Blu-ray vs. Digital Downloads: Tale of the Tape
Some have said Blu-ray is already obsolete and that digital downloads and rentals will soon overtake the video world as they did music. We say, not so fast.
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June 16, 2009 by Arlen Schweiger

Has it really been almost a year-and-a-half since the death of HD DVD, and we’re still talking about a format war with Blu-ray?

Oh, we don’t mean a high-def optical disc format war. We’re talking about what some are already calling an irrelevant and in a death spiral, against one that’s the trendy future.

It’s Blu-ray vs. Digital Downloads/Rentals, and we’re taking a look at the tale of the tape for this prizefight. Yes, we know what you’re thinking – no contest, why even bother when everyone knows Blu-ray delivers the best video and audio for your movies (and some TV shows) out there?

You may have also thought Blu-ray would have taken off more in the time since rival HD DVD’s demise (despite the ardent HD DVD supporters still out there). Sure, player sales are up, but it’s hardly caught on like DVD.

Anyone who saw DVD as the successor to VHS could use the eyes and ears test to see it was plainly better, much better. Take a 37-inch widescreen TV, and go from upscaled DVD, which can be had for under $75, to Blu-ray, whose options start at twice that amount, and the masses might not think the associated costs are worth it. You know, that whole revolutionary vs. evolutionary argument. Some think we’ll be skipping mass Blu-ray adoption to go straight to digital.

Then again, today’s Blu-ray players can offer much more than just Blu-ray/DVD/CD playback, so value for even the average movie viewers is increased.

The general populace, though, might dig the convenience of a $99 Roku box and Amazon movie downloads for that 37- or 42-inch family room set. No, digital video downloads haven’t exploded quite the way music downloads did, but we’re guessing Apple wasn’t disappointed in the 200 million episodes sold within the first month of offering high-def TV shows either.

We’re not saying one’s necessarily superior overall to the other – it comes down to personal factors (we’ll get to my vote later). There’s plenty to weigh, so here we go, Nick Bakay-style.

Video Quality
Blu-ray’s been touting its native 1080p resolution since inception, and most new HDTVs are going that way, which makes for a tidy tandem. Pickings are slim if you’re searching for HD downloads in 1080p – there’s Vudu and its excellent HDX videos, but if you want Apple TV/iTunes, for example, you’re limited to 720p. If you’re a home theater buff – especially with a ‘Scope projection setup (2.35:1 aspect ratio screen, anamorphic lens, proper scaling) - you love the fact that Blu-ray embraces original aspect ratios, of which there’s a good portion with 2.35:1/2.40:1. If you hate the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen that result when a 2.35 movie is shown on your flat-panel TV, and aren’t a total videophile, you’re probably hitting your zoom mode to chop them out. Some high-def cable TV stations already do this, and so do some digital download services, and maybe you’re not bothered by less resolution. 
Edge: Blu-ray

Audio Quality
Much like Blu-ray has seemed to drive 1080p resolution televisions (in the absence of 1080p cable or satellite programming), the format has also given rise to 7.1-channel-capable receivers/HTIBs (home theaters in a box). Relatively few Blu-ray discs feature original 7.1-channel soundtrack mixes (more common in only the most recent of theatrical releases), but the lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio options on most discs are encoded to fill those channels – digitally or through analog outputs – with audio data at high 24-bit/96-Hz or 24/192 resolutions. And again like video quality, digital download/rental options with full surround sound, typically in 5.1 channel, are playing catch-up. For standard-def or “near-DVD quality” downloads you can expect more stereo than multichannel, whereas your typical standard-def DVDs usually contain a 5.1 option.
Edge: Blu-ray

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Arlen Schweiger - Contributor, Electronic House Magazine
Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com and Electronic House magazine.

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