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.

Jun. 16, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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

Content Available
If you’ve perused your local Best Buy or other big-box electronics retailer, you’ve probably noticed that the Blu-ray collection is still dwarfed by regular DVDs. It’s hundreds of thousands of titles versus a few thousand titles, to which Blu-ray adds in the teens each week. With the majority from the last 30 years. If you’re going strictly for high-def Blu-ray – because we know players will support and upscale standard DVDs just as well – it’s nowhere near the amount you can buy or rent from digital services, whether it be Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, iTunes, CinemaNow, Blockbusters, Xbox 360 or other.
Edge: Digital, against Blu-ray discs; Blu-ray, if factoring in DVD playback

Content Extras
Pay for a download or rental, or cue up a Netflix on-demand movie included in your monthly subscription, and you’ve got it for the taking. No commentaries, no deleted scenes, no previews to sit through – just start watching. That could be exactly what you want. Blu-ray usually gives you a generous amount of bonus material, picture-in-picture commentary, downloadable and interactive “BD-Live” material and more. And managed copy is coming to Blu-ray in 2010, which will allow consumers to legally make one copy of each Blu-ray disc they own.
Edge: Blu-ray (if you’re into the extras sort of thing)

Some people love to show off their physical disc media collections. Others want as little clutter in their homes as possible. One of the reasons DVD exploded was because of their appeal as a collectable – all the more reason for Hollywood to produce “collector’s editions” and complete TV season box sets. It was the closest thing we had to replicating vinyl record collections. Digital music downloads have created almost a backlash against physical disc collections, sweetening the deal with cool cover art scrolling. Digital video downloads/rentals take up no shelf room, that’s for sure, and services like Amazon’s let you keep your collections on their servers so even the hard-drive shelves of your computer can stay empty. So are you a collector or a de-clutterer?
Edge: Digital

Associated Costs
There are plenty of ways to look at this one. Are Blu-ray discs themselves expensive? On the whole, yeah, but there are always deals to be found. You could go the Netflix route and just rent discs, though you’ll owe a couple or few bucks extra each month depending on your plan. And players? We’re waiting for the more palatable $150 threshold, perhaps, but chances are you’ll shell out $200 to $350 for a quality unit, some of which hold the keys to the digital download/rental kingdom too. Don’t forget about HDMI cables (shop the web if you want to save money) and potential A/V receiver upgrades. With digital? You may have that Netflix subscription, or you’ll likely pay a la carte for TV episodes and movies purchases and downloads, with purchases more in line with DVD pricing (appropriately, since video quality is more in line there). Then there are the computer costs, or other set-top box to go with it – Vudu, Roku, TiVo, etc. Do you like to rent or own?
Edge: Digital, based on component+rental/purchase

Convenience Factors
Digital downloads/rentals are definitely for the on-the-go, portable gadget, ear-bud-wearing generation. Blu-rays stay at home, unless you count bringing discs to a friend’s house as portability; many releases now also include “digital copy” at least. Blu-ray players were noted for super-slow bootup and disc-load times at first, but that’s waning. With physical discs, you worry about scratches. With digital purchases, you worry about hard drive failures (with exceptions like Amazon’s aforementioned cloud-stored library). Digital lends itself to more spontaneous, press-of-a-button viewing nights, as long as your bandwidth is fast enough. Be careful though, some digital rentals only last 24 hours. Still …
Edge: Digital

Overall Thoughts
This one’s what you’d call a push. It really is dependent on personal preferences and viewing habits. If Blu-ray becomes mainstream it’ll be because of the player extras – like Netflix, DLNA server access to your PC’s media, YouTube, and who knows, perhaps full web browsing someday – not because folks are flocking to high-def discs. For dedicated home theater/projection system owners, who realize the quality difference between Blu-ray and everything else, it’s a no-brainer.

As for downloads/rentals to your PC or set-top box, they’ll be just fine for a good amount of people. If you want to check out an Oscar-nominated movie, what’s a few bucks to rent it for a night right from the computer or set-top box? Movies aren’t like music for most – the repeatable viewing isn’t nearly as high a percentage as repeatable listening. You probably bought your favorites for repeat viewing when they came out on DVD. Are you buying them again on Blu-ray? As Gizmodo points out, Billy Madison isn’t any funnier in high-def.

If I’m tossing a coin, my personal choice is for it to land on Blu-ray. Mainly for better concert video experiences, better looks on projection systems, and improving and increasingly fuller-featured players. And a Netflix account doesn’t hurt. Or just get the best-of-all-worlds PlayStation 3 console—in blog-speak, FTW!

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