Is Blu-ray Dead?

…Or Just Dying?

I purchased a Panasonic Blu-ray player in the spring of 2008. Six years on, it is showing its age and I can count on one hand the number of times I have used it in the past year. I paid almost $400 for it, and I really don’t know if I got my money’s worth, but at the time it was the only way for me to fill my new plasma HDTV with glorious 1080p content. Here’s what I notice about my has-been Blu-ray player: it’s unbelievably slow to load discs and navigate, it doesn’t decode all audio formats, it doesn’t have Ethernet or wifi for updates or extra features, and it doesn’t have any smart features. In my search for a new player, I started thinking about Blu-ray as a format and where it’s headed. Let’s start at the beginning.

The Price of Blu-ray Discs

When Blu-ray discs came to market, it is my opinion that they should have been the same price as DVDs or slightly higher to start and then fallen to DVD prices and lower after a few years. Instead, initial prices were exorbitant. DVD prices remained about the same and Blu-rays were pushing the $30 mark for regular films and $35+ for special editions, combo packs, “steelbooks,” and so on. So, not only did you have to pay hundreds for a player that was slower to operate than your DVD player, you had to pay a major premium for the discs themselves. Of course one can expect new and better technologies to cost more when they are first released, but prices remained very high for years. Adding to this was the fact that many people were not convinced they needed an HDTV, let alone a Blu-ray player. Sales were slow, and DVD sales continued their decline. People were not buying Blu-ray discs and therefore the price remained high, except for cheapo editions of films with sub-par video quality and no special features – usually catalogue films that were just thrown onto Blu-ray with no care or attention to pad the numbers. The all-time best-selling Blu-ray in the US is Avatar. According to The-Numbers.com, as of the end of 2013 it had sold just shy of 7 million units. To compare, Finding Nemo DVD sales are estimated to be over 24 million copies. That is eight times the sales. Blu-rays just aren’t selling like DVDs have. One of the main reasons that they’ve even sold as much as they have is that studios started phasing out DVDs. When you consider that, the sales numbers are even more shocking. People simply aren’t buying physical media like they used to. And why not?

The Challengers

Apple-TV-teaser-001Blu-rays sales are poor for many reasons, but the number of competing ways to access content is a big factor. When Blu-ray first came to market, options were limited. DVDs were the main format for home video, and Pay-Per-View via cable/satellite boxes was really the only other major paid option. Nowadays, digital rules. In 2014, I can purchase, rent, or stream digital copies of films from Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Google, SONY, Cineplex, CinemaNow, Redbox, Vudu, and more, not to mention just about every cable/satellite box on-demand. It is worth noting that streams and downloads do not have the same quality, features, and options as physical Blu-ray copies. All downloads are compressed at a much higher rate than Blu-rays. A typical Blu-ray film will run 15-40gb. Downloads are much smaller. Apple says a typical HD download is only 4gb. Now, the compression is fantastic and the quality is still great, but the bottom line is that there *is* major compression happening and you are not getting the quality that you get with Blu-ray. It’s like a CD vs. MP3/AAC. Most people won’t notice any difference in quality, but it’s there and those who want the best and *can* see the difference will want the higher quality format. You also won’t have multiple audio formats to choose from, nor will you have access to bonus features. I miss bonus features, and that’s why I still buy my favourite films on Blu-ray, and rent or stream the rest. There’s also something comforting about being able to pull the box off the shelf and pop it into the player and know it’s going to work when you hit play. You aren’t relying on the internet, you don’t have to put in a password, you don’t have to watch it in a 48h period (typical for rentals), and you don’t have to worry about your computer crashing and losing the file (though with iTunes, your purchased films are available in the cloud). The downside to Blu-ray is of course you are limited to playing that disc on a Blu-ray player. Most do come with download/digital copy options, but if you don’t set that up, you are stuck with a disc that has to be played in a player in your den. With digital, you can watch on your phone, your iPad, your laptop, your desktop computer, and throughout the house if you have a streaming box or media centre set up.

Current Blu-ray Players

Sony-2014-Blu-rayI bought a new plasma TV and a home theatre receiver (and a subwoofer, but I digress). I popped in the Jurassic Park Blu-ray to test out my new system, and waited for it to load. And I waited. And waited. It finally got to the menu, but I couldn’t believe how long it took. I ejected the disc, turned the player off and tried again. This time I timed it. Nearly three minutes passed from the time I hit the Open/Close button (which turns the player on) and the movie starting. Three minutes. The player took several seconds to even open the tray, then there was a black screen for a while after the disc started spinning up. Then a loading screen. Eventually the menu screen was shown and I was able to navigate and play the film. There was still a delay when hitting play. Needless to say, this is a bit ridiculous. Though I don’t watch many films on Blu-ray, each time I do I am frustrated by the time it takes to get things going. I started looking at current Blu-ray players, as they have much faster loading times, and of course they fix all the other issues with my player – no internet access, no smart features, more audio decoding, more features, etc. Once I started looking, I was shocked to see that the prices are quite reasonable. Most players are around the $100-mark and include 3D playback as well as a good offering of audio decoding. The higher-end players offer 4K upscaling, but I definitely don’t need that right now. I was also shocked to see how few players are actually available. Panasonic only has one main model out (BDT230), and it’s a year old and out of stock in most of my local stores. Their next model up is much more expensive and offers features most don’t need like 4K upscaling and dual HDMI outputs. It seems that Samsung and Sony are the bigger sellers, but even they only have a few models and they are on a yearly release cycle. The current models were mostly announced mid-2013 and released then or in early fall. Most models have basic smart features, but at this point nearly everything you purchase has smart features baked in. Televisions, Blu-ray players, cable boxes, video game consoles, and even receivers have Netflix, DLNA, Hulu, and so forth. Many people also have other devices like Apple TV, Roku, WDTV, Fire TV, Chromecast, and Boxee. With my current equipment, my Apple TV has the best interface and accesses Netflix the fastest. My Eastlink cable box is next in terms of speed and user interface. My TV’s interface isn’t too bad once it loads. I’ve used some “smart” Blu-ray players and most of them have sluggish menu systems, so that would be the last device I would use to access Netflix. However, if you don’t have a smart TV or media box, a Blu-ray player might be the only way to access Netflix and it’ll work just fine. Other than the smart features, Blu-ray players haven’t changed much in the past few years. Once 3D was baked in to most TVs, Blu-ray players followed suit. There haven’t been any new audio formats to support, and 4K still isn’t a must-have. So the Blu-ray player manufacturers have been stuck doing simple updates to UI and hardware design. The cost has remained stable, and there are many last-year models still on the shelves. Since aren’t major differences between 2012 and 2013 models, I would encourage you to save some cash and buy the older model most of the time. Then again, both Panasonic and Sony’s 2013 models are around $100 most of the time, so in the end you might as well just grab the newest player.

Where Is It Going?

originalIf triple-layer or quadruple-layer Blu-ray discs combined with better codecs and compression can get 4K films onto the discs, which at least Samsung says is possible, Blu-ray could be one of the only ways to get 4K content on the burgeoning displays that are being released until Netflix starts offering 4K on a regular basis for its content, and internet speeds get bumped up to handle the increase in bandwidth. Internet providers will also be pressured to look at bandwidth caps as well. If all of a sudden we are quadrupling iTunes rentals to 16gb and Netflix increases its streaming bitrate by a factor of four, those caps of 250gb will be eaten up rather quickly. Will 4K be the saviour of Blu-ray? I don’t think so. 4K TVs are still way too expensive, and current higher-end Blu-ray players can upscale content for 4K, but they can’t play 4K discs because they don’t exist. So it’s going to require people not only buying a new TV, but upgrading their Blu-ray player as well. The history of Blu-ray has shown that people just don’t think the quality difference is worth the investment. Add to this the myrid of streaming and downloading options, and Blu-ray continues to be a tough sell. At this point, it’s starting to become a niche area for home theatre enthusiasts and physical copy collectors.

“Blu-ray is just a bag of hurt. It’s great to watch the movies, but the licensing of the tech is so complex, we’re waiting till things settle down and Blu-ray takes off in the marketplace.” – Steve Jobs, 2008

These days Apple doesn’t even include any optical drives in most of its computers, and when it does they are still only DVD players/burners. Most laptops do not have Blu-ray players inside. Blu-ray simply has not become the “new DVD.” I believe the initial cost, combined with the ridiculous and confusing format war with HD-DVD and the rise of digital downloads and streaming, has relegated Blu-ray to a nicety instead of a must-have. And its future is definitely in question.

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