November 04, 2008

Streaming video: Easy, instant, and (often) free, but discs still win the image-quality battle


Going to see the big Hollywood blockbusters was thrilling when I was a kid -- especially the ones presented in full-on 70mm. Sure, most of these prints were 70mm blow-ups of 35mm negatives, but still -- you could tell the difference, and I reveled in it. That's what the movies were all about (for me, anyway): Big, crisp images, projected onto giant wide screens.

That's why I'm such a big fan of Blu-ray, expensive though it is. Combined with my 1080p 46-inch HDTV, Blu-ray video looks thrilling close to the image quality you'd expect in a movie theater. Indeed, I rarely go out to an actual theater anymore, unless it's for something like Indiana Jones, the latest Bond flick, or Batman in IMAX. Upscaled DVD is a close second.

Lately, though, everyone (well, it feels like everyone) has been trashing Blu-ray and even the old, reliable DVD and going with streaming video, either over the likes of YouTube and Hulu or Netflix's "Watch Instantly" service, which is expanding to TiVo and the Xbox 360.

Now, I'm all for the convenience of Net video -- I love the fact that I can order movies on Apple TV and start watching them right away. But here's the thing: Streaming video looks, for the most part, like absolute shit. It's soft, blocky, choppy ... I mean, we're talking VHS quality or worse. In terms of image quality, it's a huge step backward. I'd much rather go to a theater and cough up $20 than watch, say, "The Dark Knight" on a Web browser.

Not all streaming video looks terrible. I think the streaming HD feeds on Apple TV, Vudu (especially its new HDX format), and Hulu look pretty good, even if they're not quite Blu-ray quality (more like somewhere between HD and DVD). Netflix is also due to offer HD streams on the Xbox 360, although apparently you need 8MB downstream to get it (and good luck with that, unless you've got Fios at home).

But from what I've been hearing, it seems like many viewers -- even those with brand-new HDTVs in their living rooms -- would rather go with instant, streaming SD movies, especially if they're free. In the battle between convenience and quality, convenience appears to be winning out.

Maybe I'm just being stubborn here, but ... no way am I giving up on by-mail discs from Netflix. For me, the better image quality is worth the (short) wait. Online video is OK in a pinch (say, if you're traveling with a laptop) and may eventually reach Blu-ray quality (Vudu's HDX is almost there, although a two-hour movie takes hours to download), but for now, in terms of image quality? No contest. I'll stick with my DVDs and Blu-rays, thanks.

Anyway, that's my rant. I'm not the only one who feels this way, right?

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