I haven't been able to stop thinking about a major piece of tech news this week that has largely gone under the radar: that Disney is set to cease producing physical media and lean 100 per cent into its Disney+ streaming service.
For the time being it's slated that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will be the last physical disc to appear – in Australia, anyway, with other regions surely to be assessed on a business case. But even if you're unlikely to buy that movie on 4K Blu-ray as a swan song of sorts, I still think this decision is a major loss.
Why? Much as I love the best streaming services of today – and, sure, the ease of access has recently helped me watch the best fantasy show I've seen in years after stumbling upon it on a long-haul flight – it's simply a question of quality. Just because something is labelled '4K UHD' on Netflix or Amazon Prime or, indeed, Dinsye+, doesn't mean it's the same actual quality as you'll get on a 4K Blu-ray Disc.
As part of my job I test the best TVs of today – and when it comes to testing out 2023's best OLED TVs, in particular, I will always reach for a 4K Blu-ray source to get the best possible material for such screens. Sure, the resolution is potentially the same between disc and streaming equivalents, but the sheer amount of extra data in the physical media format is way higher.
That additional data means you'll get less blocking, less banding, fewer artefacts, and ultimately just a better experience that's sharper, more pristine, and simply closer to how it's intended to be seen by the director. Do that in a darkened room and, truly, you'll be able to feel the difference in watching a movie from a high-quality disc format (no, not ol' DVD!) compared to streaming it.
Think about it another way: when you head to the cinema for a major movie event, such as seeing Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, the theatre won't just stream a mid-size file from some hard drive. Indeed, in particular reference to that movie in its best-possible format, the use of 70mm projection to exploit its IMAX-shot production will deliver a resolution somewhere in the 8K-18K region. You'll never get to see that on a 4K TV. And in its future streamable format it'll step down a further notch too.
So why is this happening? Well, it's twofold: on the one hand there's the convenience factor, with many people streaming onto all manner of devices in less-than-ideal quality because it's easy; on the other hand, it's a business decision to cease expensive production of physical material and further drive consumers onto a streaming subscription (which, more than likely, you'll fail to cancel month on month, thus being a bigger earner).
I like convenience, of course I do, but I also like the greater spectacle – the event, if you will – of settling down, having specifically decided to watch a given movie, and seeing it in its best-possible quality from a 4K Blu-ray disc. That'll all go away, at least until some boffins fix compression formats to be so smart in the way data is packaged that smaller file-sizes will be able to match up to the same sort of qualities as an original. But I don't see that happening tomorrow, or for streaming services to want to adsorb the cost of higher quality – unless taking YouTube Premium's quality upgrade as the model for success.
And while I've seen others argue that previous formats have had their day – and it's true, from VHS to DVD and so on – and streaming is the obvious format to conquer in the here and now, in those older examples it was (typically) a case of technology improving and enabling greater qualities in new media formats. Streaming is awesome, I'll continue to use it more than anything, but I think it's a major loss for all that its convenience will spell the end of 4K Blu-ray and, therefore, the best possible quality. So I'll certainly be buying more of 2023's best movies on 4K Blu-ray before it's no longer possible...