4K movies from Netflix and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs aren't the same quality
With streaming apps offering instant access to 4K content on televisions, games consoles, computers and streaming sticks and boxes, it's easy to forget about the Blu-ray disc. But, as antiquated as it may seem to reach for the movie shelf and slide a disc into a player, there are still some major benefits that come with physical media.
From improved picture and sound quality, to the joys of curating a movie collection on a lounge shelf, physical media like Blu-rays still have a valid place in even the most connected smart home. Here are some of the reasons why you should still consider buying Ultra HD Blu-rays.
Improved picture and audio quality
The biggest reason to stick with discs, at least for your favorite movies, is the guarantee of perfect picture and sound quality. This is all due to compression and how streaming services like Netflix are constantly fighting to strike a balance between picture quality and the smoothness of each stream.
Readers will surely be familiar with the drop in resolution of streaming movies when your internet connection is struggling to keep up. And even if you have a super-fast connection with water-tight Wi-Fi (or, better still, an Ethernet connection between you and the movie catalogue), compression is still taking place.
Compression is where individual frames of a video are adjusted or even deleted to reduce the overall size of the file, therefore making it easier to stream no matter what speed your internet connection is. If completely uncompressed, a 4K movie would be enormous – too large to fit on your computer, let alone on a Blu-ray disc – so even those on disc are compressed to some degree.
But streamed movies are compressed further, with the quality dynamically changed as your internet speed ebbs and flows. By comparison, the compression and quality of a movie on an Ultra HD Blu-ray disc never changes. It will also play at the highest-possible quality, every single time – and that quality is, for now at least, always higher than a stream.
A higher bitrate means improved picture qualityiStock
How much higher, you might be asking. There is no definitive answer, as a 4K Blu-ray and a 4K stream will both display an image with a resolution of 3840 x 2160. But where they differ is in the amount of data sent to your TV every second, known as the bitrate. Streams from Netflix took a dip in 2020, with 4K falling from around 15Mbit/s (that's megabits per second) to just eight in some cases. At the other end of the streaming spectrum, Apple TV's 4K content can reach 30 or even 40Mbps, according to testing conducted by FlatPanelsHD.
By comparison, a UHD Blu-ray disc can reach over 80Mbps or even 100Mbps, meaning more data is sent to your screen, resulting in a smoother, higher quality image.
Like 4K streams, 4K Blu-ray movies also have HDR and benefit from additional video formats like HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. The extra bitrate and data contained on a disc means these are all improved over their equivalents on a 4K stream.
Another bonus here is how the disc often includes the option for lossless audio, so if you have a quality surround sound system then your ears will benefit from physical media as much as your eyes.
When it comes to getting the best possible quality, you might not care for buying up older movies on UHD Blu-ray, but when it comes to epics like Lord Of The Rings, which was remastered in 4K by Peter Jackson himself, your TV surely deserves more than a low-bitrate stream.
A digital copy is included
It is true that UHD Blu-ray movies generally cost more than digital purchases, and sometimes a single title on disc can cost as much as a month of 4K Netflix. But most of these discs also include a digital 4K version, ready for you to download and watch from services like MoviesAnywhere and Vudu. That way, you can enjoy the full-quality, high-bitrate movie on your home cinema system with the Blu-ray disc, and watch the same movie on your computer or mobile device elsewhere using the digital code.
They will always belong to you, and are region-free
Physical media is always owned by you iStock
Buying physical media is to take ownership of a possession that is truly yours, to do with as you please. You can store them on a shelf, loan them to friends, sell them on, or take them to the charity shop for someone else to enjoy. This is not the case with streaming services, which often make changes to their movie catalogues.
Content regularly come and go from services like Netflix, so you never truly know if your favorite movie will be there when you want to watch it. We like Roku in this situation, as its global search function helps you find movies across as many streaming services as you have accounts for. That way, if a movie disappears from Netflix, Roku might find it for you on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, or somewhere else. It'll also serve up options to buy a digital version too.
While that certainly is convenient, there are still some shortcomings when comparing downloads to discs. This is because the movie catalogues offered by streaming companies vary by region. The Netflix movie collection in the US is not the same as the one in the UK, for example. The same is true of digital purchases, where you might have to jump between two Apple Store regions if you move country and want to re-download movies you purchased years earlier. It is possible to get old, deleted purchases back, but it's not always as straightforward as putting a disc in the player.
Where DVDs and Blu-rays discs were region-locked, often preventing you from playing them in countries other than where they were first bought, UHD Blu-rays do not. They are region-free and can be played anywhere in the world, no matter where the disc and player were purchased.
UHD Blu-ray players to consider
Big names like Samsung and Oppo have all exited the UHD Blu-ray player market in recent years, but that doesn't mean you should avoid buying one from another manufacturer.
As with most technology, the prices of UHD Blu-ray players have fallen considerably since they first arrived a few years ago. The LG UBK80 is currently (in March 2021) around $120, while the Sony UBP-X700 is a little over $200. There are several options around the $250 mark, and some extend up beyond $300 due to their improved HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos capabilities. Some also have Bluetooth connections and Wi-Fi for accessing streaming apps.
The Panasonic DP-UB820-K is currently $500, owing to it having Ethernet and Wi-Fi, as well as supporting 7.1 surround sound, plus being compatible with CDs, DVDs and regular Blu-rays, which it upscales to 4K.
As for the movies themselves, most cost in the region of $15 to $25 when new, with prices falling a little over time. Boxsets can work out cheaper still on a per-movie basis, with some titles falling to just $8 each – less than downloading an inferior 4K movie from a digital service.
Buying a UHD Blu-ray player and movies on disc might feel like a backwards step, and potentially an expensive one too, at least to get started. But if you have a high-end television and sound system, and you appreciate great cinema when you see it, the improved quality alone should justify the extra investment, especially when it comes to contemporary blockbusters.
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