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Panasonic to launch Blu-ray drive in June

Japan first, no clear plans for overseas

Panasonic plans to begin selling a Blu-ray Disc drive in Japan in June for use in desktop computers, the company said today.

The drive is the first to be announced for the aftermarket, meaning it will be sold as an add-in for existing PCs. It comes with a hefty price tag and will require a high-end PC, if consumers want to watch any of the soon-to-be-launched Blu-ray Disc movies. Its announcement comes as the first PCs with built-in drives for Blu-ray or the competing HD-DVD format are being prepared for launch.

The LF-MB121JD is a half-height (41.3mm high) model, which means it will fit into the standard drive bay of most desktop PCs, and has an ATAPI interface. It's compatible with 11 types of writable optical disc, including 25GB and 50GB BD-R (Blu-ray Disc Recordable) and BD-RE (Blu-ray Disc Rewritable) discs, Kazuya Nakaya of Panasonic's disk drive manufacturing unit said at a Tokyo news conference.

The large data capacity available from Blu-ray Disc could prove attractive for PC users. A single Blu-ray Disc can store as many data as 10 DVDs.

Data backup doesn't put a heavy load on the computer. Panasonic recommends a computer with a minimum of a Pentium III 700MHz processor, 128MB of memory and 10GB of hard disk space. Drivers will be available for Windows XP, Windows 2000 and the 64bit version of Windows XP.

Playback of movies stored on BD-ROM (Blu-Ray Disc read-only memory) discs is much more taxing on the hardware, and will have to wait in any case until suitable playback software is available. Optical disc software maker CyberLink showed a pre-release of its playback software at the news conference. Naohiko Yoshida, an assistant manager in the company's Japanese unit, said the launch details have yet to be decided.

A high-end PC is needed to watch movies because of the high-bandwidth video stream, he said. In the case of Mpeg2-encoded content, users will need a Pentium 4-based machine running at 3GHz or more. For movies encoded in Mpeg4AVC, they'll require a more powerful Pentium D system running at 3.2GHz or more, said Yoshida.

The Panasonic drive will be available in Japan as an aftermarket unit from 10 June and will cost around ¥100,000 (about £480). Panasonic has yet to decide on international launch plans.

Before it goes on sale to the public, a version of the drive, as well as a slimmer drive for use in laptop computers, will be available to PC makers for inclusion in upcoming systems. Samples of the drives have already shipped and commercial production begins this month, said Panasonic's Nakaya.

Panasonic anticipates only modest sales of about 15,000 Blu-ray Disc drives on the Japanese aftermarket this year. This is expected to grow to 800,000 drives by 2009, it said.


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