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With more people shooting high-definition video and watching and recording HD broadcasts, there needed to be a way to put that information on disc. With their 480-line maximum, DVDs do not support a high-enough horizontal resolution to display HD content, and even if they did, they don't serve up the needed capacity. Enter Blu-ray. Developed by Sony, Blu-ray supports the 1,920x1,080 resolution needed for HD video, and a single-sided disc has a 25GB capacity. For details on the developing format war between Blu-ray and HD-DVD, read CNET's in-depth comparison.
One of Blu-ray's chief advantages is its large storage capacity: a DVD holds 4.7GB per side, HD-DVD holds 15GB per side, and Blu-ray holds 25GB per side. Though 25GB of storage capacity is impressive, it makes it all the more disappointing that the Pioneer BDR-101A doesn't support 50GB dual-layer discs, which are available now. Since CD burners are cheap and fast, we are less concerned with the BDR-101A's inability to read or write CDs. Your current optical drive is likely faster than the 24X CD-R write time of the Sony BWU-100A drive, which carries support for CDs and dual-layer Blu-ray discs.
The Pioneer BDR-101A is rated to write at 2X speed to both write-once Blu-ray discs (BD-R) and rewritable Blu-ray discs (BD-RE). The drive is also rated to write to DVD-R and +R discs at 8X, DVD-RW and +RW discs at 4X speed, double-layer DVD+R discs at 2.4X, and double-layer DVD-R discs at 2X speed. It has an 8MB buffer for Blu-ray discs and a 2MB buffer for DVDs.
Installing the Pioneer BDR-101A is a simple process and no different than hooking up any other type of optical drive. Slide the drive into an open 5.25-inch bay, connect it to a power cable, then connect it to an IDE (parallel ATA) cable. Our test system recognized the drive immediately. We tested on a PC; Macs aren't currently supported for the drive.
Pioneer bundles Sonic Solutions' Roxio DigitalMedia 7 with the BDR-101A drive. We used the software to run three tests, and the drive came very close to meeting the maximum speed. The 2X speed provides a data transfer rate of 72Mbps (or 9MB per second). By those numbers, it should take roughly 47 minutes to write 25GB of data to disc. For testing, we used single-layer 2X-speed TDK media, with both BD-R and BD-RE discs. The Roxio app recognized a BD-R disc as having 23.3GB of free space and a BD-RE disc as having 22.6GB of free space. Our test bed featured an Athlon 64 X2 4600+ processor, 1GB of DDR400 RAM, a 250GB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT graphics card. We left the machine connected to the Internet but disabled our firewall and antivirus applications.
With our first test, we burned a 5-hour, 19.9GB clip of 1080p HD video (MPEG-4) to a BD-R disc in 40 minutes, 22 seconds for a data transfer rate of 67Mbps, or 8.4MB per second. (The true data transfer rate was likely closer to the rated spec because the time marked on our test included the setup time and finalizing of the disc--less than 1 minute on each end.) We then took three large, say, DVD-size files to disc, whose content amounted to 21.8GB, and the BDR-101A burned the files to a BD-RE disc in 44 minutes, 15 seconds. Finally, we backed up our 18.7GB iTunes library to a BD-RE disc in 37 minutes, 53 seconds. Tests 2 and 3 resulted in the same data transfer rate as our first test.
Although its actual write times approximate the rated speeds, the Pioneer BDR-101A remains too expensive to be considered a viable backup solution (the media is expensive, too, at roughly $20 per disc); for now, you're better off buying an external hard drive to make copies of your important files. At the present, the only people who will buy a $1,000 Blu-ray recorder are professionals and enthusiasts working with HD video.
Consumers eager to burn HD video to disc should exercise patience; more vendors are expected to release Blu-ray burners this fall, which should help bring down the price. And the Blu-ray Disc Association states that 8X drives are in the works.
Should you choose to take the plunge, the BDR-101A drive is backed by a one-year parts-and-labor warranty. Pioneer's site does not provide much information on the drive, other than a short FAQ page and a PDF of the owner manual; we found zero results when searching for the model in Pioneer's knowledge base. Toll-free phone support is available weekdays from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. PT. You can also e-mail support via Pioneer's Web site.