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Edit Review: Pioneer BDR-101A

Dec 1, 2006 12:00 PM, Reviewer: Tom Patrick McAuliffe

Blu-ray burner copies HD to large-capacity discs.

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BD vs. HD DVD: Report from the Front

The Pioneer BDR-101A allows users to burn massive amounts of digital media, including high-def, to disc in the Blu-ray format.

No good story is without drama or conflict, and the quest to replace the DVD standard with an HD-capable media format is no exception. In one corner we have Blu-ray Disc (BD), and in the other, HD DVD. HD-DVD discs can store 15GB on a single layer and up to 30GB on two layers. The Blu-ray format can store up to 25GB per single-layer disc and up to 50GB on two layers. (As I write this, TDK has announced a new 200GB prototype Blu-ray disc.) Depending on the level of compression, you might fit more than nine hours of high-definition video on a 50GB disc.

But let's forget the format war for a minute. I don't have a crystal ball, but I did get my hands on the world's first Blu-ray drive. The Pioneer BDR-101A is a 2X (72Mbps) internal PC drive for reading and writing single-layer Blu-ray and standard DVDs on a Windows computer.

Traditional DVDs allow you to watch (NTSC) movies at 720×480 resolution, while the new Blu-ray Discs are ready for HD video at 1920×1080 resolution, as well as various forms of surround-sound audio (which standard DVDs also offer), along with additional interactive features and greater storage capacity.

The Pioneer BDR-101A is a standard 5.25in. internal read/write drive that sports the latest specifications for BD-R (Blu-ray Disc-recordable), BD-RE (Blu-ray Disc-rewritable), and BD-ROM (Blu-ray Disc read-only memory). It also reads and writes standard DVD-ROM and DVD-read/write formats, but not CD audio. As a 2X Blu-ray recorder with 9MBps/72Mbps burning speed, the drive is six times faster than standard DVD burners but supports single-layer BD discs only. According to Pioneer, the drive's low-vibration mechanism design allows high writing accuracy. But is the BDR-101A a long-term investment or just a bright, but short, flash in the pan? Let's see.

From an installation standpoint, the BDR-101A is just like any other DVD-R or CD-R device. Installation should be as simple as pulling the old DVD-R drive out and popping the new Blu-ray recorder in, right? Fat chance! (At least for me.) Physical installation went OK, but right from the start, I could see my PC was in bad need of a tuneup.

Even though the Pioneer's minimum requirements call for a lowly 150MHz CPU, with 300MHz or more recommended, my 800MHz computer was slower than molasses in January. Luckily my PC motherboard supports plug-in CPUs, so I upgraded to a faster Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz chip, which is a story for another time.

I also needed to upgrade the operating system to Windows XP Service Pack 4, which went fairly smoothly. The drive will work with any standard 40-pin ATAPI or ATA-5 IDE controller — even older ones such as a Adaptec Ultra ATA card 1233. But to achieve maximum throughput you must use an 80-wire UDMA ribbon cable. I ran with just a 40-pin cable.

(To be honest, upgrading a PC is not for the faint of heart. Next time I would much rather pay a PC pro to build and configure a machine for me, as there's really an art to it. Your/my time is better spent.) So, with a better CPU engine and the new BDR-101A drive installed and showing up in Windows, I was ready to burn. My first burn to a Blu-ray Disc was simple. I needed to back up a 25GB LaCie pocket hard drive via IEEE 1394. It had about 20GB of content on it: DV and HDV video clips, sound and music files, PDF docs, etc., so it was just a straight data transfer. Only 22GB shows as usable on a TDK single-layer 25GB BD-RE 2X rewritable disc. The other 2GB is devoted to OS disc management space. I used Roxio's Easy Media Creator 9 Suite burning software for Windows XP (which is available from Sonic Solutions for the Mac as Toast 7 Titanium).

Both applications allow me to burn a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray Disc, although the Pioneer drive does single-layer 25GB discs only. For measurement's sake, a 25GB disc can hold more than 6,000 music tracks, 25,000 photos, or two hours of raw HDV content.

With Roxio's Drag to Disc software feature, I just dragged and dropped my hard drive icon (or whatever file I want to burn) into a window, and I was happily — if slowly — burning data. I did this back and forth several times using both apps over the course of a week, and I did not run into any of the “corrupt bits” or “file not found” problems other BD users have reported (and that I have had with other HD disc media). In all cases, the data was completely readable both off the disc and after transfer to the hard drive. But what about speed? Unfortunately the BDR-101A is just so-so. It took more than an hour to transfer the data. Not bad, but not great either, and at this price point I expect better.

Next, just so I could see what the final output of Blu-ray video would and should look like, I visited a well-known electronics chain store and watched footage from a few of the newly released Blu-ray movie DVDs, including The Fifth Element and Blazing Saddles — both titles from Sony. A Samsung BD-P1000 played these via a High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) connection to a new Sony XBR3 LCD WEGA 46in. HDTV set at 1920×1080 resolution. In a word, gorgeous! The super-high bit rate of Blu-ray's MPEG-2 implementation (as opposed to, for example, MPEG-4 via H.264 as used on some HD DVDs) makes BD's visual quality better, at least to my eyes. Sadly, I was not able to watch studio BD DVD motion pictures on my PC either. Windows XP detected a disc from the drive, but as there was no software player, it would not run.

The Pioneer BDR-101A drive is so new that many software companies have yet to support burning to the new format, let alone authoring and taking advantage of all the interactive functions it has to offer. That's changing, but when I went to create a rudimentary Blu-ray DVD with HDV footage, I found very few tools. As I write this, though, a number of new software versions are becoming available, and more are expected by the time you read this.

For example, the new high-end professional Scenarist software from Sonic supports authoring in both Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. Admittedly, I'm a DVD authoring newbie, so I didn't need anything as elaborate as that. Amazingly, I found a few solutions for less than $100. For working with the HDV signal from my Sony HC3, I liked Ulead's DVD MovieFactory 5 Plus. With DVD MovieFactory 5, you capture video from your camcorder and burn it directly to Blu-ray Disc BD-R/RE single- or dual-layer discs. (It supports BD and HD DVD as well as SD.) Most importantly, with the new Ulead BD DiscRecorder module, a free downloadable update for users, you can record directly from a supported HDV source to a Blu-ray disc using the BDAV format. After burning two Blu-ray discs, I headed back over to the chain store to try to play them. Inexplicably I was not able to get my discs to play in the Samsung unit, although they worked fine in a Pioneer Blu-ray player. Go figure.

For me, the Pioneer BDR-101A is bleeding-edge technology that, while very exciting, comes up short in a number of critical areas. It's a product that's almost moot because by the time you read this, other products with better capabilities will be available for slightly lower prices (the Panasonic SW-5582, for example). But such is the case with any first-to-market product. For me, the real surprise was that the drive offers no CD read/write support. Most users would prefer an all-in-one optical media device able to read and write virtually all disc formats. Additionally, the Pioneer can't handle the 50GB dual-layer BD-R/RE media. That's a major drawback, and along with the lack of CD-R support, it is a deal breaker for me. I'd also like to be able to install the drive in my Mac, even though Apple has not yet supported the BD format with its iDVD, Final Cut, or DVD Studio Pro software applications. With 8X DVD burners available these days, I also found the DVD reading and writing speeds of the BDR-101A on the slow side. It certainly seemed slower than the specs would indicate (but, to be fair, some of that could be the computer itself).

I also had some problems with DVD playability. Sometimes SD DVDs would play in the Pioneer drive but would not play elsewhere. The DVD writing quality should be improved with the second generation of this product. One thing is certain: The Pioneer BDR-101A helps you put massive amounts of digital media on disc and burns high-def content to the Blu-ray format.

At this point, I can't recommend the BDR-101A, not because it's not a good, cutting-edge product, but simply because other Blu-ray products make more sense for video creators and will do the same things for less money.

The real problem right now, though, is Blu-ray in general. The format is so new that I can't share content with others. Dragging my PC around defeats the purpose of burning discs, and there just aren't very many Blu-ray devices around. That, of course, is soon to change.

Released this past May, the new Pioneer BDR-101A drive was ahead of its time, but its video features have since been eclipsed by those of other solutions. By the time you read this, other solutions that are faster, with more features, and able to burn three disc formats (BD DVD, standard DVD, and CD-R) may have come to market. In the very near future, a plethora of Blu-ray DVD player/recorders (and maybe by next CES/NAB, even a few Blu-ray DVD camcorders) will be available. But if you're a professional DVD media creator and believe, as I do, that the Blu-ray format will be the next-generation high-definition disc format, and you can't wait, then the Pioneer BDR-101A drive is ready, willing, and able.

BD vs. HD DVD: Report from the Front

As we go to press, let's take a look at where the Blu-ray format stands. To say the situation is fluid is a understatement. The war that has raged since 2005 between Blu-ray and HD DVD is far from over, and although BD leads in the postproduction/computer-based arena, HD DVD is far from dead. Sony's Blu-ray format has some heavyweight support in Apple, Dell, and HP computers, as well as consumer electronics giants Hitachi, Philips, Samsung, and others. On the other side, Toshiba's HD DVD has continued to grow with Microsoft, NEC, and Sanyo in its camp.

Only consumers and content creators worldwide will make the final decision. End viewers of both formats may be in luck, as NEC has announced that by next spring, just before NAB 2007, it'll produce OEM computer chips that allow the use of both high-definition formats. The new chips will make it easy for manufacturers to make players that can read both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs. NEC has been a backer of HD DVD in the past.

On the content side, Sony Pictures has announced its first 50GB Blu-ray titles, and the BD format now has almost 90 percent of major motion picture companies signed on, including Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM, Disney, and 20th Century Fox in addition to Sony Pictures.

On the equipment front, gamers are happy. One of the ways the format will grow is with the Sony PS3, basically a dressed-up Blu-ray player, which has begun shipping to wild acclaim. Additionally, Panasonic recently announced “the world's first Blu-ray recorders that also can play back BD-Video discs.” The Blu-ray DIGA DMR-BW200 and DMR-BR100 can record high-definition imagery on BD-RE rewritable discs and dub from the built-in hard-disk drive (HDD) to Blu-ray discs at 4X speed. These will be shipping by the end of the year, according to the company.

Panasonic also announced the DMP-BD10 player, and Sony has just begun shipping the BWU100A computer drive, which is similar to Pioneer's, and introduced its new Cyberlink BD Solution 1.0. PowerDVD 6.6 BD Edition software suite. And indeed, Blu-ray software support continues to grow with solutions from Avid, Nero, WinDVD, and DTS-HD Master Audio Suite adding to applications that support the new HD disc format. Apple, a member of the BD Association of manufacturers, is expected to announce that all its applications support the BD format, or soon will. Also look for a BD-enabled Powerbook at MacWorld 2007 in San Francisco this January.

But all is not rosy for BD, with both formats rushing to get products to market. Most notably on the negative side, the product delays continue, with Pioneer pushing back the launch of its BDP-HD1 Blu-ray standalone player until possibly just after the first of the year and Sharp delaying the launch of its BD player until sometime in the spring. The availability of HDCP-compliant video cards, projectors, and HDTVs is also lagging.

Despite some rollout problems, and the competition between the two formats, which is causing confusion in the marketplace, one thing is certain: The next generation of DVD with high-definition on disc is here to stay. Be it HD DVD or Blu-ray, the bleeding edge has never looked or sounded better!


Company: Pioneer Electronics

Product: BDR-101A Blu-ray drive

Assets: Internal PC installation is convenient. Massive storage capacity with BD-R/RE media.

Caveats: Internal PC installation means high RF/high heat environment, no CD-R/RW support, no dual-layer BD-R/RE DL media support, no Mac support at this time, slower-than-indicated DVD burn and read speeds.

Demographic: Early Blu-ray format adopters.

PRICE: $999

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