Burning Questions: What You Need to Know About Blu-ray Burners

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As far as the PC universe is concerned, the high-capacity optical disc revolution began in May, when Pioneer shipped the first after-market Blu-ray Disc burner for desktop PCs. That drive was the opening salvo on the PC disc burning front--one that rival format HD DVD has yet to answer. (To date, the market has seen no announcement or shipment of desktop PC HD DVD burners; currently only HD DVD disc readers are available.) It also heralded an era of transition, one marked by the pitfalls of being an early adopter of a new technology.

Forget, for a moment, the format war: You've already ascended to a state of consumer zen, secure in the knowledge that regardless of the turf skirmishes you want a Blu-ray Disc burner, be it for burning videos or doing backups or whatever other creative use you come up with for the format's 25GB and 50GB discs. Instead, you're wondering what things to consider when buying a drive--and whether to buy a drive now or to hold off a while longer. Here's what you should consider.

Buying Tip #1: Keep an Eye on the Specs

Whereas CD and DVD rewritable drives are mature, Blu-ray Disc is still evolving. The drive specs have plenty of room to ramp up, and may vary from drive to drive. Some drives may support dual-layer, 50GB discs; others may not. For example, Pioneer's BDR-101A lacks CD burning and dual-layer, 50GB disc support.

For now, BD-R and BD-RE--the write-once and rewritable flavors of Blu-ray--are at 2X write speeds. Some vendors have talked about 4X drives, but those models aren't here yet, and may be months off. Vendors expect 8X to be the last speed notch, unlike with DVD, which stabilized at 16X. (A couple of vendors have released 18X DVD drives, and at least one is plotting a 20X model, but neither 18X nor 20X is part of the DVD format specification.)

If you need your drive for both BD burning and standard DVD and CD burning, keep an eye on those subcategory write speeds. Even if the BD speeds of two drives are the same, you might see some subtle differences in the other specs; for example, one drive might support 4X double-layer DVD+R, and the other might offer 8X double-layer DVD+R. For that matter, you might see some startling similarities--often, that might mean that the two drives you're comparing are sourced from the same OEM, making them identical in specs, if not in software bundle.

Buying Tip #2: Keep Tabs on the Software

Let's face it: Speed increases aside, a drive is a drive. Assuming you have the specs and performance up to snuff, with the drive happily writing discs as you'd expect, the only other core differentiator will be the software bundle.

Check a drive's software bundle carefully. You'll want to make sure you get a reasonably strong software collection that includes applications optimized for BD. Video editing and disc authoring software are a must, given Blu-ray's emphasis on video. Backup software is a convenient addition--especially considering that backup software tends to be finicky and needs to have drive-specific support in order to work with an optical drive.

One of the best bundles I've seen so far is the InterVideo/Ulead software collection included with Plextor's PX-B900A: It includes WinDVD BD for playing back Blu-ray discs, WinDVD, Ulead VideoStudio 10SE for video editing and disc authoring, DVD MovieFactory 5SE for authoring and burning video and photo discs, Burn.Now 1.5 for burning data discs, BD DiscRecorder for burning HD content directly from a disc, and Data-Add 2.0 for packet writing (drag-and-drop file transfers in Windows Explorer).

Also at the top is the versatile CyberLink software bundle included with Sony's BWU-100A drive. Included are six CyberLink applications: PowerProducer BD/DVD for disc authoring, PowerDirector for video editing, Power2Go for burning data discs, InstantBurn for enabling packet writing, PowerBackup backup software, and PowerDVD for playing DVDs and other video.

However, Sony's drive doesn't come with BD movie playback software, so you won't be able to play Blu-ray movies straight out of the box. According to Sony marketing manager Robert DeMoulin, the company opted not to include BD playback software from the get-go because HDCP/BD-ROM-compatible software for the after-market wasn't available when Sony was assembling its bundle. The company will provide owners of the drive with a free software upgrade starting in October, he says.

"The drive is completely capable of BD-ROM playback, but the user's system will need the PowerDVD upgrade and possibly some upgrades to their graphics card and display for HDCP compliance. Along with the free PowerDVD upgrade, we will also be providing a free system checking tool that will analyze a user's PC and let them know if any hardware upgrades are required for HDCP compliance," DeMoulin says.

HDCP isn't a huge concern today, as movie studios have claimed that, for the immediate future, they won't invoke the copy-protection technology that could keep you from getting full high-def output over an analog video connection. But DeMoulin raises a good point: Not all PCs will be equipped to handle high-def discs, be they HD DVD or Blu-ray Discs. For example, if you try to upgrade your three-year-old desktop PC with a Blu-ray drive for playing high-def movies, you may be sorely disappointed.

More interesting to me is that the software simply hasn't been ready before now (and it's still a month out). This underscores the haste with which the next-generation, blue-laser-based optical disc drives have come to market. HD DVD is just as guilty, if not more so, than Blu-ray Disc: You can't buy an after-market HD DVD drive to add to your PC today to play movies; at least Blu-ray is there now. And at least Sony is offering a free upgrade for its users to get the player when the software becomes available; other manufacturers (Pioneer, I-O Data) whose drives do not include such software are not doing the same.

Pioneer's drive ships with just Sonic's DigitalMedia SE software, for basic burning tasks. It lacks packet-writing software, video editing and disc-authoring-specific components, and a BD movie player.

I-O Data's BRD-UM2/U has a more well-rounded software bundle, but it includes dated software versions and also lacks a BD movie player. This external drive comes with Ulead's DVD MovieWriter 4.7 (for video disc authoring) and InterVideo WinDVD, as well as customized versions of Ulead's Burn.Now 3 (for burning data, MP3, audio, and bootable discs) and InterVideo's WinDVD 5 (for VCD and DVD playback).

Users of the Pioneer and I-O Data drives will have to wait until CyberLink offers its player software on its Web site for purchase. CyberLink will also provide a system config check, dubbed the BD/HD Advisor, which is currently available in beta form. CyberLink says the tool will scan your system and perform eight tests to see if your computer can handle BD-ROM playback.

Buying Tip #3: Keep Track of Prices

The after-market for Blu-ray Disc burners is in its infancy. Only four vendors have shipped drives thus far: I-O Data, Pioneer, Plextor, and Sony. But more drives are on the horizon, including models from BenQ, LG, and Lite-On.

When Pioneer's drive debuted in late May, it carried a list price of $999. Remarkably, that premium price didn't last long: Sony's drive shipped in August with a list price of $750--25 percent less than the Pioneer--and already you can find Sony's model for closer to $700. And with increased competition coming, further price drops are on the way too. For example, Lite-On's burner is due by November and will be priced at $650--a whopping 35 percent drop from Blu-ray's initial pricing.

By the end of the year, I wouldn't be surprised to see a drive selling for $600 to $650. That would represent up to a 40 percent drop in price over the seven months since the Pioneer's debut. If you're jonesing for high-capacity burning, my recommendation is to hold out a little longer, until we're closer to the holiday buying season. But if you can't wait, carefully read the fine print about the drive you're considering--otherwise you could end up with a drive that won't include or support the features you want.

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