Disc vs. Streaming: Pros, Cons, and Quality

If you’ve been following my writing (I know there’s at least one of you out there somewhere!) you know that I’m a major fan of packaged media. With a Blu-ray or Ultra HD Blu-ray disc I only have to buy it once and it’s always there, on the shelf, ready to access whenever I want it and offering the best of the best in both picture and sound quality. And it won’t vaporize if I want to see it again but the streaming service decides to no longer offer it.

Even the humble DVD offers the same availability, if not the same technical chops. If you have a 65-inch or smaller screen, even a DVD can often satisfy. For some reason known only to the muses, I recently watched a bit of my seven-season collection of Star Trek Voyager, my favorite Star Trek series. I realize I’m in a small crowd in this preference, but so be it. Those seven seasons, however, do take up a lot of shelf space in their thick plastic cases (though not nearly as much as 10 seasons of Stargate SG-1!). All seven seasons are currently available for streaming on Netflix, so if I didn’t already own the discs, why wouldn’t I stream the episodes instead?

No particular reason, except perhaps quality! To check this out, I queued up a season 2 episode on the Samsung UBD-K8500 player, then watched the same selection from Netflix using the player’s streaming feature. This is strictly a 4:3, 480i source on both disc and streaming. When you stream an old series, at least on Netflix and likely other similar sites, you’ll typically get the original resolution—even if you paid for an HD subscription!

(Aside rant: HD was clearly coming by 1995. Why television producers in the mid 90s didn’t see the handwriting on the wall and (apart from a few exceptions) produce their shows in 16:9 for future HD release remains a mystery. Even in the early 1950s the hit show of the era, I Love Lucy, was filmed for future use rather than the live, one-time and gone, broadcast standard of the time. A few other shows were kinescoped—filmed from a CRT screen. But those kinescopes are unwatchable today, apart from archived research, while Lucy is still syndicated everywhere, 60 years after it was first produced.)

It didn’t tale long to see that the Voyager DVD looked significantly better than the streamed version. Both were definitely soft in the way 480i always is compared to HD, but the streamed version was clearly the softest. And at 480i we can’t blame the differences on download bandwidth limitations. On my 65-inch screen, even the largest lettering in the opening credits looked noticeably sharper on the DVD. I also saw artifacts on the streamed version, particularly on the ship in the opening titles, which were absent on the DVD.

The streamed version is watchable if you aren’t too fussy, or if your screen is significantly smaller, but I was happy to shut it off as soon as possible. But the DVD, while hardly competitive with even average HD, drew me in to the point that I watched two full episodes even though I had intended to sample only a few minutes! That inferior quality isn’t universally true of all video streaming. HD programming, at least on a 65-inch screen, can look very good as long as your download bandwidth is up to it. I watched two episodes of Netflix’s well photographed (but ultimately boring) Marco Polo. The on-screen display read 480 early in the episode, but later alternated between 720 and 1080 (the player’s on-screen display leaves off the “i,” but it’s a safe assumption that the indicated resolutions were 480i, 720p, or 1080i). The second episode’s readout was 2160 (likely 2160p, for the 3840 x 2160 resolution of consumer 4K). But there were no significant visible differences between the 720, 1080, and 2160 images.

On Amazon (Prime) Instant Video, most of the programming I sampled looked even worse than the 480i material I sampled on Netflix, possibly because much of it originated from older, poorly produced 480i programming. Perhaps better versions of such material exist. But are streaming services spending a lot of time and money sorting through all the available options for a given source? Or they more interested in offering the most variety, accepting the first version (and/or the cheapest) offered to them without sweating to satisfy the video purist? But Amazon did hit the nail on the head with at least one title. The Man in the High Castle (highly recommended if you haven’t already discovered it) was clearly HD quality.

The bottom line is that streaming is not guaranteed to provide what you’ll get from a well-produced disc. Nor does it offer the same variety—at least not yet. And it’s an open question as to whether or not the video quality of streaming might continue to improve. Can the available bandwidth keep up with increasing demand, or will even more compression be necessary?

As for the audio component of a streamed video source, it can be decent, but Dolby Digital+, which is almost universally used for AV streaming, is still lossy. It can’t equal Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio, both of which are uncompressed. As I’ve said elsewhere, DD+ was not developed to improve on the quality of DD. DD+ was developed to offer DD quality with higher compression to save on bandwidth. In theory it can offer better results than plain vanilla DD when used with less compression. But streaming services are interested in saving bandwidth, not using more of it. And with much of their audience delighted to listen to music in MP3, why bother? When I watched Chicken Run in HD on Netflix, the picture quality on a 65-inch screen left little to be desired (why has this titled never been released on a U.S. Blu-ray??) but the sound was mediocre at best.

I understand the appeal of streaming; it’s both cheaper and more convenient than the packaged media alternative. Currently you can purchase all seven seasons of Voyager from Amazon for about $125 on DVD (it has never been released on Blu-ray). That’s a lot to swallow for many viewers—though far cheaper than when the DVDs were originally released a decade or more ago. Most viewers won’t mind the slightly fuzzier look of the streamed version, particularly on 50-inch and smaller screens. But I’d rather not watch it at all than endure mediocre picture quality for 170 episodes!

jnemesh's picture

I routinely rent movies on Vudu...even though I have about a dozen or more places I can rent from. Why? Because their "HDX" streaming is ALMOST indistinguishable from Bluray. You can still see some compression, but it looks WAY better than Netflix, Amazon, HBO Go, or Google Play!

I still buy my movies on Bluray...though I am buying less and less of these. When I OWN a movie, I want to PHYSICALLY own a copy, that I can play at anytime, online or offline...whether the movie studio or the streaming company is still in existence or not! I DO appreciate Disney's approach...buy the Bluray, get a code that will link your purchase to whatever streaming service you like...quick and easy (once you set up your initial account anyway).

prerich45's picture

All of streaming audio is inadequate if you are use to listening to BD disc. It just sounds weak IMHO.

brenro's picture

If you've spent the money for a high end 4k TV and Dolby Atmos capable sound system streaming your video just isn't going to get it.

Deus02's picture

I found that out with the movie The Martian. I streamed the movie just to find out if I liked it enough to ultimately buy the disc. I did like it and bought the disc watched it again realizing right from the outset, I should have made the purchase anyway. A superior, uncompressed soundtrack and a video reproduction upscaled on a 4K television, comparison to streaming? No comparison and we are not even talking about the extras included in the box.

In future and when the movie is to my liking, I will always continue to buy the hard copy.

etrochez's picture

We stream most of our content, but I still have a BLuray subscription with Netflix. Every time I watch a movie on Bluray, I'm so amazed with the quality. I hope discs never die.

K.Reid's picture

I am not willing to sacrifice quality picture and sound for convenience. Oh, and Star Trek Voyager was my fav. Especially the episode entitled 'Scorpion' where we got to see Species 8472 and, of course 7 of 9.

canman4pm's picture

Mmmmm... 7 of 9...

letsfooty's picture

euro 2016 live on Real HD connected via screencast