Strong opinions, weakly held

Blu-Ray versus downloads

Here’s James Surowiecki on Blu-Ray:

I think the Internet and the cable systems have a long way to go before streaming video or even high-definition movies on demand become a meaningful replacement for something like Blu-Ray. For the vast majority of Americans, it currently takes far too long to download a high-definition movie for it to be convenient, and while cable systems are doing a better job of offering high-definition films on demand, the supply is (at least in New York) minuscule, and the quality is nowhere near as high as Blu-Ray offers.

Blu-Rayโ€™s real problem, it seems to me, is much simpler: itโ€™s too expensive.

It seems to me though that what we have is a race — will digital downloads get better and more accessible before Blu-Ray gets cheap enough to be competitive? A friend of mine was asking me which Blu-Ray player he should buy, and I told him he should buy a DVD player for $40 and wait a year. Either Bl-Ray players and discs will be a lot cheaper, or it won’t matter because you’ll be able to download most of the things you want from Netflix and watch them on demand.


  1. Or buy an upconverting DVD player, they’re dirt cheap, and you get somewhat decent HD quality. I was in my local Walmart yesterday and they’re selling the Philips upconverting DVD player for just $50: http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.do?product_id=10378917

  2. i find the implicit assumption that quality – whether that’s defined as high-def or blu-ray – will inevitably trump convenience at least somewhat suspect.

    perhaps not incorrect, but at least worth questioning.

  3. The other problem that could slow down if not curtail our enthusiasm for digital downloads train is the increasing number of American ISPs willing to either throttle, cap, and/or charge users for downloads. AT&T is testing out a 150GB cap with $1/GB after, TimeWarner is experimenting with caps as low as 5GB, and Comcast will start throttling users at 70% sustained usage during peak times.

    And if the ISPs find it lucrative enough, it could severely curtail movie downloads via iTunes, Amazon Unbox and Netflix. And that’s now. What will the broadband/bandwidth picture be like 5 years from now? Will there be more throttling? Will the ISPs try to charge more for bandwidth, in a similar way to what telcos are doing with SMS charges? (20cents for a 140char text message? Really?)

    And don’t forget, worldwide, not a lot of people out there have broadband (and I woundn’t even consider 1.5Mbps as broadband anymore, esp. for movie downloads).

    I think you have a point there with DVDs though. Unless Blu-Ray players and media drop in price and are able to play/upconvert standard DVDs, I think most people are simply going to balk at the extra complexity of a Blu-Ray player, and stick to DVDs. I know I will.

  4. I think it’s well worth questioning. For a movie I’m going to watch once, the ability to go to the Tivo, click on “Video on Demand” and start watching it 2 or 3 minutes later trumps any delivery option available for a Blu-Ray disc that I don’t already own or possess.

  5. Another factor is that, at least based on our Sony model, Blu-ray players are slow as molasses. Long boot time, long load times for discs, some newer discs actually crash it until I patched the firmware, etc. Other than the picture, it feels like a big step back from a $50 DVD player user experience.

  6. @David: that would be the DRM. One of the wonderful things about Blu-Ray is that it has a little Turing-complete scripting language inside that content authors can use to fuck with you… er, I mean to protect their intellectual property. To ensure that you’re only using an authorized Blu-Ray player. To ensure that you’re not buying Blu-Ray discs from Japan and watching them in America. To ensure that you have the latest firmware that more correctly implements the Turing-complete scripting language they use to protect themselves from you. And sometimes just to fuck with you.

    If it’s any consolation, 63 Euros will buy you a software program that circumvents it on all known Blu-Ray discs. On second thought, that shouldn’t be any consolation, because you’re a legitimate customer who legitimately purchased Blu-Ray discs to play on a legitimate Blu-Ray player. Naturally, that means you’re the one who gets screwed.

    I really, really wish I was kidding. Or at least exaggerating.

  7. David, I just bought a generic BD 1.1 player, and the strange thing is that most of the complaints I’ve seen about name-brand models aren’t an issue on mine. The load times are actually fairly fast.

    Just to rub salt in the wound, after I watched Wall-E I got the bug to pop in 2001, which I had bought on HD-DVD. Although my A3’s boot time is dog slow, load time on the HD-DVD discs I have, with the exception of Shrek 3, are ridiculously fast, though of course the non-skip warnings slow things down a bit ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I too have my doubts about American companies’ ability to provide the infrastructure necessary to make digital downloads a reality. If the BD alliance were serious about dominating, they’d be drawing up a BD Online spec, then strongarming cable and telecoms to help provide the infrastructure and price points necessary to make on-demand universal content a reality.

    Naturally, I also believe that if the BDA was serious about dominating, they’d drop most if not all of the stupid DRM. ๐Ÿ˜€

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