Upgrading your home PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive is the least expensive way to get your hands on the sought-after HD technology. PC Advisor rounds up five of the latest models, with invaluable buying advice.

Given that many of us are beginning to feel the financial pinch, traditional technology treats in the form of a shiny new home PC or laptop may not be on the cards this Christmas. But extending the capabilities of the PC or laptop you've already got may make sense, and help you keep up with the Joneses in a financially astute manner.

A Blu-ray Disc drive could be just the ticket. It combines the practicality of boosting your backup and storage capacity, while offering a feature you didn't already have: HD playback.

Buying a brand-new PC with Blu-ray support costs at least £600, and many cost twice that. By contrast, you can add the technology to an existing PC for less than £200. If you're prepared to get your hands dirty and install an internal drive, you can get one for even less: the Best Buy LG drive we've tested here costs a modest £145.

For a similar sum, you can of course plump for a standalone HD player. However, opting for Blu-ray on your PC rather than a dedicated player means it can do more than simply play pre-recorded Blu-ray discs. And, as we hardly need to tell you, blockbuster films in this format don't come cheap.

Should Santa bring you any such must-see movies, you'll be able to watch them on your newly Blu-ray-enabled PC, of course, but you can also enjoy HD content from other sources.

One of the biggest success stories of the year has been TV on demand. BBC iPlayer, ITV Catchup and 4oD offer much of their content as free web downloads, with a small premium for the HD version.
Apple iTunes also offers a selection of HD programming and, of course, BitTorrent and similar video-sharing sites proffer HD along with pirate versions of standard-resolution TV programmes and films.

You can watch all this content on your PC, or output it for playback on another device, including a standalone Blu-ray player, if you have one in your lounge.

You shouldn't ignore home video content either. HD video recorders are now fairly widespread - as with buying a new optical drive or standalone DVD player, it makes sense to acknowledge that HD is where things are heading. With the advent of Advanced Video Codec High Definition (AVCHD) camcorders that can record HD content to flash memory, there's only going to be more and more HD footage.

It's a definite advantage if you can review the raw footage on your PC, perform some simple edits and then burn it to disc.

NEXT PAGE: the space race

  1. The best internal and external drives reviewed
  2. The space race
  3. Buy right
  4. Media matters
  5. Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

Visit Digital World for the latest home entertainment news and reviews

Upgrading your home PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive is the least expensive way to get your hands on the sought-after HD technology. PC Advisor rounds up five of the latest models, with invaluable buying advice.

The space race

HD video records far more visual information than standard-definition does. Consequently, it takes up much more memory and needs larger-capacity discs - one of the reasons why Blu-ray films are more expensive than ordinary DVDs. Each blank Blu-ray disc is pretty pricey, but you can store vast amounts of information on them.

As with DVDs, you can store any sort of information on a Blu-ray Disc. Even a single-sided disc can store 25GB of data; double-sided discs have a maximum capacity of 50GB. Given the hundreds of gigabytes of information many of us now entrust to our hard drives, having a duplicate available should anything go awry is a good idea.

It's in this area that drive performance becomes critical. Ensure the drive has a serial ATA (SATA) interface and a data buffer of at least 4MB - this will smooth things over and ensure the item continues to record even if the amount of power being delivered isn't consistent throughout the process.

If you intend to archive large amounts of data on a regular basis, speed will be important too. The first eight-speed Blu-ray read and write drives are starting to appear, but these - and more particularly the blank discs they require to work at top speed - are nearly impossible to come by. If it's mostly HD footage you'll be backing up, choose a quad- or six-speed drive instead.

If you want Blu-ray but also want an upgrade to your computer's DVD-burning capabilities for more routine backups, cast your eye over the single- and dual-layer writing speeds for DVD. You'll pay a little more for a drive that can write and rewrite to both DVD+R and -R disc. If you skip any format, you can probably dispense with being able to write DVD-RAM discs - a slow process, as only three-speed discs are widely available. Most users won't need to write HD DVD discs (the losing contender in the now-resolved HD format wars) either.

NEXT PAGE: buy right

  1. The best internal and external drives reviewed
  2. The space race
  3. Buy right
  4. Media matters
  5. Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

Visit Digital World for the latest home entertainment news and reviews

Upgrading your home PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive is the least expensive way to get your hands on the sought-after HD technology. PC Advisor rounds up five of the latest models, with invaluable buying advice.

Buy right

If you simply want to add HD playback capabilities to your PC, you need do little more than decide between an internal or external model and choose a price, interface and design to suit. An external model is a bit more expensive and its interface (the way it transfers data from the internal hard-disk drive to the Blu-ray drive) may not be as efficient as with an internal model, but fitting it will be far easier. You simply need an available FireWire or USB 2.0 port.

If you're shopping for a Blu-ray drive for a laptop, your options are limited to external models (you could buy an Optiarc laptop Blu-ray drive from Scan for around £151, but fitting it would be very fiddly and you'd void your warranty doing so)

Try to find a fairly lightweight model.

The two external models we've tested here each weigh in excess of 1.5kg - not that practical for you to lug out and about with you on a regular basis.

NEXT PAGE: media matters

  1. The best internal and external drives reviewed
  2. The space race
  3. Buy right
  4. Media matters
  5. Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

Visit Digital World for the latest home entertainment news and reviews

Upgrading your home PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive is the least expensive way to get your hands on the sought-after HD technology. PC Advisor rounds up five of the latest models, with invaluable buying advice.

Media matters

Buying the latest all-singing, all-dancing Blu-ray drive may not mean a whole lot if you don't feed it with the right media. But getting hold of discs that are fast enough to get the most out of your drive isn't as easy as you'd think - not least because few of the blank discs commonly available to consumers are rated at the highest speeds.

Go into any branch of PC World or Maplin, and you'll probably be faced with shelves of DVD media. But, while 16-speed DVD+Rs are easy to come by, eight-speed DVD+RWs are altogether more elusive. DVD-RAM isn't exactly a popular format, but it might hold more appeal if more shops stocked five-speed rather than three-speed media.

As for Blu-ray, while blank BD-R and BD-RE discs are beginning to creep on to the market, finding them on the high street is still no easy task. And that problem is compounded when you start looking for the best speeds. We visited a dozen shops on London's technology Mecca, Tottenham Court Road. A number of them didn't stock BD-R media at all. Of those that did, only one could sell us BD-R media rated at quad-speed - the majority were happy to stick to dual-speed media.

Does this matter? The bar chart below illustrates how long it takes to write varying amounts of data (11GB, 22GB and 44GB) at differing speeds (dual-speed and quad-speed). These tests were conducted on the LG GGW-H20L.

Blu-ray Disc speeds

If you're running dual-speed media on a quad-speed drive, it will take you almost twice as long to burn the same amount of data - copying 44GB to BD-R DL at quad-speed took only marginally longer than copying 22GB to a BD-R single-layer at dual-speed, for example.

Quad-speed BD-R media should become much easier to find in the coming months. But if you're buying a drive that can go up to six-speed in BD-R mode, the chances are that you'll want to keep an eye out for the new six-speed media that should be available very shortly. And rest assured, you won't find many six-speed BD-Rs on the high street.

The upshot: look very carefully before you buy and, where possible, buy only media that's clearly marked as having the higher speed. Buying online will be the easiest way to get hold of the media you're looking for.

NEXT PAGE: Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

  1. The best internal and external drives reviewed
  2. The space race
  3. Buy right
  4. Media matters
  5. Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

Visit Digital World for the latest home entertainment news and reviews

Upgrading your home PC with a Blu-ray Disc drive is the least expensive way to get your hands on the sought-after HD technology. PC Advisor rounds up five of the latest models, with invaluable buying advice.

Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

  1. The best internal and external drives reviewed
  2. The space race
  3. Buy right
  4. Media matters
  5. Blu-ray Disc drive reviews

Visit Digital World for the latest home entertainment news and reviews