No one can deny the sheer ease and convenience of being able to grab your TV remote and launch Netflix or Hulu in seconds flat. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that even if my girlfriend and I own something on DVD or Blu-ray, if we find out it’s streaming on a platform that we’re subscribed to, we’ll usually just fire up the streamable version (we may have even paid for a movie or TV on Amazon Prime Video that we already own).
One major reason that we’ll opt for streaming over physical media is that we’re able to link our Bluetooth headphones to our Roku devices using the Roku app — which also gives us individual volume controls for our respective AirPods. But I’m well aware that when we decide to stream Ace Ventura instead of popping our DVD version into the PS4, we’re losing out in a few different ways, especially when the film of choice is something modern and action-packed and not close to 30 years old.
This brings us all to the question of what’s better: streaming or physical media such as Blu-ray?
Bandwidth, Compression, And $500 HDMI Cables
While we may be stating the obvious, there’s nothing wrong with clarification: streaming movies and shows requires an internet connection. And whether you’re connecting your smart TVs and streaming devices to Wi-Fi or hard-wiring this gear directly to your router, at the end of the day, that content is on your TV or phone screen because you’re paying an internet service provider (ISP) for bandwidth.
Luckily, said bandwidth is fairly bountiful, and with many ISPs recognizing the major megabit speeds required for things like 4K and HDR picture formats, it’s not difficult or even all that expensive to sign up for one of your provider’s fastest plans. But here’s the rub: if you plan on putting your new 4K OLED to the test by streaming HBO Max’s UHD version of The Batman, you may not be getting the best picture and sound quality possible, even if you’re paying top-dollar for your ISP’s premium plan.
Why? Because even at its peak performance, whatever content you stream is beholden to some level of compression. And in order for HBO Max to get a 4K HDR movie uploaded to its servers (and for your smart TV to be able to engage the stream), stepping back on quality is an absolute must for the content provider and your ISP.
This issue of compression isn’t completely moot when it comes to physical media either, but the variables are far less substantial.
When you’re watching a 4K movie on Blu-ray, all of the disc’s picture and sound information is processed and decoded by the player, and sent to and from your TV or A/V receiver using connections like HDMI and digital optical.
And while better (and more expensive) HDMI cables are designed to give you the sharpest and most distortion-free audio and video possible (as well as faster data pathways for flagship codecs like Dolby Atmos), that 4K movie is going to look and sound pretty much the same no matter what brand of HDMI you’re using — regardless of the wire’s gold-plated tips and silver-insulated jacketing.
Now we’re not saying that streaming a 4K movie or show is going to look bad. In fact, if you’ve got your hardware connected via Ethernet, we’re betting your UHD flick is going to look pretty amazing — especially once your TV kicks in all its additional picture processing and motion smoothing capabilities. But the polished final product may only look and sound as good as a 1080p Blu-ray encoded for traditional surround-sound, instead of a 4K UHD disc optimized for Atmos.
And guess what? The more devices you have connected to your Wi-Fi, the harder it’s going to be for your network to provide the optimal bandwidth levels that a 4K movie or show demands, which is why we always suggest plugging your devices directly into your router (if you’re able to do so).
Premium Picture Means Premium Prices
Most streaming platforms recommend a minimal download speed of 25Mbps for 4K content. Realistically, you’ll probably want to be paying for the kind of internet that nets you around 50Mbps for a more reliable 4K streaming experience.
At the time of this article’s publication, Verizon offers a 300Mbps internet plan for only $25 per month, or $300 a year. And while 300Mbps is a good amount of bandwidth to play with, let’s not forget that Netflix UHD subscription you’ve been waiting to purchase, which is going to cost you $20 per month ($240 per year).
Let’s be frank: we all need the internet, even if we’re not planning on streaming anything in 4K. And for only $25 per month, 300Mbps is a pretty solid deal, but here’s another area where investing in physical media will save you money in the long term.
The average 4K UHD Blu-ray player is right around $170, and the average UHD Blu-ray movie costs around $30 (give or take). Most households are only going to need one (maybe two) Blu-ray players, and even if you buy 20 movies per year, that’s $200 in physical media that is yours forever, that you only paid for once, and that you’re able to experience without any kind of compression.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
These days, you can stream just about any movie or TV show, and with cord-cutting being a new norm for many households, it’s not uncommon for families to be subscribed to more than one streaming platform at a time. And then there’s streamers like Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+ that allow you to purchase digital versions of your favorite movies and shows. In some cases, you’ll even be able to access this content offline, which is about as close to physically owning the media that one can get in a digital space.
But there’s a big catch here that’s easy to miss: you don’t actually own these movies or shows.
When you spend $8 to snag the UHD version of Jumanji on Prime Video, all you’re actually paying for is the ability to stream this movie whenever you want, until Amazon’s rights to the film are null and void.
You see, all of these top-dog streamers have to pay licensing fees in order to host a movie or show for a set amount of weeks, months, or years, and when that contract period ends, there’s always a chance that it may not be renewed. This is another reason you’ll see platforms like Netflix pushing original content over old films and syndicated programming (why pay to “rent” a movie from a film distributor when you can just make your own?).
When you physically own a movie or TV show box-set, it doesn’t matter what Company A is licensing from Company B and for how long. That DVD version of Jumanji will always be safe and sound on your shelf, but you could wake up tomorrow with plans to host a Jumanji streaming party for all your friends and family, and Amazon could have decided to let its Sony contract run out, meaning no CGI monkeys for you and yours.
Mother Nature Has Her Bad Days
Blizzards, thunderstorms, and wire-chewing squirrels can wreak havoc in a number of ways, and those telephone poles that route our precious internet signal into our homes are quite the easy target. And while we’ve yet to hear back from the otherworldly powers that be, the general consensus is that Mother Nature doesn’t care how badly you want to stream The Mummy Returns in 4K.
If your internet goes down for any reason, whether you’re experiencing issues with your networking peripherals or there’s a neighborhood brownout, unless you’ve got content downloaded for offline viewing, those are potential streaming hours you’re paying for that you won’t be able to use.
And sure, a severe storm can knock out the power to your whole house, but the reality is that you’re more likely to experience an internet dropout than a full-scale electrical failure. So while the streaming devotee is glued to their ISP’s outage map, praying for signal to be restored, the physical media savant will still be able to enjoy The Mummy Returns in UHD. All hail the Scorpion King!
Don’t Forget the Special Features
When I was a kid, I owned Elf on DVD. One of the bonus features was this janky snowboarding game (it may have been ice-skating) that already looked dated back in 2004, and performed about as good as a home video-exclusive mini game that you play with your DVD player’s remote. And while not all bonus content is noteworthy, one of the best things about investing in physical media is getting to enjoy whatever trove of extra surprises the home video distributor decided to include on the DVD and Blu-ray release.
I’m talking about behind the scenes documentaries, deleted scenes, concept art, production stills, and more. Yes, you can find some special features on streaming platforms, too, but the majority of services are only going to offer the movie or show, and that’s it.
Even though Elf may not be revered for its terribly performing snowboarding game, if you own Elf on DVD, that’s your made-in-a-single-weekend-for-the-DVD snowboarding game that you’ll get to play whenever you want to, because you own Elf on DVD like a good citizen of the world.