Blu-ray is a Moribund Format – Why the Future is Online

Update 6/22/2009: HD-DVD is momentarily winning the format war (more players sold; more movies selling), even though it already lost. Huh? These numbers are probably transitory or even just plain wrong, but they match at least my experience. I’ve been buying up cheap HD-DVDs and renting HD movies from X-Box Live instead of buying an expensive Blu-ray player. This option gets even better in the Fall when Xbox/Zune 1080P instant-on video downloads become available.

Geek columnist Robert X. Cringely recently proclaimed that normal television programming will die in 2015. He predicts that increasing Internet bandwidth (average users will have 100 Mbps connections) will make it cheaper to send a “Full HD” (1920×1080 progressive high definition video) video signal to every potential TV customer than it is to broadcast the same stream over-the-air.

What he didn’t say is that this means that the days of Blu-ray are also likely to be numbered. The Blu-ray high-definition (HD) disc format “won” the HD disc wars over HD-DVD, and is supposedly the successor to DVDs. The problem is that as soon as the HD-DVD camp folded, all of the excitement around HD discs seemed to dissipate, at least to this observer (Blu-ray fans and manufacturers will no doubt disagree).

What happened? First, Blu-ray player prices jumped from around $250 back up to $400, and have stayed there (at least if you want full BD-Live support). Second, until very recently, Blu-ray players haven’t been as advanced and polished as the now-obsolete HD-DVD players were from their beginning a couple of years ago. This is finally remedied by the BD-Live feature (that is just now making its way into expensive players, and the Playstation 3), but the format has been playing catchup. Combine these two factors with over one million early-adopters that purchased HD-DVD players, and you have a good recipe for apathy.

The Future is Online

When the HD-DVD format died, I looked into what it would cost to make the jump to Blu-ray: $400 (vs. the $160 I paid for my HD-DVD player nearly a year ago) and another device in my living room. Instead, I decided to turn to my Windows Media Center computer and Xbox 360 for movies and TV. I record high definition media using my computer’s Cablecard tuner, and then watch it on my HDTV via my Xbox 360.

When I want to rent HD movies or purchase TV show episodes, I use the Xbox Live Marketplace feature of my Xbox 360. I can rent a LOT of movies on my Xbox before equaling the cost of a Blu-ray player, which seems to be part of Microsoft and Apple’s strategy to lure customers to their platforms instead of Blu-ray (despite Apple being a member of the Blu-ray Disc Association). So far, my partner and I have been happy with the results, though downloading movies will be a bit painful until your Internet connection hits the 6 Mbps mark (almost fast enough to stream the 6.8 Mbps HD content on Xbox Live). Most movies take around 3 hours to download on my cablemodem connection.

Reviewers seem to conclude that for the present, Blu-ray holds a small edge over other current mediums in video and audio quality when viewed on a good 1080P TV. However, when viewed on a 720P display, HD movies rented from Xbox Live are equally good as HD-DVD or Blu-ray, with AppleTV HD downloads very close behind. Cable TV video-on-demand seems to be worse, perhaps no better than upscaled DVDs.

So while I love the pristine picture and audio quality of Blu-ray, I’m probably not going to jump until the price for a decent player dips below $100, and maybe not even then. The future of my HD movies is online. Blu-ray is currently the king of visual and aural quality, but it’s days are numbered as online HD video comes into focus.

References

  • Xbox Live HD movies and TV shows are 1280x720p with 6.8 Mbps VC1 codec, and requires an Xbox with a hard drive ($300 for an Xbox 360 w/60 GB hard drive). As of 9/9/2008, 218 HD movie rentals and 77 TV series in HD (roughly the same as AppleTV, according to estimates).
    It can also act as an Windows Media Center Extender, allowing you to watch HD TV from your Windows Media Center computer – a feature that I use for all of my TV watching.
  • Apple TV/iTunes HD movies and TV shows are 1280x720p with 4.0 Mbps bitrate. Requires an Apple TV ($230 for an AppleTV w/40 GB hard drive).
  • (Update) Vudu also has a set-top box for $300 that does 1920x1080P $6 video rentals with an average 9 Mbps data rate that yields an image that supposedly gets close to Blu-ray quality. Here’s a review of the Vudu Box. BestBuy is giving $200 of movie credits when you buy one, which makes this an enticing deal if you’re not already invested in Microsoft or Apple paraphernalia.
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