Pioneer BDR-101A review

£485
Price when reviewed

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We’ve already seen Blu-ray drives pre-installed in two Sony systems – the VAIO VGC-RC204 desktop and the VAIO VGN-AR11S notebook – but now the technology is becoming more widely available. Along with the Samsung SH-B022 BD Writer, these drives are among the first to go on general release in the UK.

Pioneer’s BDR-101A is a twin-speed drive, which meant it filled our 25GB test disc in just under 45 minutes. It can only handle a comparatively small number of formats, but it will read both dual- and single-layer Blu-ray discs – encouraging news for anyone who plans on watching Blu-ray films. However, the drive can’t write to dual-layer discs, handle double-layer BD-RE (rewritable) discs or, as it happens, any form of CD: Pioneer was unable to confirm whether updated firmware would correct this in the future. DVD support is better, with every kind of DVD except DVD-RAM being both readable and writeable. The bundled software may vary between retailers, although Pioneer told us it expects most to bundle Roxio DigitalMedia LE 7.

Sony’s BWU-100A drive is compatible with the widest range of formats here, including dual-layer Blu-ray discs. Dual-layer BD-R and BD-RE media aren’t available yet, but when they are the maximum capacity the BWU-100A can handle will double from 25GB to 50GB per disc. You also get backwards compatibility with all existing DVD formats, including DVD-RAM. As another 2x drive, the BWU-100A offers little in the way of speed – a single-layer BD-R disc was again filled in just over 45 minutes. The BWU-100A (along with the LG, below) comes with CyberLink’s impressively full-featured BD software. The obvious drawback is the high estimated price, although this is likely to drop once the drive is released.

The LG GBW-H10N has the lowest price here, although it still isn’t cheap. It’s also the quickest, offering a 4x speed instead of 2x, equating to nearly 1GB per minute. At 22mins, 34secs for a single-layer BD-R disc, it’s around twice as fast as the two other drives. CyberLink BD software is again bundled, which will author to any of the formats the LG supports. The LG offers similar backwards compatibility to Sony’s drive too, only omitting dual-layer BD-R and BD-RE writing from its current portfolio (future firmware upgrades may add this). You’ll also be able to write to all existing formats of disc, including both DVD-RAM and dual-layer discs, with the fastest it will write to anything being 12x for DVD+R and -R. CD burning is supported, albeit at a sluggish 8x. Its incompatibility with dual-layer Blu-ray isn’t a major problem at present, and the lowest price currently makes it the best choice if you must have a Blu-ray drive.

Conclusion

While drives are now starting to arrive in numbers, if there’s anything that convinces us Blu-ray isn’t ready yet it’s this selection. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them – the prices are high, but that’s to be expected with brand-new technology. The question is what uses you can put a Blu-ray drive to – movies are all but non-existent, and with discs costing about 60p per gigabyte it’s difficult to make an argument for Blu-ray as backup. A hard disk such as the Western Digital My Book Pro will do the same job for more like 30p per gigabyte. As such, there’s simply no compelling reason to invest yet.

Blu-Ray and films

Blu-ray’s most touted killer application is high-definition film playback. If you’ve got a compatible TV, you’ll definitely notice the difference between DVDs, with their maximum vertical resolution of 480, and high-definition films, which have a vertical resolution of either 720 or 1,080. Presently, though, there isn’t much point in splashing out, not least because of the lack of availability of Blu-ray films in the UK. There are also question marks against what kind of encryption and copy protection Blu-ray will use – it’s widely reported that the huge delays around Sony’s PlayStation 3 console have been principally due to problems with its Blu-ray drives.

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