Physical media vs streaming has been a hot topic and a long lasting debate between supporters of both sides for which one is better. Physical media has been with us for a long time. From cassettes to laser disc, CD ,DVD ,Blu-ray and now 4K UHD Blu-ray. Each one of them had something better to offer every single time. And people were always buying them. You want to buy Blu-ray movies or DVD? Maybe you want to buy the new 4K UHD Blu-ray format? Or maybe you are a video games fan and want to buy some new PS4 and Xbox video games that are out on discs. The choice was always there.
Then internet came and everything changed. The last few years with the improvements in internet speeds streaming came to our lives. Now there was no need to go out and buy the movies you want. You already had them right in your TV. And as internet speeds improved over the years there was a dramatic improvement on the quality as well as quantity of streaming services that were offering an easy way to get the movie you want without taking a single step out of your house. Streaming services are here to stay and they offer a big catalog of new and old movies for all tastes. But the question is…will these services replace the physical media format as we knew it for so many years?
In order to answer that first we have to see what these streaming services offer in order to even consider if they are able to replace a proven format. Why should I stop buying Blu-ray discs? Is there any reason for that?
The biggest advantage of streaming is obviously easy access. Streaming services have tried to create something that the user would be very easy to familiarize with in order to make him buy a movie online instead of a shop. No more do we need to go to our nearest movie shop or to wait for our movie to arrive with the post office. With a press of a button the movie starts. Easy and fast. Who wouldn’t want that?
Another big plus is that you save actual space. No more do you need to save space in your room for a few hundreds DVD cases. Or to buy a new furniture to put all these brand new Blu-ray discs. And we shouldn’t even mention the progression of formats as with every new one that comes out turns your collection obsolete. All these DVDs that were the bleeding edge suddenly lost their value when the Blu-ray format came out. And the same is slowly happening now as the new 4K UHD is the new kid on the block making these Blu-ray discs feel like an antique and pushing you to change your whole library to the new format which is not easy or cheap to do.
Lastly we shouldn’t forget to mention that many of these streaming services are financing their own productions and keep them exclusively to their platforms. Or as we have recently seen with Apple’s premium service, the Apple TV+, they even bought Greyhound, a Tom Hanks film that was bound to be released on cinemas but due to the corona-virus pandemic they had to postpone in giving the chance to Apple to buy the whole film for their platform only.
And mark our words as the battle among the streaming services becomes bigger and bigger we are going to see more and more blockbuster films appear exclusively in specific streaming platforms in order to gain more subscriptions.
But although streaming has so many advantages people continue to buy discs. Both movies and video games disc sales are very strong even with the fierce competition from online services. Let’s see why this happens.
With physical media you actually own the product. You can do whatever you like with it. On the other hand with streaming you don’t own anything. It’s like renting a movie. When your subscription in the streaming service finishes you cannot see any of the movies you previously saw. The services have complete control of what they offer you. This is a big deal with video games. Companies don’t like the used games market out there. They want you to buy new products because they only profit from that. If you buy used video games the publisher is not making any money out of it.
That’s why video games publishers for many years were trying to combat the used games market but with little or no success. And that’s why we see console manufacturers are slowly trying to push digital sales as this is their own back yard and can manage the prices as they see fit.
Another big advantage with physical media is the quality. Streaming services will never offer the same quality of physical discs simply because of bandwidth limitations. Internet speeds are getting better but they can never get so good to offer the same quality of physical media.
Modern compression techniques help a lot to bring similar quality but it will never be the same. Streaming services can claim all they want about 4K and HDR but behind these claims there is huge compression techniques at play in order to meet certain speed limitations.
Just to give you an example the 4K UHD format has bit rates that exceed 100 Mbit/s. This is for both video and audio. While the 4K streams according to Netflix are in the 25 Mbit/s range. And don’t forget the Corona-virus pandemic which made things even worse. With the pandemic raging around the world a lot of people stayed indoors which resulted in their in-house activities to increase exponentially. In order for Netflix to cope with the increased demand they had to lower the bit-rates which in some cases reached 7.5 Mbit/s for a 4K stream.
From the above it is very clear that when it comes to your streaming enjoyment you are at the mercy of your internet speed and obviously on the streaming service to provide the necessary quality. Just claiming that you offer 4K streaming means nothing in this day and age and companies must be more specific with their offerings especially when so many factors are at play.
Another problem is that with streaming you need to always have a stable internet service. And to make things even worse now that streaming services started to offer 4K resolution material with Dolby Atmos soundtracks it will put even more strain on the user’s internet connections making it now more important than ever to have a very fast connection to support these kind of bandwidths.
And from case studies it seems that although fast internet is spreading more and more there is a huge amount of people around the globe that still don’t have the kind of speeds required to support not 4K resolution but even Full HD 1080p. There are many areas around the world that are so remote that cannot even get some kind of ADSL, VDSL or FTTH connection and have to rely on slow 4G or even 3G connections for basic internet usage.
So unless a minimum stable internet speed can be guaranteed for all corners of the globe these streaming services will never be able to make physical media disappear. And while in most dense populated areas internet is considered a sure thing these remote areas will have only physical media to rely on for quality image and sound.
From being in the loop for many years we can assure you that there is no such thing as stable internet. And imagine when you enjoy your favorite movie internet disconnects…There are a lot of countries still where internet is at best mediocre and speeds are nowhere near adequate for quality streaming.
Last but not least is storage space. Although we are touching upon a concept that is, in most cases, illegal and our suggestion is to be avoided there are millions that like to download their movies and store them in NAS servers or external hard drives. In this case you have the movie that somewhat solves the streaming limitations and problems but creates a new problem and this is storage space.
Nowadays most movies count more than a few GBs of data which means you need to have a lot of storage to store them. For this reason new compression standards have appeared like the latest H.265, or High Efficiency Video Coding (HVEC) if you prefer, which offers similar quality to the older H.264 but at much lower data sizes. But even with this films measure tens of GBs each making the use of multiple hard drives a necessity still in order to support your whole library
And the problem with this is that hard drives can fail easily making you loose all your data in the blink of an eye. Backups are good but the mainstream consumer doesn’t consider that and most of the time is a pain to do and costly to keep as you will need double the number of drives in order to act as backup space.
The last few years we have seen a trend with companies promoting streaming very much. Nowadays almost all home entertainment devices support a huge amount of online streaming services and the list grows by the day. Services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, Playstation Vue, Sling, Crackle, Vudu, Google, HBO, Twich, Vevo, DirectTV NOW, Youtube TV, iTunes, CBS All Access and Starz are some among the most known ones with many many more available that are less known to the general public.
Due to the fact that this list of services are growing every year a new kind of devices has seen the light of day the last few years, called streaming players having the advantage of grouping all these services together and giving you the ability to navigate easily between them. You can take a look at our streaming players section HERE, where you can find reviews of some of these devices as they become more and more mainstream.
We strongly believe that there is no clear winner in this battle. Both physical media and streaming services will be with us for many years to come. Maybe in the future when the internet providers will manage somehow to guarantee a minimum stable internet connection no matter where you are streaming will manage to get the upper hand. This in combination with the increase in HDD space along with better compression standards could give it the edge.
But physical media has one major advantage and this is no other than its complete independence from the state of the internet. And this will always give discs the technological advantage over any kind of streaming content. Some may say that the difference for compressed content that is downloaded to be too small to notice. We will agree on this although as we already mentioned before when it comes to downloading illegal content we are completely against and the legal streaming services can in no way reach the visual quality of discs. And so visual and audio purists will always be here to seek the best.
It’s always a matter of choice and right now we have more than one to go for depending our preferences. Do you want ease of access without much hustle? Then a streaming service of your choice is the way to go. Or maybe you want the best visual and audio quality possible so in that case going physical is your thing. There is no better or worse in this battle and we strongly believe that coexistence of both can result to more options for the consumer. After all, don’t forget that competition is what makes a product better and the two can learn from each other but also help drive this industry forward.