a roll--but will downloadable Internet video be a bigger challenge than HD DVD? Philips

What was arguably the biggest story of CES 2008 occurred three days before the show actually opened for business: Warner Home Video went Blu-ray exclusive, leaving just Paramount and Universal (and smaller DreamWorks) as exclusive HD DVD content partners. Indeed, in the days since, the issue of those studios following Warner's lead seems to be one of when, not if. Blu-ray seems on the verge of a complete victory in the HD disc format war to become the high-def successor to DVD. As a result, combo players--including a newly announced model from Samsung--were greeted more by yawns than by "oohs" and "aahs." Even without HD DVD to nudge it, prices for Blu-ray players seem destined to become more affordable, as evidenced by forthcoming devices from Philips and Funai. That said, with the specification still evolving--Panasonic's DMP-BD50 became the first 2.0 player to be officially announced--there's no reason to rush out and buy one anytime soon.

But there's still a big question as to whether or not the future of home video will be one of discs--or, in fact, physical media of any kind. Online delivery of home video seemed to be everywhere: major companies such as Samsung are getting into the game, while upstarts such as XStreamHD are offering intriguing delivery options and increasingly improved video quality. That's on top of existing hardware solutions such as Vudu, Xbox 360's Video Marketplace, and Amazon Unbox on TiVo, not to mention the promise of Netflix stepping up to the plate.

Of course, the potential 800-pound gorilla in the online video space won't be unveiling its plans until next week. That's when we'll find out if Apple plans to ramp up its Apple TV into a serious home video contender. If, as rumored, Steve Jobs and company add some long overdue features--iTunes video rentals, direct access to the store through the TV interface, and improved video quality--it could overshadow nearly anything shown in Las Vegas. And while the sort of full HD video quality delivered by Blu-ray's 50GB discs isn't yet available to consumers via broadband (at least in the bandwidth-challenged U.S.), it's only a breakthrough or two away. In other words, watch your back, Blu-ray: HD DVD was just a battle, and the wider war is still raging.

We're just about 13 months away from the government-mandated digital transition--at which time analog TV broadcasts are scheduled to cease completely. Those who can't--or won't--get cable or satellite TV now have their first non-TiVo DVR to consider in the form of the EchoStar TR-50. That's good, because traditional manufacturers such as Panasonic continue to offer mostly lackluster recorders--either tunerless DVD recorders (which will pretty much serve as "backup drives" for DVRs) or models with hobbled digital tuners that won't deliver native full resolution HD programming.

Elsewhere on the home video front, we saw indications that wireless in-home HD video is getting closer to the mass market. As with wireless audio, standards remain frustratingly elusive, but devices such as the Belkin FlyWire offer the potential for an end-to-end solution to decouple your video sources from your TV--which is increasingly vital to those with wall-mounted flat-screen TVs and projectors. Alternately, companies such as EchoStar's Sling Media are aiming to make it easier to access your home's main DVR on other TVs in the home (via the SlingCatcher), if not outside the home altogether (with the SlingPlayer software coming to BlackBerry smartphones later this year).

Looking at it in the rear-view mirror, you get a strong feeling from this CES that 2008 will be a big transitional year in the home video world. It's clear that the public wants more high-def programming and more on-demand video, as well as the ability to watch it where and when they want. Which manufacturers and standards will deliver on those promises? If we're lucky, the answer to that question may be more in focus by the time CES 2009 rolls around.