Panasonic readies dual-layer Blu-ray disc burner for 10 June release

Tokyo (Japan) - According to a notice posted today on its corporate Web site, Matsushita Electric is readying the production of its first line of Blu-ray Disc (BD) burners, or BD-R drives, for the standard desktop computer form factor. The company should be ready to produce as many as 10,000 units per month through its Panasonic Shikoku factory, for sale to the Japanese consumer market, at prices yet to be determined.

Panasonic's forthcoming LF-MB121JD Blu-ray burner drive. (Courtesy Matsushita Electric)

The announcement makes clear for the first time that the era of dual-layer, 50 GB capacity optical discs is upon us, as the Matsushita document confirms repeatedly that this new drive, known today only as LF-MB121JD, will read and write both BD-R (write-once) and BD-RE (one of the rewritable formats) for both single- and dual-layer discs. The latter uses two recording layers, one beneath the other, with the one closest to the surface being semi-transparent - like current dual-layer DVD.

But with blue-laser technology, maintaining the necessary distance between the two recordable layers had been a matter of some concern - they're spaced further apart than for DVD. In order for the thickness of BD-R discs to stay within the set form factor, and not become thicker than DVDs, newer, more durable coatings had to be developed to create a thinner protective surface that could be even more resistant to scratches. Until tests for those coatings could be finalized, up until last year, prototype Blu-ray discs were sheathed in a protective cartridge; today, that cartridge is no longer necessary.

However, when word was passed down at the CES 2006 conference last January that the first Blu-ray disc players would support only single-layer (25 GB), concern emerged over whether the new coatings were holding up. Today's announcement seems to indicate that Panasonic, at least, is willing to bet on it for now.

If the new drive performs as promised, it could be a spectacular success for the Blu-ray format - which could use a big success about now, especially with HD DVD the first out of the gate. In fact, its support for DVD and CD formats could be more complete than most DVD components available today. According to Matsushita, the LF-MB121JD drive will support all three DVD rewritable formats: DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW, along with DVD-R and DVD+R in both single- and dual-layer. And dispelling perhaps the last round of naysayers, the Panasonic-brand drive will also support CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW, as well as play CD audio. Perhaps now that rumor about CD formats not being supported, will finally be dropped.

Press releases written for the Asian market are often more frank and forthcoming than their sometimes jingoistic counterparts for North America, which is why Matsushita's sales projections for this unit came in as a bit of a surprise. According to its chart, it expects to sell about 15,000 of these drives in Japan before the end of the year, rising to only 800,000 units before the end of 2009. At first, this might seem conservative, but keep in mind we're only talking about one country, and this will only be one model in a market that's expected to be as full of high-def components in three years as the DVD market is today. It would be interesting to know whether Matsushita - a firm, non-neutral member of the Blu-ray Disc Association - considered whether HD DVD components would also be available in three years' time, or whether its projections assumed that format would already have been vanquished.