Monday, November 15, 2010
A postscript to the movie format debate
A couple of years ago there were a lot of people saying that Blu-ray would never catch on because digital downloads would be the way of the future. However, these predictions turned out to be wrong and I have not heard the announcement the death of physical media as much lately. It was ironic that digital download proponents said they would make Blu-ray irrelevant, since Blu-rays are the one video format they can't supplant. The convenience of digital downloads (and streaming video) make them a good replacement for other low-fidelity video sources like DVD. Streaming video can look as good or better than DVD video. However, it does not even come close to Blu-ray's quality. This is commonly misunderstood due to the 1080P myth, which is that one 1080P source looks as good as another. However, streaming 1080P video is highly compressed to the point that most of the detail gets compressed out of the image. At that point it just looks like an upscaled DVD (no jagged lines, but no detail either). Blu-ray is so much more than that. The lack of compression makes for a great picture, but also results in amounts of data that your ISP really doesn't want to deliver. In fact, some ISPs that get mad if you go over 250 GB in a month would not want you to watch more than 6 or so streamed Blu-rays per month. So digital downloads are no threat to Blu-ray yet. They are to some extent replacing DVDs, but mostly as rentals, not as purchases. People like to have physical copies of their purchases, so I am not sure if digital distribution will ever completely replace physical media even after the internet can handle delivery of premium content like real HD video. Another issue is digital suppliers' unwillingness to provide the same quality as the physical version. I don't use services like iTunes because they don't sell uncompressed music. Maybe I can't hear the difference, but I want all the bits! I'm annoyed that I have to settle for 16-bit stereo music in the first place because DVD audio never caught on. 5.1 24-bit music would be cool. Digital video downloads are always compressed, and even when bandwidths allow streaming Blu-ray quality, they will still cut corners with compressed video just to save costs on their servers. So physical discs are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Blu-rays are great, but what if you cannot afford an HDTV and Blu-ray player yet? Do you just stop buying movies or continue to invest in an obsolete format? One day you will have an HDTV and your DVD collection will suddenly be the wrong format. You can play them, sure, but you'll kick yourself for spending all the money on DVDs when the Blu-ray would have served you better in the long run. Fortunately, the movie studios have made this easier by including a DVD in the case with Blu-rays. Now there is no excuse to buy DVDs (well, unless they are significantly cheaper). You can buy the BD/DVD combo and watch the blurry version now while having the good version for the glorious day when you get an HDTV. Speaking of future-proof, unless you want to buy movies twice, wait to buy the ones that were made in 3D but are only available in 2D now. This is why I have not bought Avatar. It's a decent action movie but a phenomenal 3D movie, so I'm not going to buy the 2D version now and then feel silly when I get a 3D TV sometime in the distant future.
Are Blu-rays worth the upgrade? They are awesome, if you can afford an HDTV. They let you see the movie much more clearly. This doesn't necessarily mean the movie is more enjoyable, but it's just nice to see clearly. That's why people wear corrective lenses instead of walking around in a blur. It's a luxury to have an HDTV, but BD players are cheap enough compared to them that there's no reason to squander an HDTV by watching DVDs on it. That's like buying a mansion and then living only in a tent in the living room.