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Streaming Downloads vs. Blu-ray

Written by Wendy Dunham.

UPDATE, 2017: Since I wrote this post back in 2012, my opinion has changed with the advent of 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) Blu-ray. Most TVs sold today are 4K resolution, and many support High Dynamic Range (HDR), which may have more of a dramatic impact on your viewing experience than 4K due to the broader range between light and dark areas in a scene. In my case, my new LG OLED TV can approach 900 Nits in small areas of the screen while maintaing perfect blacks. It supports Dolby Vision, Hybrid Log Gamma, HDR10, and Technicolor (with future firmware update). Although I was extremely impressed with 4K UHD content from Amazon, Netflicks, and VUDU, including Dolby Vision, such streaming content cannot compete with the same title as seen on a 4K UHD Blu-ray disc with HDR. The amount of data that 4K Blu-ray discs can deliver per second just cannot be achieved with streaming at the moment, plus they compress the online streams. Thus 4K UHD Blu-rays look superior in sharpness and clarity.  If you're like me and care about the the best possible picture for your movie experience, then 4K UHD Blu-ray discs rule.

As much as I like the convenience of streaming and digital downloads, when you compare the cost of purchasing a 4K UHD digital movie to download from VUDU ($29.00 average) versus the variable pricing of equivalent 4K UHD Blu-ray discs ($14 - $35 or so), it makes more sense to buy the 4K UHD Blu-ray. Yes, it's kinda weird to go back to collecting discs, but once you've seen 4K UHD Blu-ray quality versus streaming, it's hard to compromise on the quality just for the convenience of streaming or digital downloads. If you own a new 4K TV set that supports HDR, you know what I'm talking about! No doubt we will someday have the necessary speed and bandwidth to make streaming these massive 4K UHD HDR videos worth dowloading and storing on a drive. Although I paid to lift the data cap on my internet usage and speed, the 4K online content providers employ compression, and so I'd much rather have the best quality I can get from a 4K UHD Blu-ray, and preferably a movie mastered with HDR.  I'll miss the convenience of digital downloads and streaming, but only for movies I wish to own.  There's still other streaming content I will consider renting if it's not something I intend to own. However, VUDU charges $9.99 to rent a 4K UHD compressed movie. Many are in Dolby Vision with Dolby Atmos sound, but it's still compressed, meaning it's not going to look as good as 4K UHD Blu-ray.

At the moment, the quanity of available titles in 4K Blu-ray format is somewhat sparse. Once studios start releasing remastered older titles and more people upgrade to 4K televisions, we should see 4K UHD Blu-ray gain more traction. The studios are already realizing that 4K is breathing new life into the Blu-ray disc format. Until we have a world with ubiquitous high speed  – and with enough bandwidth such that we don't need to compress content and lose valuable quality – the 4K Blu-ray disc is where it's at at the moment for the highest quality. I think it will be a many years before digital downloads of 4K UHD content makes more sense than purchasing 4K UHD Blu-ray discs, if you value pristine image quality. Here's hoping for that future era of amazing video streaming. Until then, it's 4K UHD Blu-ray!

As an audiophile and someone who cares about the details, I've had my eye on Blu-ray for HDTV. But I am also a veteran of the VHS and DVD collector's era and was not fond of starting all over again collecting Blu-ray discs. In my humble opnion, the disc is dying. Apple removed the DVD slot on many of their computers before other PC makers. Later, Apple refused to license Blu-ray, so Macs were out of luck. I felt bad – at first.

For my HDTV needs, I was seriously considering jumping on the Blu-ray bandwagon just to enjoy the pristine quality. Any other features Blu-ray had were not my motivation, just getting 1080p video. So I sauntered up to Best Buy and grabbed a Blu-ray player. Then I went over and grabbed an Apple TV box. As I wandered thorugh the Blu-ray movie aisle, I was not able to see one movie I wanted in high definition: "2001: A Space Odyssey". Immediately I understood the problem with Blu-ray: I'd have to buy online to get the movies I wanted. Then there's the expense of Blu-ray discs.

appletvSo I put the Blu-ray player back and just purchased Apple TV only. Apple TV recently started offering 1080p HD movies. Some were available to rent in HD but only available to purchase in SD Widescreen. This was the case for "2001: A Space Odyssey" too – until today! It's now for sale in 1080p! What this probably means is that Apple is still doing HD conversions or making licensing deals to sell 1080p HD movies, which is probably an ongoing process.

Apple's 1080p HD quality is very good compared to Blu-ray. I read a recent artlce that compared Apple's HD to Blu-ray, and the screenshots show so little difference, only the ardent Blu-ray afficiondos will notice or care. One area compressed HD suffers from are large, low-light areas were you may notice staircased or blockiness rather then smooth gradients. But it's not as noticeable as compared to SD Widescreen movies. And remember, even Hollywood DVD's compress video to a maximum bit rate of 10 MBits/sec.such that it also downgrades the quality.

Nevertheless, I am completely impressed with Apple's 1080p HD movies! So much so, I can feel confident in saying Blu-ray just isn't worth the investment, considering the ease of downloading HD video files for rental or purchase. The quality of most Apple HD movies is superior to the DVD's of the same movie. And although Blu-ray simply has to be superior in quality, that extra little quality seems hardly worth amassing Blu-ray discs when I can get almost as happy with digital HD downloads with 5:1 surround sound!

The future has arrived and it's downloadable digital 1080p HD movies and TV! Apple TV is leading the way. And if the rumors are true, I look forward to Apple entering the HD TV market with their own integrated HDTV set.

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