Editor's note: More information about what Blu-ray is and how it compares to the other next-generation DVD format, HD DVD, can be found here.
Sony's BWU-100A -- the first Blu-ray player/writer available for the PC -- is a product that's been shrouded in controversy since its inception in August. This isn't a surprise when one considers the fact that the drive couldn't play commercial Blu-ray titles for over a month following its release, mainly due to the lack of available playback software. This rendered it useless to all but budding film producers looking to archive their high-definition (HD) footage.
Now that all of its features are enabled, we put the drive in the hot seat for a full review.
Design is far from the most important consideration here, as when installed into your PC most of the unit is hidden from view anyway. Nonetheless, the BWU-100A's black face plate will fit in well with a black or other non-beige coloured PC chassis.
It's a tray-loading model, and can comfortably be mounted either horizontally or vertically. Obviously, since this is an internal drive you'll need to make sure that you've got a spare 5.25-inch drive bay (and IDE connector) in your computer.
Core to the BWU-100A is its Blu-ray disc reading/writing capabilities. The drive is able to write to both 25GB and 50GB BD-RE/BD-R discs at a speed of 2x. This will undoubtedly make the drive highly attractive to those with a penchant for recording their home movies in HD, as a 50GB Blu-ray disc can hold up to 4 hours of 1080i/p video. This is something that the regular DVD standard and its 8.5GB maximum capacity couldn't hope to accomplish.
The drive is also capable of playing commercial Blu-ray titles, which are set to reach Australian shores by the end of the year. These will offer far better picture quality than regular DVD, since the increased capacity of the discs allows for the storage of much higher resolution footage (1080 horizontal lines as opposed to regular DVD's 576 lines).
While Blu-ray discs are capable of storing much higher resolution footage, you'll still need to be using a display that's capable of showing 1080 horizontal lines onscreen simultaneously to truly notice the difference. That means purchasing a monitor (or TV if you're putting the drive into your media centre) with a native resolution of 1920x1080 or higher (e.g. Dell's UltraSharp 2407WFP).
Regular DVD+/-R discs are written to at 8x (4x for dual-layer discs), while 24x CD-R write speeds are also supported.
The drive's Blu-ray write speed of 2x translates into a theoretical maximum transfer rate of 9MB/second. By comparison, a 2x DVD write speed translates to 2.64MB/sec, but it's important to keep in mind that 16x DVD burners have been available for quite some time now that support a transfer rate of up to 21.13MB/sec.
Blu-ray writing speeds will definitely ramp up as the technology matures, but until then it's important to note that burning data to a Blu-ray disc will be significantly slower than burning to a regular DVD.
Using a 25GB blank Sony Blu-ray disc, we were able to fill the disc to capacity in 43 minutes, which is around what we were expecting given the drive's specs.
We also tested the drive's DVD burning performance using the DVDSpeed component of Nero, and found that compared to our dedicated 16x dual-layer DVD burner, the BWU-100A was often half as fast (in both write speeds and access times). Again, this isn't surprising, as there are also CD burners out there that can write to CD-R discs faster than a DVD burner can.
As it stands, the BWU-100A should only really be considered by early adopters looking to get their hands on the latest technology as it's made available. For everyone else, the AU$1,399 price tag coupled with the murky availability of Blu-ray movies and the fact that the next-gen DVD format war isn't resolved will be enough to stave off a purchase for now.