This review appears in the July issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.

Blu-ray is finally here, with Pioneer's BDR-101A leading the way. This drive is the first burner for PCs that records to BD (Blu-ray Disc). It may be light on software and extras, but its appeal is undeniable – in three-quarters of an hour it can pack nearly 25GB onto a single write-once disc.

Blu-ray Disc is one of two competing formats battling to replace conventional DVDs. The format is based on blue-laser technology and offers several times the storage capacity of current DVDs. The first Blu-ray discs can fit 25GB on a single layer, as opposed to the 15GB of the competing but incompatible HD-DVDs. Dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray discs shouldn't be far away and, potentially, up to eight layers – or 200GB of storage space – could be possible. HD-DVD may struggle to get past 45GB.

The drive has a single-lens optical pickup with two lasers: a blue laser capable of reading and writing to BD, and a red laser for DVD media. However, as the first BD burner to market, the BDR-101A sacrifices a few format details in favour of being here now. It doesn't read or write to CDs and obviously won't write to dual-layer Blu-Ray media.

Alphabet soup

Chief among the supported formats for the BDR-101A are single-layer 25GB BD-R, the write-once variant of Blu-ray Disc, and 25GB rewritable BD-RE. The Pioneer drive is rated to read and write to all of its formats (BD-R, BD-RE and the commercially pressed BD-ROM) at two-speed. Four-speed models could be with us by late summer.

DVD facilities aren't as comprehensive as those on the best dedicated DVD writers. Only eight-speed DVD-R/+R is supported, rather than the more commonly available 16x. DVD-RW/+RW works at a sluggish four-speed, while the fastest double-layer mode (DVD+R DL) operates at just 2.4x.

Right on target

We tested a production-level BDR-101A drive using shrink-wrapped BD-R media from TDK Electronics, and close-but-not-quite-final software from Sonic.

The drive was a snap to install in our test system, and performed impressively close to its expected throughput. It took 44 minutes and 45 seconds to master 22GB of data to BD-R using the bundled Sonic DigitalMedia SE software. That's slightly more time than it might take to burn to five single-layer DVD-Rs, but less than burning the same capacity to double-layer DVD+R.

At this early stage, some details are still rather sketchy – we don't know, for example, what software will ship with the BDR-101A. Pricing and availability are also rather vague. We expect drives to start reaching the stores in late May or early June. The price for early adoption will be high, with drives expected to cost in the region of £450 to £500 – this could well have halved in a year's time. Media will also be hard to come by, with the first discs likely to cost around £15 – although, given the high storage capacity, this wouldn't be such a poor deal.

Soft where?

As it did with its early DVD authoring solutions, Pioneer says it is targeting this drive at the professional market – a strategic move that explains the relative paucity of software bundled with the drive. Typically, this audience will already have high-end authoring software, whether for developing movie content or games.

At the time of going to press, it isn't clear what software the Pioneer will come bundled with. By the time the drive hits shops a number of leading software vendors should have programs ready to run.

An amended version of Ahead Nero might be included, although it's even more likely that (as was the case with the version of the drive that we tested) Sonic's DigitalMedia SE package will be featured.

Pioneer BDR-101A: Specs

  • 2x/2x/2x (BD-ROM/BD-R/BD-RE) 8x/8x/8x/2x/2.4x/4x/4x (DVD-ROM/-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW) drive
  • EIDE interface
  • max DVD storage capacity 25GB
  • drive buffer 8MB (BD) 2MB (DVD)
  • check software and cables before buying
  • 1-year warranty
  • 2x/2x/2x (BD-ROM/BD-R/BD-RE) 8x/8x/8x/2x/2.4x/4x/4x (DVD-ROM/-R/+R/-R DL/+R DL/-RW/+RW) drive
  • EIDE interface
  • max DVD storage capacity 25GB
  • drive buffer 8MB (BD) 2MB (DVD)
  • check software and cables before buying
  • 1-year warranty

OUR VERDICT

It's going to be a year before Blu-ray becomes a viable option for most users. The early signs are good, though, and while this drive has its limitations, it'll be of interest to professionals who need a high-capacity drive and early adopters who can't wait to get their hands on the next big thing.

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