A dozen years ago, it was common for film fans to wake up on Christmas morning and find a trove of DVDs under the tree. DVDs, and later Blu-Rays, were the go-to gifts from people who love movies to people who love movies. But over the past decade, as disc sales have dropped and streaming video services have displaced physical media, it's an experience that's become far less common: Why purchase a single movie for someone when Netflix, Amazon Prime, and a growing number of other streaming services offer libraries with thousands of films and TV shows for a monthly price less than the cost of a single new movie on disc?
If you did find movies on disc under this tree this year, or if you picked up a few with holiday gift cards, count yourself lucky: Physical media remains superior to streaming in nearly every way as a technical experience. But even more than that, owning movies yourself helps build an emotional connection that's hard to replicate with streaming.
When it comes to picture and sound quality, even the best streaming lags behind physical media
Let's start with the most essential element of the home viewing experience: the picture and sound quality. Physical media, which isn't beholden to the vagaries of internet connections and underpowered home wifi networks, is clearly preferable in most circumstances — even when viewing the highest-quality streaming content on the newest televisions.
Right now, the gold standard in home video is what's known as 4K. That means that the picture is created using at least 8 million pixels — nearly the resolution of the best digital movie projectors. With a standard resolution of 3840x2160 (or the number of lines of pixels on each side of the screen), 4K offers a much denser, sharper image than the older HD standard of 1080p. (RTings.com offers a useful graphic showing the difference between the standards.) But simply put, 4K offers much more picture information than 1080p.
Netflix has been broadcasting some content in 4K since 2014, and Amazon now offers some 4K content too. In theory, these streaming services offer picture quality that is comparable to Ultra HD video discs, the latest in digital video disc technology, and substantially better than a traditional 1080p Blu-ray disc. But when the A/V enthusiasts at WhatHiFi.com compared the three formats earlier this year, they found that the 4K streaming experience was actually more in line with watching a traditional 1080p Blu-ray — and that Blu-rays had a clear advantage in terms of contrast and color. Ultra HD discs, meanwhile, looked far better than either.
Nor can streaming services handle the latest and greatest in surround sound technology — the gloriously rich and detailed seven-speaker sound produced by the Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio standards that have been around on conventional Blu-rays for years. With the right setup, these audio formats can make big action scenes incredibly dynamic: The engine noise in Mad Max: Fury Road becomes a guttural roar; the gunshots in Heat's bank robbery sequence almost seem to pierce your living room walls; the pod race in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ricochets across the speakers as if your couch has been transformed into a desert canyon on Tatooine. Streaming services offer five-speaker sound at lower fidelity, but if you have a modern surround system at home, you're missing out on the full experience.
The problem for streaming is compression: The picture and sound information has to be processed in a way that allows it to be sent efficiently over the internet. And while compression has improved greatly over the years, it invariably means a loss of information along the way. Darker scenes tend to fare the worst, as sunsets that are supposed to gently fade from color to color turn into blocky digital stripes and rooms lit by firelight start to look chunky and pixelated, like web videos from 15 years ago. Discs, on the other hand, are right in the room with you, sent to your television on a high-quality cable, and thus don't suffer from the same issues.
Physical media offers added features and consistent access. Streaming doesn't.
There are other reasons to prefer physical media to streaming services beyond the technical aspects. Blu-rays and DVDs often come packed with extras, from commentary tracks to behind-the-scenes featurettes, that can help you understand the filmmakers and the filmmaking process.
Sure, some of these extras are just promotional material. But from time to time you discover something truly revealing: Full Tilt Boogie, a feature-length documentary about the making of From Dusk Till Dawn that for years came as part of the DVD package, remains one of the weirdest, rawest, and more fascinating looks at the making of a movie I've ever seen. Brad Bird's director's commentary on the deleted scenes of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol shows how focused the production was on nailing the movie's big action set pieces, almost to the point where the connecting material was an afterthought. The Criterion Collection edition of Michael Bay's The Rock is worth it simply for the incredibly profane reel of outtakes.
This sort of extra material helps you understand how the movies you love are made, and the personalities of the people who make them. You won't get any of this sort of filmmaking color from most streaming services.
FilmStruck, a recently launched streaming service geared toward cinephiles, goes a long way toward solving this problem, offering carefully curated programs designed to show off certain films and directors, as well as streaming access to the Criterion Collection, which for years has been the gold standard in collector's edition home video. The service, which is a partnership between Turner Classic Movies and Criterion, makes a good case as a value proposition. "If you buy three Criterion discs a year," Criterion president Peter Becker told IndieWire, "you've already paid for a year of FilmStruck, and a lot of our customers buy more than three discs a year."
But even a movie geek–friendly service like FilmStruck runs into another problem with streaming, which is a lack of permanence and availability. Before FilmStruck, Criterion had offered its streaming collection through Hulu. Then it moved, forcing Criterion fans with Hulu subscriptions to switch or go without. There's no guarantee that an upstart venture like FilmStruck will be around five years from now, and if it is, the titles it offers could easily have changed.
As Netflix subscribers have learned all too well in recent years, streaming services don't offer access to a set list of titles. Instead, they let subscribers pick from a rotating library, meaning you can never be entirely sure that your favorite film won't disappear. Instead, you're stuck with whatever the service decides to offer at the moment. That's not always a bad thing, but it's very different from owning a disc yourself.
Physical discs allow for a deeper connection to your media
More than anything else, though, it's ownership that makes physical media an improvement over streaming services. Ownership means that the unknowable programming gods who manage those services can't unexpectedly take away your favorite movie. Ownership means having a physical object that you can see, touch, hold, and display on your shelf. It means connecting with the thing itself, knowing that it is yours. And it means knowing that you can watch a movie whenever you want, as many times as you want, in the highest possible quality.
That sort of unlimited repeat viewing is an important part of connecting with a film. There's an odd kind of personal transformation that I find happens when I watch a favorite movie over and over again. I stop simply watching the movie and start feeling it, becoming tuned in to its rhythms and nuances, almost experiencing the film as a participant, knowing it from the inside. Eventually, it starts to come back to me in flashes and memories, and I start to see my own life on the film's terms, in its language and ideas. It becomes, in some small sense, a part of me.
This isn't impossible with streaming, of course. You can watch movies over and over and get to know them pretty well. But the unreliability of connections, the picture and sound hiccups, and the lingering uncertainty about whether it will be available — and if so, for how much longer — make it much more difficult to form this sort of lasting connection.
That's not to say that streaming services aren't useful and don't have some real advantages: In terms of price, selection size, and ease of use, they are hard to beat. The original programming alone can make some services worth the price of admission. Ultimately, though, the streaming experience is more like channel surfing: You choose to watch whatever's on, from a selection determined by someone else. With physical media that you own, you choose to watch what you want, from a selection determined by you, or at least people who know you well enough to give you movies as gifts.
Streaming may be cheaper and more convenient, but physical media offers the equivalent of a premium, personalized experience — and it's one that's worth preserving.