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A Peek Inside Rob's Notebook

By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; 11:49 AM

Personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro filed a few tidbits over the weekend on what he saw at CES:

Copyright Misstep?: Remember the broadcast flag scheme for digital TV broadcasts that I've been yammering about for so long? I got a fresh example of why it's so odious in one proposed copy-restriction system developed to enforce the flag. This "Video Content Protection System," developed for use on DVD+RW media by Philips and HP, would lock discs to make them usable only on "trusted players." In other words, all those millions of existing DVD players will be unable to read these "protected" discs.

Wow, what a fantastic feature that will be. Thanks, guys!

DVD Formats: On Saturday, the CES show daily carried a story on the pointless format war between two proposed high-definition DVD standards, Blu-Ray and HD DVD. The piece reported that executives with the Digital Entertainment Group, a DVD-focused trade association, and Best Buy had called for the backers of these two formats to work harder to come up with a unified format.

By the way, in case you were wondering where the name "Blu-Ray" came from, it refers to the blue laser used to read these discs. A press handout explains why "blue" is misspelled: "The character 'e' is intentionally left out because a daily-used term can't be registered as a trademark."

I should note that both Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats allow for the possibility of hybrid discs that would work in existing DVD players -- something I think an absolute must, given the huge number of them in service. But neither camp talks this up as a core feature, or even one that will be implemented on any releases at all. Can't these guys learn how to play this game?

Speaking of format wars, the three-way fight over recordable DVD versions -- DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM -- has been settled on one device. An LG model supports all three of those rewriteable discs, meaning there's no chance of bringing the wrong disc home to make a recording on.

Head's Up For Satellite TV Subscribers: Both DirecTV and Dish Networks, the two major satellite services, announced plans to carry local stations' high-definition broadcasts, something that's not possible with the bandwidth of their current systems. To make room for these extra signals, each company plans to shift to a more efficient video format, MPEG-4.

DirecTV owners who recently purchased -- at considerable expense -- high-definition hardware from the service may have reason to be nervous. The network plans to begin these broadcasts in the Washington area, along with 11 other markets, by mid-year, but has yet to clarify if current HD subscribers will need to upgrade their hardware if they're content with current broadcasts.

Dish Network, meanwhile, says it plans a slower transition, with local HD signals not being carried until the end of the year and no forced upgrades for owners of existing hardware.

Two Steps Forward by Microsoft: Two fascinating devices shown at the Microsoft keynote, which I later had the chance to inspect up close: an LG DVD recorder and a flat-panel HDTV by newcomer Digitrex that used Microsoft's Windows Media software to play and display your PC's music and photos over a home network. Both devices represent a departure from Microsoft's normally computer-focused approach. Instead of trying to sell people a separate computer for the living room (like a Media Center PCs), or a separate computer peripheral for their living room (like the Media Center Extender), it's trying to build the necessary software and features into the devices people already put in their living room. I think that makes a lot more sense.

One other interesting initiative on display at Microsoft's exhibit was the Microsoft TV Foundation, a layer of software that cable operators can add to their set-top boxes. The version running on a TV -- what Comcast offers in the Seattle area -- offers a clean, refined interface (certainly much better looking than Comcast's usual program guide) that presents TV schedules, basic news and weather reports and even some simple games.

Sony Connect Update: At Sony's booth, I had an interesting chat about the company's Connect music service with vice president for content development Ty Braswell. He noted how the store now sells "instant live" sets, recorded at concerts and put on sale soon after. Then he suggested that the next step would be to make the recordings available even closer to real-time -- if you show up at the club with a WiFi device, why not have the recording streamed right to that?

Of course, Sony's service has to get some traction in the market first. The company is planning a renewed marketing push, complete with some updated music players that (finally) play MP3 files as well as Sony's own ATRAC3 format. But it isn't changing the onerous usage restrictions that turned me off of Connect.

Schilling at the Joystick: The graphics-hardware firm Nvidia's booth had an unusual guest Saturday afternoon -- Red Sox pitcher (and noted EverQuest fan) Curt Schilling. Schilling and his son Gehrig sat down in front of a pair of computers and played EverQuest II together, chatting back and forth and coaching each other as they battled monsters -- sometimes unsuccessfully. At one point, after the younger Schilling's character had met his demise yet again, his dad leaned over, laughed, and said "you're terrible!" It was good to get a reminder of the ultimate point of all this technology.

Editor's Note: Rob discussed HDTV issues in greater detail in his Fast Forward column for the newspaper and in his weekly Personal Tech e-letter. He'll be online at 2 p.m. ET today to answer reader questions about his trip to CES.

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