Blu-ray is finally here, with Pioneer Electronics' BDR-101A leading the way. This drive is the first burner for PCs that records to Blu-ray Disc.

The $1,000 (£550) model may be light on software and extras, but its appeal is undeniable: In PC World tests, we were able to pack nearly 25GB on a single write-once disc, and in about 45 minutes -- less time than it takes to drive from San Francisco to nearby San Jose. PC World is a sister magazine to Digit.

The drive has a single-lens optical pickup with two lasers: a blue laser capable of reading and writing to Blu-ray Disc (BD) and a red laser for reading and writing to DVD media. However, as the first Blu-ray burner to market, the BDR-101A sacrifices a few format details in favour of being here now. Though it supports BD and DVD media, it does not read or write to CDs. It also does not write to dual-layer 50GB BD media.

Blu-ray Disc is one of two competing formats battling to replace conventional DVDs. The format is based on blue laser technology and offers several times the storage capacity of current DVDs. Blu-ray stores 25GB on a single-layer disc and uses a new disc structure that puts the recording layer much closer to the laser. The competing but incompatible format--HD-DVD--stores a little less: 15GB of data on a single-layer disc. HD-DVD has a disc structure similar to that of DVDs. No HD-DVD burners have yet been announced.

Speed tests

We tested a production-level BDR-101A drive using shrink-wrapped BD-R media from TDK Electronics, and close-but-not-quite-final software from Sonic. The drive's installation was standard fare for an IDE drive: It looks and feels like an ordinary optical drive, and was a snap to install in our test system.

In our tests, this drive performed impressively close to its expected throughput. It took 44 minutes, 45 seconds to master 22GB of data to BD-R using the bundled Sonic DigitalMedia SE software. This translates to a throughput of 67mbps, as compared with the theoretical maximum of 72mbps for 2X BD-R (where 1X BD = 36 mbps). It took a bit longer than that to copy that same disc back to the hard drive.

The promise of so much capacity on a single disc is alluring, not only for storing video and multimedia, but also for streamlining data backups. That's slightly more time than it might take you to burn to five single-layer DVD-Rs, but slightly less than it might take to burn the same capacity to double-layer DVD+R -- not accounting for swapping discs.

For example, the Plextor PX-760A, the fastest DVD burner we've tested in our lab, required five minutes, 50 seconds to transfer 4.35GB at 18X to a single-layer DVD+R. For double-layer burns at 10X, the Plextor required 14 minutes, 34 seconds to write 7.9GB to disc.

Not surprisingly, however, if speed is your goal, a hard drive remains a faster bet. We copied the same 22GB of data to a Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo external hard drive (a 1-terabyte drive configured using RAID 0). It took 17 minutes, 20 seconds to copy the data to the hard drive.

Blu-ray drive specs

Chief among the supported formats for the BDR-101A are single-layer 25GB BD-R, the write-once variant of Blu-ray Disc, and 25GB BD-RE, the nomenclature for BD's rewritable media. The Pioneer drive is rated to read BD-R, BD-RE, and BD-ROM (commercially pressed media) at 2X -- the same speed supported for writing to BD-R and BD-RE.

The BDR-101A also is capable of writing to single-layer DVD±R at 8X; to dual-layer DVD-R at 2X, to double-layer DVD+R at 2.4X, and to DVD±RW at 4X. Read speeds are 8X for DVD-ROM and DVD±R media, and 6X for DVD±R DL and DVD±RW media. These write-speed rates are lower than what you would expect to find on a dedicated DVD burner.

In addition, the drive has an 8MB buffer for BD writing and a 2MB buffer for DVD writing.

Software bumps

As it did with its early DVD authoring solutions, Pioneer says it is targeting this drive at the professional market -- a strategic maneuver that explains the relative paucity of software bundled with the drive. Typically, this audience will already have high-end authoring software, whether for developing movie content or games.

The drive ships with Sonic's DigitalMedia SE software for disc copying and data writes; however, it does not include components for disc authoring or for packet-writing. According to Pioneer, customers will be able to upgrade--at a still-to-be-determined discount--to a more full-featured version of the DigitalMedia software (which would include disc authoring and packet-writing) when it is available. (At this time, none of the leading software vendors are shipping BD-RE packet-writing software; but all plan to do so.)

Though you can't find Blu-ray Disc movies just yet, the Pioneer drive will play them back when they become available. As with other Blu-ray (and, for that matter, HD-DVD) devices coming out now, this drive supports the interim copy protection spec for AACS (Advanced Access Content System). This means the drive won't handle future AACS features like managed content, a highly anticipated addition to the spec that is still being hashed out by the studios and technology companies involved.

But Blu-ray Disc is now ready for professionals who need a drive on which to author and test BD discs, and for early adopters who can't wait to get their hands on the latest storage technology.

Pioneer's BDR-101A burner is only a first salvo in what promises to be a new wave of drives: It has some limitations, but the drive also provides the high-capacity removable storage that users are clamoring for.