Why Blu-ray is Still the Reigning King
The DVD was unleashed on the Japanese public all the way back in 1996 and the Blu-ray format has been around for 11 years already, meaning we were absolutely due for another shakeup. That transition began with the introduction of the Ultra High Definition (UHD) Blu-ray format and the first movie releases in early 2016. A year and a half later, we have a couple hundred UHD releases on disc, streaming content from the likes of Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and Vudu, plus straight to your DVR from several cable and satellite providers, among other sources. Discounting the fact that many early UHD releases were simply upscaled versions of existing films, to the untrained eye, it would appear that the revolution was well on its way. However, the truth is far more complex because UHD still has a long way to go before it becomes as ubiquitous as the Blu-ray format it is trying to supplant. Lest you be led astray…
…by all the marketing from TV and disc player manufacturers, along with the studios releasing ever more UHD movies, desperately attempting to separate you from your hard-earned money, I want to assure you that Blu-ray is still king and will be for some time, at least for the home theater PC (HTPC) enthusiast. Before we get to that, let’s cover some of the incredible things UHD brings to the table and why you should still be excited about it.
The Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA) completed the UHD specification in 2015 and the first UHD player followed in 2016. Those of you old enough to remember the advent of Blu-ray likely will also recall the “red” HD-DVD format, which lost out to the “blue” Blu-ray. Thankfully, we do not have a competing standard this time around and UHD is the only man standing. What UHD has unleashed on the masses is quite substantial, starting with the well-known increase in resolution from Blu-ray’s 1920×1080 (1080p) to UHD’s nearly jaw-dropping 3840×2160 (2160p). As you may have noticed, the marketing geniuses have already found their groove and are playing loose with numbers. Obviously, they couldn’t use “HD” this time around since that almost universally refers to 1080p. Likewise, “UHD” simply isn’t very sexy, is it? They must have realized that 2160p doesn’t just roll off the tongue and, hey, 3840 is really close to 4000 and consumers love bigger numbers, so they are marketing UHD televisions, as well as the content itself, as “4K” or “4K Ultra HD”. WARNING: MATH! To comprehend the difference it makes going from 1080p to 4K, we need to figure out the number of tiny pixels your TV or computer monitor needs to control by multiplying the width of the resolution (1920) by the height (1080) to come up with 2,073,600 pixels. That’s already a fairly large number, but 4K brings us 3840 x 2160 for a total of 8,294,400 pixels, which is four times what Blu-ray is capable of! That is seriously impressive, but it actually is not the coolest trick UHD has up its sleeve.
The reason is quite simple, really: Bigger isn’t always better! Don’t believe me? How often do you go to the theater nowadays? Forget about the price, the texting, the talking, and the neverending advertisements which cause the movie to start 30 minutes after its scheduled time. You don’t go because the experience just is not worth it; ultimately, the screen size is not enough to excite people. If it were, IMAX would be obliterating the regular theater chains. Additionally, people would never bother watching TV or movies on their phones or tablets if screen size was a major selling point. If size isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, then what is the big deal with UHD?
While it is not exclusive to UHD, as all 4K content is capable of it, the part of UHD that has the most potential is called High Dynamic Range (HDR). I won’t go into too much detail, but what pulls this off is a combination of adding 10 & 12-bit color depth support and Wide Color Gamut (WCG) Recommendation 2020 (Rec. 2020) to the UHD specifications, as well as increasing the brightness requirements in 4K televisions themselves. Throw all that technobabble into the blender and, in simplest terms, it allows HDR to provide a wider range of colors for the content to utilize; where Blu-ray is capable of 16.7 million colors, UHD is capable of over a billion. For perspective, a talented artist can easily create a beautiful piece of artwork with just a black pen (essentially, black & white TV). Give them a hundred different shades of grey for the same piece and that artwork will change dramatically (high definition TV). Now, give them thousands of shades of grey and imagine the magic they are capable of unleashing; this is what HDR is doing for content creators. However, rather than simply giving the creator thousands of shades of grey, they are being given thousands of shades of every color. To give you a real world example where you would immediately see the benefit, think of all the dark movie scenes where you have noticed that faces are nearly invisible. The additional shades of color available allow HDR to rectify that with ease. Now, consider what HDR can do to more colorful scenes and you should start to see (no pun intended) its potential, and why a “smallish” 40-55” 4K display that supports HDR is still a great upgrade; but, that’s a topic for a different day.
After reading about just a couple of the improvements included with UHD, you may be wondering why this article is titled as it is. The answer lies primarily in a “feature” of UHD which has yet to be discussed: Digital Rights Management (DRM). Much to our detriment, Hollywood learned its lesson well when the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) was broken, in addition to every version of High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) similarly being bypassed by curious and industrious technophiles. If you think Hollywood was concerned about pristine copies of Blu-rays being made, imagine how worried they are about UHD copies.
Potential piracy is the reason 4K content is primarily only available via streaming services, but broadcasters are still taking baby steps in embracing 4K. You can absolutely forget about the final season of Game of Thrones being broadcast in glorious 4K, a show so dark it is practically begging for just a fraction of those billions of colors. Hollywood requires 4K content to be locked down tight like never before and the methods are not uniform across platforms. For example, in order to stream 4K content from Amazon, you basically need to use their Amazon Video app, which means a Fire TV or Fire TV Stick, a streaming media player, such as the Roku 4, a smart TV or Blu-ray player, a game console, or your Apple/Android smartphone or tablet. Unlike regular Amazon streams, you cannot fire up your PC and begin watching 4K content in a browser. The situation is nearly identical over on Netflix. However, at least there, you can watch 4K content on your PC by using Microsoft’s Edge browser, which just happens to only be available in Windows 10. Beyond the exclusive apps, your TV will likely need to support the latest DRM, which means HDMI 2.0a/DisplayPort 1.3, plus HDCP 2.0 or 2.2.
Now that we have covered the issues faced on streaming sites, let’s turn our attention to playing your newly unwrapped copy of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 in 4K Ultra HD on your computer. First off, because your old Blu-ray drive cannot read the more densely packed data on a UHD disc, you will need to shell out for a UHD Blu-ray drive. Second, are you running some flavor of Linux? Then, go pound sand. Seriously, until those industrious technophiles make a cameo at this party, Linux is reduced to being the unpopular kid at school, due to the DRM requirements. For Windows users–like it or not–you will have no choice but to purchase Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 17 software, which only supports UHD under Windows 10 because of the extreme DRM requirements set forth by Hollywood studios. Arcsoft’s TotalMedia Theatre ceased to exist back in 2014 when the support pages mysteriously vanished from its website without a word from Arcsoft. Now, assuming you are okay buying PowerDVD, don’t go thinking that any Windows 10 PC is acceptable because Hollywood wanted to make this as difficult as possible. Did you build an Intel-based PC just last year? How about that brand new AMD Ryzen PC you saved up for and only finished yesterday? Put on that dunce cap and go sit in the corner because you are relegated to the same status as Linux. The fact is, you will need to have an Intel 7th generation (Kaby Lake) processor, or above, and it must support the Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) technology–more DRM–and the same goes for your motherboard. If you think you can use your NVIDIA or Radeon GPU, think again; you are forced to use the integrated GPU of your Intel processor in the form of either Intel HD Graphics 630 or Intel Iris Graphics 640. Finally, like the streaming apps, your monitor will need to support HDMI 2.0a/DisplayPort 1.3, plus HDCP 2.2.
It should be painfully obvious that Hollywood is making this unfathomably difficult. The easiest path at the moment is to buy a stand-alone UHD Blu-ray player and hook it up to your TV, assuming it supports the requisite DRM of HDMI 2.0a/DisplayPort 1.3 and HDP 2.0 or 2.2; otherwise, it’s time for a new TV. Hopefully, you weren’t one of the people who bought early 4K TVs in 2014 and even 2015–which are perfectly capable of displaying 4K content–but are still out of luck because they don’t have the proper HDMI or HDCP version. Now, consider the fact that we can do just about anything we want with regular Blu-ray discs (DMCA be damned), such as rip them, convert them, compress them, or stream them, all thanks to the DRM having been broken years ago. You have plenty of free software players to choose from, as well as numerous conversion programs to manipulate Blu-ray content to whatever your heart desires. Conversely, Hollywood’s piracy concerns are seriously hampering the adoption of UHD because they are making consumers jump through so many hoops in order to access it and, even when you can, you are still limited with what they will allow you to do. Much like the DRM in games, the sad reality for Hollywood is that all this effort is for naught because, eventually, the DRM will be broken and UHD content will flow as freely as Blu-ray content does today, without having to spend a ton of unnecessary money on new hardware or software. At that point, people will be more than happy to embrace the format, using whatever method best suits their needs. Since the dawn of that day has not yet risen over the kingdom, Blu-ray is still the reigning king.