Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On Blu-ray and downloading videos

I had planned to follow my Christmas tradition of buying myself a nice present during the after-Christmas sales, and finally break down and get a Blu-ray video player. Obviously, we're being pretty tight with our money now, so that idea is out the window for the time being.

I've always been an early adopter of video technology. I bought a laser-disc player back in the 1980s, when less than 2 percent of homes had one. The first digital video format was not a bad one, although the discs were expensive ($40-$50 each) and you had to flip them once or more during a typical length movie.

Then I bought a DVD player in 1999, just a few months after they came out, even though they were overpriced -- I think mine was $500.

But I resisted investing in the next generation of video until the format war between Blu-ray and HD DVD was resolved. I didn't want to be stuck with hundreds of dollars worth of obsolete discs. For example, just before moving to Indiana in 2005, I sold all my laserdiscs on Ebay, typically getting just a few pennies on the dollar for what I paid for them.

But even when HD DVD suddenly folded nearly a year ago, I've hesitated to jump on Blu-ray. Part was the expense, with even discounted players going for $300 and up, and discs typically priced at about a 50 percent markup from regular DVDs. But I kept reading (and as a reporter, writing) about how the industry people think that the next big jump is going to be to downloading video.

I still don't buy that argument, for several reasons.

First of all, unless you're content to have a low-res version of the movie that only looks good on a two- or three-inch screen, it takes a honking long time to download a movie -- several hours, in most cases. Yes, it's cool to travel on a plane and watch a movie on your little MP3 player. But I think most serious videophiles feel that if they're going to own a movie permanently, they want to be able to watch it on the biggest screen and with the best sound possible. And the download speeds aren't a function of technology, but a limitation of the nationwide high-speed cable system. You would have to effectively rip the whole thing up and start over. So download times aren't going to decrease significantly any time soon.

Second, virtually everyone has experienced the tragedy of having a computer hard disk fried or dropping their iPhone into a toilet. If all your movies are stored digitially, there's a greater chance of them being lost permanently than with a physical object like a DVD. How would like to have bought a bunch of movies from the iTunes store for $12-$15 each, and then a lightning strike renders them null and void?

Third, most folks just like having the physical object -- they can display it on a bookshelf, admire the cover art, and take them with them wherever they go. "Hey, it's movie night at Bernie's. What are we watching?" "I dunno, just grab a bunch of DVDs and we'll choose." There's more of a psychological sense of ownership with something you can touch.

Fourth, storage space on even huge disk drives can be filled up quickly with digital copies of movies. Even the low-res flicks I've rented from iTunes take up about one gigabyte each. A high-def version is more like seven or eight gigs. I have about 250 DVDs in my collection; how much do you think a two terabyte drive would cost me -- about the size of a typical academic research library?

I believe that Blu-ray will eventually become the new video standard once the price on players and discs drops a bit more. Especially since regular DVDs will play on them, so there's no need to replace your current collection.


  1. I don't know, I enjoy being able to turn on the box underneath my TV and having a list of movies on the hard drive that I can choose from. Hard drives are getting very large very quickly as well, and even discs degrade or break. But I agree that having something tangible hits that "new toy" nerve a little more effectively than "download complete" on a screen.

  2. You're right about the dangers of discs degrading -- the biggest danger in our use of NetFlix is receiving scratched DVDs. It seems amazing to me, since you'd have to be almost aggressively careless to damage a disc, but probably 10 to 20 percent of those we receive have some kind of damage. For the moderately careful home video library, though, I still feel a physical object is the safest choice.