Time To Buy a Blu-Ray

Consider this my official holiday gift guide column. I'm not going to do a round-up of all my favorite gift ideas. I'm not going to recommend which phone you should buy, which laptop, which Lexus, or whatever. There are plenty of great gift guides to tell you all that (and I've even worked on some of those, myself). I'm not even going to recommend a specific product. I'm just going to tell you to buy a Blu-Ray player. I don't really know which one to buy, and I don't even have one myself. But it's become the number one item on my list, and it should be for you, too.[Image credit: Bill S]

A Blu-Ray player will make everyone happy. Everybody likes movies or TV shows, sold by the season. Personally, I think we're in a golden age of television. Though there is plenty of garbage on the tube every night, the good shows are more thoughtful, complex and interesting than ever before. They have huge budgets behind them, talented actors, and clever writing. Of course, I'll bet critics say this every few years about their current wave of programming, but then won't it be fun to have something to look back on later? To pop in a copy of "Lost" and tell your kids how cool it was, even though it hardly stands up better than the old episodes of "The Prisoner" (which is pretty good, actually)?

Movies look better than ever, and the best way to watch movies is Blu-Ray. Hands-down. You get the fantastic picture, the surround sound, the interesting extras, all in one convenient package. Plus, if you're like many people I know, you've already taken advantage of the huge glut of large screen TVs that are so inexpensive right now. I bought my first HDTV, a 36-inch Panasonic plasma, for nearly twice the cost of today's 55-inchers. Instead of searching through your cable lineup for HD content, or trying to grab some HD channels over the air, go buy some movies that will look great on your set and make you truly happy with your purchase. Or, better yet, in addition to channel surfing, make your Blu-Ray library a part of your entertainment lineup.

Does it sound like I'm shilling for the Blu-Ray industry? I swear I'm not. Like I said, I don't even have a Blu-Ray player myself, but I'm going to get one soon, for good reason.

You might have heard that Blu-Ray is already a dying technology. After all, you can watch streaming movies, in HD, from Netflix. You can download HD movies from iTunes or other online services. You can rent movies on your Xbox console. So why on earth should you buy a Blu-Ray player?

Because the technology behind digital media is not there yet. It's getting close, but there is still a long way to go. First of all, storage has never been cheaper, and storage capacities for digital players is rising exponentially, even as costs are dropping. But there still isn't enough storage to hold all of your movies.

A downloadable HD movie will take up about 4-5 GB of storage space. But that's usually a 720p movie. That should look great on your 30-inch desktop monitor, but on your 55-inch HDTV? It won't deliver the quality you're aspiring to. Larger movies will consume more space, but many download stores aren't even offering full, 1080p movies yet. Plus, if you have a more advanced sound system, current downloads won't take advantage of your system's capabilities. It isn't hard to find a solid 7.1-channel surround setup for under $300, so I'd bet these advanced home theater systems are going to become more prevalent in homes. But with current downloadable content, you won't hear everything to its full potential.

A Blu-Ray movie, which is to say a high-definition, 1080p movie with 5.1-channel (or better) surround sound and all the bells and whistles, takes up between 10GB and 15GB of space, approximately. I have a laptop computer with a 320GB hard disk drive. Many laptops are crammed with 500GB or more, and it isn't unusual to find a desktop in the 2TB range. So, that should be enough storage space, right?

Not really, especially not if you're a movie collector. Even if you could download movies at this quality level, you would quickly fill up a hard drive. Throw in the photos, the music, the home movies, the applications and documents that we all keep on our computers, and you aren't left with enough space to hold more than a handful of high quality films. Want to keep an entire TV series at hand? Think again.

You could always buy an external drive, but those can be a hassle, especially if you want to watch movies while traveling. Portable drives spin at a lower RPM, and they usually aren't meant to handle the heavy load of constant media streaming. In fact, the biggest problem with all hard disk drives is that they are almost guaranteed to go down at some point. Hard drives are like tires. They wear out over time. If you've ever had a drive crash irreparably, and I'm assuming most of you have, you know what I mean. So, are you going to keep a backup of all your saved digital movies? You'll need another external drive just to make sure your films are safe for as long as you want them. And even then, drives always die, eventually.

Netflix and other streaming services are great, and great value, but even with today's faster networks, the streaming services are too heavy for the bandwidth load. Some cable and Internet providers are starting to push back, and there's no telling which way the net neutrality wind will blow. It could shift with every incoming administration. Even at today's data rates, you can't be sure you'll get the best, HD quality content, and even if you do, it won't live up to the quality of a Blu-Ray disc. It won't even come close.

I still have the first DVD I ever purchased. It was The Matrix. I watch it from time to time. Sure, physical media can get scratched or cracked, but with just a modicum of care, they can last for decades. My copy of The Matrix has outlasted 4 different hard disk drives. I used to have a backup of the movie on my computer, but the hard drive went down, and when I went to restore the drive from a backup, that backup was corrupted (damn you, Time Machine!). Now I use 3 separate drives to backup my work computer, but I don't bother keeping my digital media files stored on all three. They would simply take up too much space.

A good Blu-Ray collection can grow to massive levels, and still be enjoyable years down the road. There is also something so much more pleasant about physical media. Would you rather have shelves on a bookcase devoted to Blu-Ray discs, with their cover artwork and glossy cases, or would you rather flip quickly through a list of titles on a machine? Even with all other considerations being equal, which they are not, I would rather be able to stand in front of my titles and have the sensory thrill of pulling each off the shelf, checking out the cover and the details on the back, and replacing it. It's extra work and some organization, but that's a trip down memory road. Organization on a computer? A few clicks and a bunch of typing. Blech.

The real reason I'm pushing Blu-Ray so hard is because I worry about the technology. Blu-Ray players are cheap, but they obviously aren't catching fire like the industry hoped. That's why so many players are filled to the brim with extra, unnecessary features, especially connected Internet features. Skip those, if you like. The real benefit is in the movies themselves. Blu-Ray players can be found easily for under $100, and Blu-Ray discs cost about the same as early DVD movies. As they become more popular, and as they have more competition in digital HD downloads, those prices could come down.

One strange phenomenon of digital media? Nobody wants to sell it cheap, at least not yet. Books, music, movies, these all cost about the same for digital versions as they do for a real physical copy. The most you'll pay for a physical copy of Iron Man 2 on Blu-Ray is about $20, for an edition without all the collectible tchotchkes. That's the same price you'll pay to download an HD copy from iTunes, except that the Blu-Ray is higher quality picture and sound. Like I said, on your laptop screen, or on your iPad, you won't notice the difference. But if you care about quality and you own some nice home theater equipment, you'll see a difference.

I would still hold off on the 3D movie purchases, I think that glasses-free 3D technology is just around the corner, so I wouldn't spring for the current line of 3D sets just yet. Personally, I'm planning on buying a PlayStation 3. I'll probably watch more movies on it than I will play games. It's network connected, and it can receive firmware updates easily, so I think it's one of the more future-proof players around. Case in point, the PS3 got an update in September to handle 3D Blu-Ray movies, if you decide to spring for a more advanced TV set.

But, by all means, go buy a Blu-Ray player. Remember what it was like when you have a treasure trove of high quality films and TV shows at your disposal. Future proof your collection against dying hard drives, and save some money on cheaper films while you're at it. Now is the best time to buy, and the future is still a long ways off.