And the winnaah is… Blu-ray!

The battle is over and the result has been announced: in the great HD DVD versus Blu-ray (BD) contest there was room for only one winner and HD DVD just didn’t cut the mustard. To be honest, I don’t know which format is better from a technical point of view, or even whether there’s really anything to choose between them at all, but having two formats was plain daft. And so BD it is.

And the winnaah is... Blu-ray!

This has significant implications, of course, for the desktop computer market. Not only are we going to see an explosion of interest in desktop BD burners, but the prices of the blank discs will collapse once production volume starts to ramp up. At present, the costs are frightening, at around £10 for a single-layer disc and nearer to £25 if you need the 50GB dual-layer version. However, I can remember the days when I went into Contributing Editor Mark Newton’s shop and paid nearly £5 for one 1.44Mb HD floppy diskette, and that was only 20 years ago. So I shouldn’t be too hasty to criticise vendors, since it’s clear that prices will fall.

What the world needs now is a cheap desktop BD drive that can write not only single-layer but also dual-layer discs, and I found such an item at my local computing emporium recently. Made by LG, the GGW-H20L is a SATA-connected internal 5.25in drive that can write all forms of BD, and can read HD DVD discs, too (and obviously it does all the kinds of DVD and CD). So, basically, it does the lot and at a cost of well below £200, which is frankly a steal – I just had to have one.

When I got back to my lab I sidled up to “Stripey White Value”, my super-cheap quad-core Medion monster from Tesco Direct, and started the installation process. Just as I expected, Stripey White turned out to have a horrible, press-fit plastic fascia contraption, complete with a nasty sliding door, but it was powerless to resist my determined prising with a couple of flat-blade screwdrivers. Within minutes, the drive was inserted and cabled up to the on-board Intel SATA controller, then booting Vista SP1 resulted in a flurry of new driver loading and it was done.

Since I prefer whenever possible to do the proper thing, I loaded up a shiny new copy of Nero 8, which usefully has full BD burning support. Once Nero was running, I dropped in the LG-supplied 25GB rewritable blank disc and then dragged-and-dropped a whole heap of data into the burn window. A few clicks later and Nero was happily burning to the disc.

So what’s the advantage of BD over DVD? Well, much larger capacity for starters, at 25GB per disc as opposed to 4.7GB for single-layer, and 50GB as opposed to 8.4GB for dual-layer (subtracting the usual bits for formatting information, of course). The burn and read performance in terms of megabytes per minute is pretty similar, but you just get a lot more onto a BD disc. Naturally, that means there’s a lot more to lose if you damage the disc, or it becomes unreadable: losing 50GB of data is more than a bunch of holiday snaps, it can be your whole “digital identity” (for want of a better term) plus a huge amount of video and audio, too.

I have to make the comparison with the Plasmon UDF drive at this point, since it, too, has a capacity in the 60GB range, although that’s organised as 30GB per side. However, the Plasmon erects a fully protective shuttered plastic case around its optical recording medium, and its underlying technology has been around for decades. But while I’m loathe to recommend BD as an archival solution, I can see that it will be used more and more for that purpose once the disc prices drop, especially in smaller businesses where money is tight. That’s simply because Plasmon’s solution is much more expensive still: the desktop drive runs to about £2,000 and the discs are even more expensive than today’s BD prices. Although I’m utterly convinced that the Plasmon solution is safer and far more appropriate for archiving duties, the cost differential even today is too steep, and as prices of BD media start to fall it will only become steeper.

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