Electronics companies favouring both competing high-definition video disc formats unveiled their latest prototypes on Tuesday at Japan's Ceatec exhibition.

The two formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc, are both based on blue laser technology and offer several times the storage capacity of current DVDs. However, they are incompatible with one another. The former can store 15GB on a single-layer disc and has a disc structure similar to that of DVDs while the latter manages a more capacious 25GB and uses a new disc structure that puts the recording layer much closer to the laser.

HD-DVD leaves ramp first

HD-DVD, backed by Toshiba and NEC, is likely to be the first of the two formats to hit the market. Toshiba is promising players will be on sale in Japan before the end of this year, and that time frame was narrowed down on Tuesday with news that production is scheduled to begin in December. That would mean the first few players are likely towards the end of that month, just fulfilling the promise.

Toshiba used the show to demonstrate a prototype of its first commercial player. Labeled the HD-XA1, the player is about the size of the first generation DVD players. The company also demonstrated a working prototype of the HD-DVD drive for notebook computers. The drive is a standard 12.7 millimetres high. It plays HD-DVDs and reads and writes CDs and DVDs. Samples of the notebook drive will be available at the end of the year.

NEC had working models of a half-height HD-DVD drive intended for desktop PCs. The HR-1100A drive is ready for manufacturing, and NEC is waiting on orders from its customers, said Ryoichi Hayatsu, chief manager of the company's first storage products division.

Factory capacity is 1 million drives per month, although NEC is hoping manufacturing in the coming months will hit about 100,000 units per month, said Hayatsu. He wouldn't reveal the price, although he said it's about the same as DVD drives when they first appeared. This would put it in the region of several hundred dollars.

Blu-Ray partners focus on design

In the Blu-ray Disc pavilion many of the format's supporters were showing off prototype BD-ROM players that are due on the market sometime in 2006.

Sony, one of the main backers of the format, had a new BD-ROM player prototype on display. The player had a distinctive curved top that made it appear smaller than other prototypes on display. Sony wouldn't say when it's due on the market.

Sony also showed some progress towards a Blu-ray Disc drive for notebooks, although it wasn't able to demonstrate a working prototype like Toshiba. Instead it demonstrated a working low-profile optical pickup of the type needed for a notebook PC drive.

Nearby Koninklijke Philips Electronics demonstrated a prototype player that it said could read three types of Blu-ray Disc: BD-ROM, BD-R (record once) and BD-RE (rewritable) and could also read and write to several CD and DVD formats. Other companies including Mitsubishi, Pioneer, LG Electronics and Samsung all had players or recorders on display at the show.

War-war, not jaw-jaw

Talks aimed at unifying the HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats broke down earlier this year and haven't restarted. Unless a compromise can be found - and that needs to be found fast - consumers will be left gambling on one of the two systems or not making a purchase at all.

If it comes to choosing then it might not be easy. Unlike previous advances in video technology, where new or competing technologies have had some sort of quality difference in the picture, the demos at Ceatec showed that each delivers a superb picture. So users might be left reading through arcane specifications and juggling the benefits and disadvantages of certain standards in an attempt to make their decision.