Pioneer BDR-101ABK Blu-Ray Burner Review

Today we are going to introduce to you one of the first Blu-ray optical devices in our lab – the Pioneer Blu-ray burner. How fast is it? How well can it work with the regular DVD disks? What are the advantages and drawbacks of this expensive solution? Find out from our detailed review!

by Andrey Kuznetcov
06/06/2007 | 02:26 PM

Finally, we’ve got the first of Blu-ray optical drives in our labs. Frankly speaking, we could have performed such tests earlier but we didn’t want to. Why? Most of our readers should still remember the war between the DVD+ and DVD- standards or rather between the developers of those standards. The outcome of the war had an important practical implication. The winning group of companies rakes in maximum profit thanks to larger production volumes and licensing fees from third parties.

 

As you remember, all attempts to come to an agreement, i.e. to a single standard, were fruitless. The manufacturers produced drives with support for only one format at first and users had to buy either DVD+R/RW or DVD-R/RW drives, which was very inconvenient. However, even when the companies kept adhering strictly to their clan in producing optical drives, there were devices that supported, even though unofficially, media of the antagonistic format. Any manufacturer is interested in increasing its sales volume by offering “universal” products, after all. We have eventually come to the present situation when every modern optical drive supports both “plus” and “minus” formats. Some of them support DVD-RAM, too.

The storage capacity of DVD discs seems to be insufficient now as the approaching era of high-definition digital television (and video) calls for storage media with much larger capacities. The maximum “full” resolution in the new standard is 1920x1080 pixels as opposed to 720x576 (PAL) of the classic DVD. Thus, a DVD disc cannot store a movie recorded according to the High Edition specification. Another reason behind the desire of the movie industry to transition to the new format is to get a mean to distribute their products on copy-protected media. The main copy protection method available on the DVD, Content Scrambling System, proved to be easy to hack and was easily avoided by means of the notorious DeCSS program since it was based on a static encryption system (the entire movie uses the same key).

So, there is indeed a need for large-capacity media. Today, two incompatible disc standards exist: Blu-ray and HD DVD. The former is created by a large group of companies including Apple, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi, LG Electronics, Mitsubishi, Panasonic (Matsushita Electric), Pioneer, Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung, Sharp Corporation, Sony, TDK, Thomson, Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney Pictures and Television, Warner Bros, and others. These form the Blu-ray Disc Association that numbers a total of over 180 members. The other camp, which supports HD DVD, has fewer members, including Toshiba, NEC, Memory-Tech, Microsoft, Intel, Sanyo, and HP. This camp is supported the DVD Forum as well. Some companies have entered both camps, not making a definite choice. The same thing happened to the Hollywood companies that didn’t make a decision in favor of one of the standards.

Unfortunately for content consumers, all attempts to come to an agreement about introducing only one standard were futile. The negotiations should have been started before the companies made their investments into production. So, the users have to choose between two standards again. There are rumors about universal devices that would support both Blu-ray and HD DVD, but it’s not yet certain whether they will ever be released.

What are the points of difference between Blu-ray and HD DVD? Devices for reading and burning such media make use of a blue (blue-violet) laser instead of a red laser that is employed in older DVD drives. The reduction of the laser wavelength from 650nm to 405nm helped increase the areal density by narrowing tracks and the distance between them thanks to the more accurate positioning of the laser. In the Blu-ray standard the distance between tracks (track pitch) is 0.32 microns as opposed to 0.40 microns in HD DVD. A decrease in the pit length was another consequence of the wavelength reduction.

The thickness of the protective later above the data wafer is different between the formats: 0.1mm in Blu-ray and 0.6mm in HD DVD and DVD. As a result, the laser beam has to pass a shorter distance in a Blu-ray device and can be focused more precisely.

This results in denser data packaging on Blu-ray discs in comparison with HD DVD. Thus, a standard single-layer Blu-ray disc can store 25GB of data as opposed to 15GB on a HD DVD. If there are two layers on the disc, the maximum capacity is increased to 50GB and 30GB, respectively. However, the reduction of the protective layer thickness on Blu-ray media increases the chance of errors due to lesser data protection. A special protective coating Durabis has to be used. It is rumored that the manufacturers are currently developing Blu-ray and HD DVD media with more layers than two. From a technical point of view, the manufacturing of Blu-ray media is somewhat more sophisticated because between HD DVD and DVD there is no fundamental difference.

To satisfy the cinema industry majors who are worried about protecting their commercial interest both media types implement the so-called Advanced Access Content System. However, the AACS has already proven to be not impeccably secure. Hackers have offered methods to crack it. Besides, Blu-ray media support two more protection types: BD+ and ROM Mark. The former technology allows dynamic alteration of the keys and the latter uses a watermark system (a watermark is a special mark of the medium to be recognized by the player).

There are certain differences in terms of read speed. The read speed of 1x equals 36Mbps for Blu-ray and 36.55Mbps for HD DVD. A speed of 1x is sufficient to transfer video/audio content from a HD DVD. For a Blu-ray disc, a speed of 1.5x (54Mbps) is required. To deliver only video content at maximum resolution a data-transfer speed of 40Mbps is necessary for Blu-ray. As I am about to test a Blu-ray-compliant optical drive, I want to remind you that its 1x speed (4.29Mbps) equals 3.3x for DVDs and 29.3x for CDs.

The Blu-ray Disc Association has recently announced that starting from October 21 this year all manufacturers of Blu-ray players will have to meet new requirements and to fully comply with the older requirements which they haven’t done so far. We’ll see at the end of the year what effect this “dynamics” of the format is going to have on the demand. Hopefully, people who buy such devices before this date won’t have any unpleasant surprises.

For today, Blu-ray media have outpaced their HD DVD opponents in terms of worldwide sales and are steadily increasing the gap.

Closer Look

This drive doesn’t differ externally from ordinary DVD drives. The Blu-ray Disc symbol on the try is the only thing that betrays its special functionality. The front panel of our sample of the product is made of black plastic. The tray has two icons denoting the device’s capabilities. Lower on the face panel there is a vent slit, a LED indicator of operation mode, and an Eject button. On the rear panel of the case there are power and interface connectors, a jumper with pins for setting the device’s status in the system, an audio output and a fan.

The support of Blu-ray media is the main feature of the drive, of course. It can burn single-layer BD-R (Blu-ray Disc Recordable) and BD-RE (Blu-ray Disc Rewritable) media at 2x speed. It can then read such media, together with single- and dual-layer BD-ROM (Blu-ray Read-Only Memory) at a speed of 2x.

In the DVD area, the drive can burn DVD±Rs at 8x, DVD±RWs at 4x, and DVD±R DL at 2.4x. It can read DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-R DL, DVD+R DL, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW media at a speed of 8x. A speed of 5x is available for DVD-Video.

The specified access time is 250 milliseconds for BD-ROM and 150 milliseconds for DVD-ROM. The buffer for BD media is 8MB large. The DVD-ROM buffer is 2MB large. The drive has an ATAPI interface (ATA-5, SFF-8090) and supports UltraDMA-66 data-transfer mode. It can work with BD-ROM (version 1.0 Single & Dual Layer), BD-R (version 1.0 Single Layer), BD-RE (version 2.0 Single Layer), DVD-R, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+R DL, and DVD+RW media. As you can see, CD media aren’t mentioned at all. The drive can be positioned horizontally as well as vertically. Its max power consumption is 25.4W. The dimensions of the device are 48 x 42.3 198 millimeters; its weight is 1.1kg.

The average retail price of the drive is $850.

Test Methods

The following programs were used to test the optical drive:

The testbed was configured like follows:

We tested the drive in the same way as it would be selling, without any modifications. We attached it as Master to the second IDE channel.

Nero InfoTool, DVDINFOPro

Let’s check out what the optical drive reported about itself to the two popular informational utilities.

The new version of Nero InfoTool first asked me to insert a disc into the drive to check out its speed. I loaded a BD into the device. The screenshots show you that the manufacturer didn’t make this device compatible with CD media. As for DVDs, the drive supports all types of them, except DVD-RAM.

Nero CD-DVD Speed: Basic Tests

I had some problems testing the drive’s Blu-ray capability since I had only one Blu-ray disc, but considering the fundamental difference between BD and DVD formats I decided to show their results separately.

So I first tested the drive with DVD media. I used a total of seven discs to produce a full picture of performance. Those were a DVD-ROM with a movie and six discs with data (Sony DVD-R 16x, TDK DVD-RW 6x, Verbatim DVD+R 16x, Philips DVD+RW 8x, RIDATA DVD+R DL 2.4x, Verbatim DVD-R DL 4x). Below you can see links to the corresponding data-transfer diagram. Following the other links you can see a photo of the disc and find out its actual manufacturer.

The read speed diagrams suggest that the BDR-101ABK handles DVDs no worse than a regular DVD drive does. It had a problem reading the DVD-RW, but I guess that was just a case of poor compatibility with the particular disc.

The resulting diagrams show that the max read speed is slightly higher than 8x. The measured DVD-ROM access time is somewhat bigger than specified by the manufacturer.

The second step of the test was very short. It didn’t take the drive long to read a Sony BD-RE 2x. Here’s a photo of the disc and its characteristics:


BD-RE Sony 2x

I had burned the disc on our drive itself and the burning had taken much longer. Our version of Nero Burning ROM cannot burn Blu-Ray media and I first tried the free utility AVS Disc Creator. Sometimes it’s good to extend the list of software you use.

AVS Disc Creator recorded the BD-RE all right, but I was somewhat alarmed at the time spent. It took 2 hours 33 minutes at a speed of 2x. This looked rather too long to me, so I tried to burn the disc once again in Ashampoo Burning Studio. This program has a smaller distribution size in comparison with Nero Burning ROM.

This time it was all within a reasonable time. It took the drive about 46 minutes to burn the disc as is shown in the screenshot. By the way, the actual maximum amount of data you can write to a 25GB disc is 23.31GB. The manufacturers measure the disc capacity using a decimal rather than binary system just like HDD makers do.


BD-RE

The read speed diagram shows that the disc is being read at a constant linear velocity.

There’s nothing much to comment upon. The read speed of the BD-RE disc is 2x, just as expected. The measured access time is very small in comparison with the value the manufacturer specifies for BD-ROM.

Nero CD-DVD Speed: Disk Quality Test

The last of our tests is concerned with checking the quality of DVD discs the Pioneer BDR-101A burns. I can’t do the same for the BD-RE because I don’t have information about the quality standards for Blu-ray discs. So, I have to limit this test to DVDs only.

Why do we perform this quality check? The manufacturer wants to sell more of its optical drives, but it’s only possible if the drives work well. Burning media is an important functionality aspect of such devices. Every manufacturer pays attention to this aspect, and most of them have achieved some progress improving the burn quality, yet there is still a chance that the drive you buy may disappoint you. That would be quite annoying, especially if writing DVDs was supposed to be the main job of the drive. An ordinary user doesn’t have an opportunity to check out the operating properties of a specific drive, but we can help you reduce the risk of your wasting your money by testing the drive in our labs.

As the final step in this test session, I will burn a few DVD discs of various formats in the tested drive and will check their quality. Of course, I can’t check the drive with all existing media, in all possible modes and at all supported speeds, but this test is anyway indicative of the burn quality the optical drive provides. I used Nero Burning Rom to record all the discs at their maximum rated speed. The quality of the recorded discs was verified in a Sony DW-G120A drive with MYL2 firmware. We use it to achieve comparable results from different test sessions, and this drive offers good hardware characteristics for that purpose. The discs were being read at a speed of 4x.

As for disc quality criteria, the ECMA standards for DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW media say that the total number of PI errors in 8 subsequent ECC blocks should not exceed 280. This is the first limiting value I will base my judgments upon. Then, an ECC block should not contain more than four irrecoverable PI errors (an irrecoverable PI error is referred to as PI Failure by the CD-DVD Speed utility).

DVD discs that have no more than 280 PI errors per eight ECC blocks and 4 PI failures per one ECC block should be considered acceptable-quality media. Besides these criteria, you should also note how the errors are distributed along the surface of the disc. It is the worst situation when the errors exceed the acceptable limit on the entire surface, but single and short-time spikes of errors are less dangerous.

Of course, the more discs are recorded with high quality, the better for the tested drive, but you should keep it in mind that besides the hardware properties of the drive, its firmware version has a big effect on the burn quality, too. Some problems can be solved by the manufacturer with firmware updates.

This test was performed with the drive’s native firmware. The Pioneer BDR-101A having lower speed characteristics in comparison with regular DVD drives, the actual speed the disc was burned at is indicated in brackets.

Digitex DVD+R 16x [8x]

You can’t find fault with the quality of this Digitex DVD+R. The level of errors of both types is low and they are evenly distributed on the disc surface. The disc complies with the ECMA requirements.

LG DVD+R 16x [8x]

The burn quality is rather poor with the LG DVD+R. The level of PI Failures is considerably higher than allowed by the ECMA requirements.

Philips DVD+R 16x [4x]

Formally speaking, the Philips DVD+R has a single spike of PI Failures above the acceptable maximum. This is not a big problem, though. The disc is good in general.

Digitex DVD-R 16x [8x]

The Digitex DVD-R shows the disc’s compliancy with the ECMA norms. The only small problem is the increase of the level of PI Errors towards the end of the disc.

LG DVD-R 16x [8x]

The diagram for the LG DVD-R disc shows an eye-pleasing picture. The maximums of errors are within the ECMA norms. The errors are also very evenly distributed along the surface of the disc.

Philips DVD-R 16x [4x]

The burn quality of the Philips DVD-R disc is satisfactory. It meets the ECMA requirements, but I don’t like the high level of PI Errors at the beginning of the disc.

TDK DVD-R 16x [8x]

The TDK DVD-R diagram looks good to me. The levels of errors of both types are low. The errors are evenly distributed along the surface of the disc. ECMA would surely like this disc.

Philips DVD+RW 8x [3x]

Alas, this Philips DVD+RW is low quality. Errors of both types exceed the allowable limits. The optical drive may have problems working with this disc.

TDK DVD+RW 8x [3x]

The quality of the TDK DVD+RW cannot satisfy ECMA, either. The levels of PI Errors and PI Failures are far above the acceptable limits. This disc is going to cause the user some trouble.

TDK DVD-RW 6x [4x]

This TDK DVD-RW disc is recorded splendidly. It meets the ECMA requirements. There are few errors which are also evenly distributed along the disc.

Verbatim DVD-RW 6x [4x]

This Verbatim DVD-RW boasts high quality, being in full compliance with the ECMA norms. The errors are few and evenly distributed along the surface of the disc.

Conclusion

This has been the first test of a Blu-ray-compliant optical drive performed in our labs, yet I don’t feel much satisfied. Why?

Well, it is never easy to transition from something old to something new and the Pioneer BDR-101A is an example of my point. Lying on the surface is the problem of its incompatibility with classic CD media, so you can’t transition easily from your old optical drive to the new one. Most users still have a lot of CDs with important information they would have to copy to DVDs if they buy this optical drive. This may not work always, however (for example, with copy-protected games). So, the user will probably have to leave his older drive in the system to read CDs. It seems to be simpler for those users who only begin their computer life and haven’t got a large repository of CDs. Still, there is the problem that quite a lot of software and games are supplied on CDs only. By the way, backward compatibility with DVD and CD media is desirable according to the Blu-ray standard, but is not obligatory. Each manufacturer decides this for itself and Pioneer decided not to provide that compatibility.

The second aspect that is hard to pass by is the price factor. The price of the Pioneer BDR-101A doesn’t seem adequate to its consumer value right now. This is expectable, though. High-tech products always begin selling at indecently high prices as their manufacturers want to get maximum profit from them. On the other hand, the high price is a hindrance to increasing the sales volume of fundamentally new devices while the competition isn’t intensive and the pricing doesn’t change quickly. Right now, the Pioneer BDR-101A costs about as much as a full-featured midrange computer.

This drive might be more appealing for the user if there were more Blu-ray discs with HD video, games and software. Such discs are few so far. This situation will surely be changing in favor of the new format, but not too soon. There are also few blank BD media selling, which also cost quite a lot. HDDs or DVDs are yet preferable to them as a means to store large amounts of data in terms of cost per gigabyte.

Besides these two negative aspects, the Pioneer BDR-101A is not very fast with DVDs. Users who have got used to 16x, 18x and 20x modes may not like it at all.

Still, the overall picture is not so gloomy. Everything I’ve written above applies to any device of this new standard. The Pioneer BDR-101A is not a poor device by itself. Most of our test DVD discs were recorded in it with good quality, and the problem with the DVD+RW discs must have been a case of individual incompatibility.

I would have wanted to check out the drive’s Blu-ray capability more, but I just didn’t have enough of Blu-ray media. We’ll solve this problem before our future reviews of such devices.

Summing it up, I guess it’s yet too early for a majority of users to buy a Blu-ray drive. The functionality such a drive can offer is not worth its price. Some Web sources promise a price reduction soon and it’s only after such a reduction that Blu-ray drives will become truly appealing.