How To Buy A BLU-RAY

11/6/2012 2:08:27 AM

Blu-ray discs are now firmly entrenched as the new standard for optical media, so how do you find the best Blu-ray drive for your PC?

Now that high-definition media and monitors have become the norm, installing a Blu-ray drive in your PC has gone from being a luxury to a virtual necessity. Although some of us may feel like resisting the introduction of yet another format to buy our favourite movies on, there's no doubt that Blu-ray is here to stay, and that means that if you want to watch the latest films on your computer, attaching a Blu-ray drive to it is the best way to do so.

Putting cynicism aside for a second, there are valid reasons for Blu-ray discs to exist as a separate entity from DVDs. Crucially, because Blu-ray discs can typically store up to 50GB of data, they're the only way you can reasonably view films in high-definition 3D, and they're the easiest way to get high-definition films onto your computer - at least until download speeds catch up. Indeed, it probably won't be too long before the plummeting cost of Blu-ray discs makes regular DVD releases entirely obsolete.

However, that's not all you can use Blu-ray drives for. As with DVDs and CDs before them, their high capacity and low size makes them an excellent medium for data storage. You can buy some retail software on Blu-ray, but a far more popular way to use Blu-ray discs for data is in the form of recordable media.

The appearance of recordable Blu-rays was initially marked by high prices for equipment and media, but recently both have dropped to affordable levels. With their ultra-high storage capacity, recordable Blu-ray discs could well prove a reasonable archival format for datasets that would otherwise be too large for a single DVD, and for that reason it's worth looking into.

So what's the difference between a good Blu-ray drive and a bad one? What features should you look for? And what manufacturers are worth paying attention to? The answers to all these questions and more will be revealed in this guide.

How Much Should You Spend?

At the moment, the average price for an internal Blu-ray drive is in the region of $80, and you can expect to pay no more than $16-$40 extra for one with the ability to write and rewrite to Blu-ray discs as well. For that reason, we suggest that you budget in the region of $120 when looking for a recordable Blu-ray drive, and around $88 when looking for a standard Blu-ray reader with no recording capabilities.

Description: How Much Should You Spend?

How Much Should You Spend?

It's possible to buy drives that are substantially cheaper than $80. Sony, for example, produces an internal Blu-ray writer that costs only $56, but this is a slimline product designed for laptops and therefore doesn't perform well compared to standard desktop models. Although you can expect Blu-ray performance that is comparable to full-price models, such drives compromise their performance on CDs and DVDs. Unless you're only planning to use Blu-ray discs, it's worth spending the extra money on a full-size drive if you're buying for a desktop machine!

In terms of the media itself, you can buy good-quality dual-layer Blu-ray recordable discs for as little as 60p each, meaning 500GB of storage will cost only $9.6 - vastly lower than the price of 500GB if you're talking about a hard drive or solid-state format! Rewritable Blu-ray media is also available at the cost of $4.8-$6.4 a disc, but the low price ofwrite-once media probably makes them a poor choice in anything other than very specific situations.

What Make/Model/Manufacturer Should You Look For?

Thinking about brands to actively look for, Pioneer, Lite-On and LG have consistently made top-quality optical drives at reasonable prices for a decade at least. The Pioneer BDR-207EBK, for example, is one of a few models that support BD-XL discs, but it is priced at the top of our recommended range. By comparison, the Pioneer BDR-207DBK is much cheaper and fulfils all of the technical criteria you'd want out of a Blu-ray recorder.

If you're only interested in a Blu-ray reader, the LiteOn IHES112-115 is a capable budget model that has support for the major Blu-ray formats and a small form factor to maximise the available space inside your PC - it's only 17cm long, which isn't that much bigger than the discs themselves!

Note that big-name brands like Samsung and Sony tend to be more expensive than others, but in the case of Blu-ray drives there's little, if any benefit to spending top amounts. External drives from these manufacturers may look more stylish, but performance sees no obvious benefits.

What Technology Should You Look For?

Whether you're buying an internal or external Blu-ray drive, it's important to check the support for various disc formats. As with DVDs, Blu-ray discs come in a variety of standards and configurations, so be clear about what the drive supports before you pay.

For reference, Blu-ray Recordable discs (BD-R) hold 25GB per layer, so support for dual-layer BD-R Discs will give you the ability to store up to 50GB on one disc. The latest iteration of the format, called BD-XL, can support tripe and quadruple layers allowing up to 100GB and 128GB to be stored respectively - but in order to burn these sizes your device will require specific support on the hardware level, so unless it's stated on the box, assume it isn't available.

Description: For reference, Blu-ray Recordable discs (BD-R) hold 25GB per layer, so support for dual-layer BD-R Discs will give you the ability to store up to 50GB on one disc.

For reference, Blu-ray Recordable discs (BD-R) hold 25GB per layer, so support for dual-layer BD-R Discs will give you the ability to store up to 50GB on one disc.

As with CD and DVD drives, the speed of Blu-ray discs is given as a multiple of a single speed transfer rate. For Blu-ray discs, 1x speed means that it can copy 4.5MB a second either to or from the disc. This means that writing or reading from one 25GB layer will just under 95 minutes (assuming a constant transfer rate). Of course, no current drive runs that slowly by default, and most current Blu-ray drives read at 12x speed and write at a maximum of 6x speed.

There are two main kinds of Blu-ray drive that you might want to buy. Internal ones fit inside your PC and take advantage of being more compact and quieter and have generally faster transfer rates. External ones are a little slower, but are also portable and may even have stand-alone capabilities, meaning you can plug them directly into a TV without the need to connect them to a computer. They can also be used with notebook PCs which may lack a built-in optical drive.

You may also see Blu-ray writers advertising 'LightScribe' technology. This has little to do with the Blu-ray format itself, and is actually a system that allows optical drives to etch labels into the surface of optical discs that have a supported coating. Essentially, they save you having to get a sharpie out after the disc has finished being burnt. You'll find the technology in units from several manufacturers, but it's far from essential.

Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

The recent swathe of natural disasters in East Asia does mean that the price of hard drive and solid-state memory has bounced a little even as optical drives have continued to drop, so in one sense Blu-ray drives are in a good place when considered against the alternatives in relative financial terms. That said, it's only a small benefit, and one likely to be offset when you consider that the price of optical drives tends to do nothing but drop until the format is superseded by another. The longer you wait, the cheaper it's going to be.

Description: Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

For example, DVD drives once cost several times the price of a CD drive, but now you can pick one up for as little as $24, and it's financially unviable to sell CD-ROM drives alone. Rather than worrying about market forces, the right time to buy a Blu-ray drive is the moment you want to actually view a Blu-ray disc. Any earlier and you could be cheating yourself out of a price drop!

One question that is worth asking is how often you expect to actually view Blu-ray discs at all. There's a fair chance that the constantly improving download speeds of modern telecommunications architecture will mean that within the next few years, it'll be possible to download high-definition movies - maybe even 3D movies - at speeds fast enough that they're effectively on-demand. If you're planning to use a Blu-ray drive for data, there's definitely a place for it in the longer term, but if you're thinking of using your drive for media alone, be aware that it may be out of date in a couple of years. The longer you wait before buying one, the more probable it is to become obsolete before you've had your money's worth!

What Are The Technical Constraints?

Be careful if you're buying an external Blu-ray drive. The speed of USB ports may limit the speed of your drive, as USB 2.0 can only cope with transfer rates equivalent to 8x read speed, meaning you won't be able to copy data any faster than that regardless of the speed of the drive. If your computer and drive both support USB 3.0 connections, however, the speeds are enough to cope with the fastest external Blu-ray drives, at least for now. If you buy an internal Blu-ray drive with a SATA connector, there is no need to worry about connection bottlenecks of this kind, because SATA is much quicker than even the top speeds DVD drives are able reach at the moment.

As with all internal components, there is a power requirement for internal Blu-ray drives that may be an issue if your PC has no extra capacity left, but this is incredibly unlikely to affect most users. Even the most powerful Blu-ray drive takes up a small fraction of the power a graphics card or CPU requires, so unless you know your PC is already operating at capacity, you shouldn't expect any difficulties in this regard.

If you're buying a Blu-ray drive with the intention of using it to watch movies, remember that your system will need additional components in order to display them at their highest quality. Obviously, you need a monitor with a resolution of at least 1920x1080 in order to view HD movies in their full resolution, but the copy protection on Blu-ray discs means that you can only watch their content in high definition if your monitor and PC are connected through a digitally protected cable (or wireless connection). In practical terms, this means that to watch a movie in high-definition using a Blu-ray drive, you need to have an HDMI, DisplayPort, or some other HDCP (High-Definition Copy Protection) compliant connection. Although some DVI connections support HDCP, older graphics cards with DVI connectors may lack the required technology, so check with your manufacturer if you're unsure.

If you're forced to use VGA or some other non-HDCP compliant connection, this doesn't mean you can't watch the movie at all. You can still watch the content on Blu-ray discs, but it will be limited to 720p instead of 1080p - a lower resolution designed to discourage piracy of high definition content over analogue connections.

And, of course, the final technical constraint worth mentioning is that you can't watch 3D movies without a 3D monitor and glasses, so if your plans for a Blu-ray drive include 3D movies, you'll need to buy the necessary accessories.

What's The Alternative?

Although there's no direct alternative to installing a Blu-ray drive in your PC, there are different ways to achieve the same results (depending on what purpose you actually bought it for).

If you want to watch high-definition movies on your computer, it's possible to download them from legitimate sources. 1080p content is available on iTunes, for example, and can even be streamed from YouTube. At present there is no legal alternative for getting hold of 3D movies, though, because either their file size or licensing restrictions (or a combination of both) means you're unable to download them from any major digital media retailer.

Description: If you want to watch high-definition movies on your computer, it's possible to download them from legitimate sources

If you want to watch high-definition movies on your computer, it's possible to download them from legitimate sources

If, however, you want a Blu-ray drive to create high-capacity backups, a cheap external hard drive should be able to handle as much data as several Blu-ray discs and has the added bonus of being easily accessible and more resistant to damage. It will, however, cost a little more in the short term and mean you have to delete old backups once the drive is full, so if you're interested in making long-term backups you may end up with an inadequate solution.

Finally, if you just want to watch HD and 3D movies and don't mind whether they're on your PC or not, you could always just buy a stand-alone Blu-ray player. Obviously, you won't be able to get data from them onto your PC, but you should be able to attach one to your monitor even if you don't have a high-resolution TV, so it's worth considering for that reason alone. Many stand-alone Blu-ray players can even be connected to the internet to download firmware updates and extra content, so you lose out on very little in the long run!

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