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Am I Blu?

A movie buff's defense of an unappreciated —and likely doomed—video format

Author TOM SAMILJAN

ILLUSTRATION BY JUSTIN RENTERIA

BLU-RAY WAS SUPPOSED to be somebody. When it debuted in 2006, it was hailed as the next-generation optical disc format for an HD world, destined to supplant DVDs the way that DVDs sent VHS tapes into the slag heap of obsolescence (joining Betamax tapes, audio cassettes, eight-tracks and the Victor Talking Machine). Compact and relatively affordable, Blu-ray offered an unrivaled viewing experience. And yet today it founders—misunderstood and largely ignored by the public, and under intensifying siege by Netflix, Vudu and the like.

That’s a shame because, unlike the clumsy LaserDisc, whose extinction at the hands of the DVD was well warranted, Blu-ray is far superior to its competitors. And don’t just take my word for it. “Blu-ray really is the truest form for viewing a movie in your home, and lets you watch films in a way that perpetuates [a director’s] vision,” Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone tells me. In addition to new films, “studios are continually remastering classics for Blu-ray,” he says, “because it is simply the best format out there.”

In fact, modern-day restorations on Blu-ray are often better than the theatrical versions, making them gold for film lovers. “As little as five to 10 years ago, you might see a fourth-generation print in theaters,” says Lee Kline, tech director at the Criterion Collection, which offers some of the best restored classics on Blu-ray, from Fellini’s 81/2 and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven to the first Godzilla. “Now we’re able to go back to the original negative, and the detail available there is amazing.”

Of course, I’d take the HD streams of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander on Hulu or David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago on Netflix over standard-def any day. But they can’t hold a candle to the richer colors, sharper detail and theater-quality audio on a Blu-ray disc. It boils down to the difference between squeezing a boatload of video and audio information for real-time delivery over the Internet and having that information available locally, on a disc next to your TV. Streamed and downloaded video needs to be compressed to transmit smoothly over even the fastest home Internet connections. After the file is unzipped onto your TV or computer, it still has less of the original sound and video information (about 2 to 20 megabits per second, or Mbps) than a Blu-ray, which has way more space—nine HD-video hours’ worth—on a single disc (allowing for about 25 to 40 Mbps). And because of this extra, localized capacity, Blu-ray’s version of a movie hews much closer to the original print and soundtrack.

Moreover, I don’t see better-than-Blu-ray streaming quality coming anytime soon. Yes, Cablevision, Charter and Comcast offer residential 100-Mbps downloading in a few select areas, but the global average is still just 2.7 Mbps, with the United States at around 6.1 Mbps and South Korea, the world’s fastest, at 16.7 Mbps. These are hardly speeds that can replicate Blu-ray quality. (Even with my Optimum Online download speed of 15 Mbps, the movies I stream are frequently interrupted by buffering.)

Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to get a lot of people to shell out $20 to $40 per disc for a superior viewing experience. Though about 74 million U.S. households own the HDTVs necessary to make the most of Blu-ray’s higher resolution, that’s only about half of the nation’s TV owners. Plus, few HDTV types are even buying Blu-ray. Consumer electronics companies apparently see the writing on the wall: Although Blu-ray players can be had for less than $100, the latest-generation models are shipping with Hulu, Netflix and Amazon built in. Around 44 percent of U.S. cellphone users now own a smartphone, offering further alternatives for streaming. Is it any surprise that Netflix’s streaming subscribers number 21.7 million versus 11.2 million for its DVD rental subscribers?

While it’s a sad state of affairs, there is an upside—I’ve found classics for as little as $7 in various Blu-ray clearance bins, and I’m going to keep collecting them until the format is officially retired. When that day will actually come, however, is still a matter of debate. Last year director Michael Mann predicted the format would be around for at least another six to eight years; analysts at the Enderle Group, a research firm focused on consumer technology, say it’ll be 15.

I’m not so sure that either is right. Despite the compact-disc death knell that’s been tolling for more than a decade, there are still better-than-MP3-quality CDs around—and who would have foreseen the resurgence of vinyl among millennials? So I’m holding out hope for Blu-ray. When it comes to quality versus convenience, sometimes better is still best.

Hemispheres tech columnist TOM SAMILJANs parents didn’t let him watch TV on school nights. He’s spending his adult life making up for it.

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