Pictures in the Stream

In the 90’s, the ‘It’ gift was a movie. I could count on getting at least one video tape or DVD each gift giving event, be it birthday or Christmas. My family could also count on my giving them one, too. It was what we did. With the advent of video tapes in the 80’s, home theaters were becoming more common and once the price point fell to the point where ordinary people could afford to buy a copy, it became a status symbol to have a vast library of movies. New movies “dropped” into stores on Tuesdays and people often lined up to buy the blockbusters. I still have a large collection of DVDs and some VHS tapes. It is rare, though that I pull them out. Technology has changed, making owning media cumbersome. I don’t even keep my DVDs out anymore. They are sequestered away in a cabinet out of sight. With the ability to stream movies on the internet, media fans who wish to build a library of movies have to ask themselves one question: Why own a DVD when the content is available directly to your networked television or computer? The answer is one of image quality versus content availability.

Several years ago, there was the last media format war. Blue Ray and HDDVD went head to head, battling for the attention of media collectors who had to determine the best format for picture quality and feature offerings. While many say that HDDVD had a better picture, Blue Ray offered more features. Blue Ray also had Sony in their corner, so once they undercut Philips’ (who was the primary backer for HDDVD) price point and secured enough studios, customers chose Blue Ray. Blue Ray has a fantastic picture, far and away better than standard format DVD. It is true High Definition. So, while a progressive scan DVD has a very good picture, it cannot hold a candle to the color depth and sharpness of true 1080p resolution. For people who want the immersive experience of true HD, Blue Ray can’t be beat.

While image quality is fine, getting discs can be a problem. In order to watch a Blue Ray disc, one needs a Blue Ray player and a disc. Usually that means getting up from the couch or recliner and trudging off to the store to buy a disc or to the Red Box to rent one (adieu Blockbuster). That can be inconvenient. Once one has seen the entirety of their library enough times, it gets boring watching the same old movies over and over. No, the best way to be entertained is with a constant stream of new content that doesn’t have to be physically retrieved from a vending machine or store shelf. Having that content available at the click of a button on the remote makes it that much sweeter.

Smart TVs started offering Netflix and Hulu almost as soon as those services became available. The content is streamed via Internet Protocol to the device, allowing immediate playback without having to download the entire film before watching it. This puts a vast library at one’s fingertips; a library larger than almost any one person’s DVD collection, and one that is constantly updated with new titles. Both of those services are also offering original content that is not available anywhere else. No DVD that can be bought, no TV channel that can be recorded. Cable services are also getting into the on demand streaming game as well. Most movies are available via HBO Go, or Showtime or any other premium movie service that usually comes with cable subscription. The one downside is that as they add new titles, they must occasionally retire older titles, making them unavailable. I wanted to watch Smokey and the Bandit last month and it was not available with my streaming subscriptions. I had to buy a copy.

While the ability to watch a movie on a whim is a good thing, there is a downside. The process of digitizing and streaming content using Internet Protocol reduces the image quality. It is like taking a picture with a digital camera, then uploading it to Facebook. When the image is sent, it is compressed during the transmission. When you download it from Facebook, it is not as high quality as the original image. The digitization and compression process is a “lossy” process. Data is sacrificed for bandwidth. This is inescapable. True 1080p Blue Ray grade content takes a lot of bandwidth to transmit. Any movie viewed on Netflix, while it does look good—better than broadcast TV, is not as good, not as high def, not as clear as Blue Ray. It cannot be. Even if a service advertises that a movie is 1080p, it is not the same quality as Blue Ray. The 1080p is merely referring to how many pixels are represented in the display after decompression. It does not talk about the color depth or the contrast ratio and it doesn’t account for lost data in the compression process.

So as I said, the real question for movie lovers is convenience versus quality. If you prefer to have a vast, ever-changing library available at the click of a button, get that streaming service. If you want the best quality image and sound, stick with building your own Blue Ray library. You may end up watching the same old titles, but that is why you head down to the store on Tuesdays, to add new titles to your library. You don’t even have to retire your old movies. For me, I still buy Blue Ray copies of my favorite films, but I also watch streaming movies from time to time. I did sign up for Netflix so I could watch Longmire, and while there, I have grown to appreciate Daredevil and House of Cards. I might just keep my subscription even as I continue to build my disc library. I just found a Blue Ray copy of Smokey and the Bandit on Amazon.

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