Review: Pioneer BDR-101A Blu-ray Disc (BD) Recorder
Posted Aug 11, 2006

With high performance and capacity of 25GB per layer of recording, Blu-ray Disc (BD) promises a brave new world of abundant storage and lively movies brimming with high-definition video, multi-channel audio, and unprecedented interactivity. Until now, all this has been so much talk, but BD devices and software are finally on the move with Pioneer Electronics' BDR-101A ($995) leading the pack.

A multi-format PC recorder (EIDE interface), the BDR-101A works with BDs and DVDs, but not CDs. Specifically, it writes single-layer BD-R (recordable) and BD-RE (rewritable). So far as reading is concerned, it accommodates single-layer BD-R, BD-RE, and BD-ROM (prerecorded) in addition to dual-layer BD-ROM. The unit also reads and writes all manner of DVDs (except DVD-RAM). Aimed squarely at the professional video production market, the BDR-101A doesn't come cheap, priced at $995 with blank discs at $18 to $25 each. But it's a real bargain, it seems to me, compared with early generations of writable CD and DVD.

While enthusiasts may be chomping at the bit to get down to business with high definition, be aware that very few BD authoring tools or PC software players yet exist. None are included in this bundle. Pioneer instead sticks to the basics with Roxio's DigitalMedia SE, an exceptionally dull program for burning data files, duplicating unprotected discs and, more importantly, writing images created by outside authoring software. This means Blu-print from Sony Pictures Entertainment as well as Scenarist from Sonic Solutions, both expensive, high-end suites aimed at churning out elaborate commercial titles employing the full-featured BD-ROM AV (HDMV and BD-J) publishing format. Bearing this is mind, the BDR-101A is best put to use burning prototypes, concept discs, and the like (a valuable capability still sorely missing from HD DVD).

But there is some help for the unwashed who can make due for the moment with the more elementary capabilities offered by a handful of aftermarket consumer software such as Ulead's DVD MovieFactory and CyberLink's PowerProducer. I had an opportunity to try out prerelease versions newly updated to work with BDR-101A. From a BD perspective, they record standard and high-definition content by using the much simpler BD-R/RE AV format (think of it as DVD-VR for Blu-ray). EMedialive's Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ can be referenced to explain this further.

Both packages accommodate straight to disc transfers from HDV and DV camcorders, offer typical trimming and appending functions and import existing video files, including those from old-school DVD. In fact, fitting three full standard-definition DVD-9s on a single 25GB disc (equivalent to the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy) is truly astounding. DVD MovieFactory also creates browsable slideshows (through the BD-ROM AV format's HDMV mode) consisting of still images and accompanying independent audio.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty, the BDR-101A offers state-of-the-art 2x (8.57 MB/sec) BD operation so burning a full 25GB single-layer (SL) disc takes roughly 45 minutes (proportionally faster for less information). Using Nero's CD-DVD Speed benchmarking software and blank Verbatim discs, full BD-R SLs and BD-RE SLs indeed clocked in at a trouble free 44:58. And DVD±R SLs ran at 8x ZCLV (10:27), DVD+R DL at 2.4x CLV (44:20), DVD-R DL at 2x CLV (54:19), and DVD±RW at 4x CLV (14:08). To my mind, the lack of dual-layer BD-R/RE support is more disappointing than not having CD capabilities, given the embryonic state of the market and the simple fact that most everyone already owns a DVD/CD recorder.

As is the case with writable CDs and DVDs, blank BD discs come from the factory encoded with information identifying their manufacturer and type. By matching these details to a preprogrammed list of media, the recorder can select and employ an optimum write strategy (laser power levels, pulse durations, etc.). However, if the disc is unknown, the recorder may reduce its speed or refuse to write altogether.

Initial firmware for the BDR-101A supported only TDK BD media, but the latest version broadens this to encompass most current producers. During testing, I successfully wrote a handful of BD-R and BD-RE discs from Verbatim, TDK, Memorex (MEI), and Sony at full 2x speed. I also gave some Philips BD-R discs a try but they weren't on the list and were simply ignored by the recorder.

The BDR-101A is decidedly less catholic when it comes to DVDs. For example, I found that full 8x writing was supported for only 7 out of the 11 manufacturers of 16x-rated DVD-Rs I tested and 6 out of the 9 DVD+Rs. Disappointingly, the remainder were limited to just 4x speed.

Reading performance is up to snuff with single-layer BD-ROM discs spinning at 2x CLV (45:30) and the same for BD-R/RE (44:43). However, I was out of luck testing dual-layer BD-ROM functions since discs are not readily available. DVD operation was similarly journeyman-like, with DVD-ROM at 8x CAV (9:38), DVD±R at 8x CAV (9:34), DVD±RW at 6x CAV (12:40), and DVD±R DL at 6x CAV (22:51).

As the first Blu-ray Disc (BD) recorder out there, Pioneer's BDR-101A plays an extremely valuable prototyping role for serious title developers and is even affordable enough for the truly gadget-happy wishing to get an early feel for the technology. That said, working with high-definition video requires so much more than just a new recorder with hefty demands for the latest in video cameras, computing power, storage, display hardware, and software. BD technology is also in its infancy and there will be a maturation curve of capability and compatibility as there was with CD and then DVD.

There's no doubt that the BDR-101A will have a useful but short career as Pioneer and other recorder manufacturers work to introduce new models, adding more features such as read/write support for CD and dual-layer BD, and with single-layer BD-R speed increases to 4x promised for later this year.