DVD Revisited

I got into DVD pretty quickly, unlike Blu-ray which took me six years after its launch to buy into it. It started with the first computer that I built. I made sure to buy a DVD-Rom drive for it because I was excited about the new movie format. This was 1998. We were aware of Laserdiscs (although never owned them) but friends and I had wondered for years if we would ever get movies on discs the size of CDs. Discs that would replace VHS tapes the way CDs had replaced our music cassette tapes several years before. Finally, here it was. DVD. What we had been hoping for. I knew then it would be a huge success, so I was quick to jump on it.

At the time the improvements were great. The picture quality was better than VHS, the audio quality better than CDs, plus all the other added benefits of a digital optical disc based format. No need to rewind, no degradation in quality over multiple plays, the ability to chapter skip, subtitles that could be turned on and off, perfect pauses, bonus features galore, a smaller size than VHS or Laserdisc and the ability to play them in computers and not just set-top players.

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DVD has been a great format over the years. Yet once I got into Blu-ray I mostly turned my back on it, with a few exceptions. I still burn DVD discs in my computer as a cheap and easy way to store and playback files. Today I’ll take compressed high definition MP4 files and burn them to DVD-R discs for playback in my Blu-ray player which supports file based playback for MP4s and MKVs. While I could use a flash drive or portable hard drive (and I do sometimes), I like making discs because they act as more permanent backups of those files and not just an easy way to play them on my TV. I also watch my old collection of DVD movies here and there. I’ve only replaced a few of them with Blu-ray copies. My intention was never to replace them all. I bought a lot of movies back then that I liked at the time but didn’t love. So there is no need to upgrade them to Blu-ray. That said, I don’t buy any new DVD movies (though I’ve gotten some as gifts) and I avoid renting them as well. I guess you can say I’ve been spoiled by Blu-ray since I’ve gotten into it.

Being a video professional, an indie filmmaker, and a movie buff, I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to get into Blu-ray. Part of it was because I didn’t own a TV for a long time. I was mostly watching movies off my computer which had a 19 inch screen. So I didn’t think I would really notice the difference anyway. Money was also tight for a while there. But when I movied into my new house I bought a new LCD 3D TV and a 3D Blu-ray player. Since then I’ve been hooked on Blu-ray and turned my nose up a bit at DVD, a format that had been so good to me for 14 years.

I shouldn’t be so hard on it. All things considered, it’s still a great format. Yet part of me wishes they had pushed the envelope a little bit further. Maybe gone all the way to 720p (1280×720 pixels) high definition with it or at least half HD at 960×540 pixels rather than the 720×480 pixels it is. That isn’t much more resolution, but every hundred pixels or so counts when you’re below HD resolution.

Had they been able to push it to 720p HD resolution, we may not have even seen Blu-ray hit the market  until UHD Blu-ray, which just came out. The difference between 720p and 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) isn’t so huge that most consumers would have bothered upgrading. But I know that the technology was more limited back in the late 1990s. Both in processing power and software video compression (DVD uses mpeg2/h.262 compression and Blu-ray uses that or mpeg4/h.264 or VC1). So finding a balance between disc space and compression low enough to fit a two hour movie on a disc (while still looking half way decent) must have been a challange, even at standard definition. Plus let’s be honest, HD televisions were still a few years away, so there was no need to go high definition yet.

I think the only reason I wish they had the ability back then to push the resolution a little higher is because I feel like DVD was really the first and last truly penetrative movie disc format. When it came out, most people were still buying and renting films on physical media. Plenty of players were bought as a result and plenty of computers had DVD-roms or burners in them. By the time Blu-ray hit the market people were still mostly buying and renting DVDs. People are still buying and renting DVDs today in 2016. When Blu-ray started to penetrate the market better a few years after its release, we had streaming internet services like Netflix begin to take off, as well as digital downloads.
Computer manufactuers were also starting to move away from including disc drives entirely, so most computers never got Blu-ray readers or burners the way previous computers had gotten DVD readers or burners. Apple for example continued to include its Superdrive (DVD burner) on its laptops up until early 2013. Six years after Blu-ray came onto the market. Even today they don’t offically support Blu-ray playback on their machines but still continue to sell an external Superdrive for those that need one.
Only a few PC manufacturers ever offered a Blu-ray drive option internally in their laptops or desktops. Even then it was a premium option and not a default option unless you were buying a premium machine. So there was no way Blu-ray was going to saturate the market as much as DVD had. The way DVD had become the standard for home movie viewing, the standard for computer disc drives for a time or the standard for in-car visual entertainment systems.

That’s the only reason I wish they had pushed the format a little further in resolution to begin with. Just to future proof it a little more than it is. After all, there is a certain point where more of anything just becomes a diminishing return and that’s true of resolution as well. 720p DVDs would still look great on 1080p TVs and even UHD TVs at the right distance. Even today I still master certain videos I make to 720p resolution simply because it’s good enough for many viewing situations. I never master to standard definition anymore. Plus everything else about DVD was already good enough. The audio quality is 24bit 5.1 channel Dolby Digital or DTS audio. A good enough format to be carried over as the standard default audio for Blu-ray. Most people who have a surround sound setup don’t go beyond 5 speakers and a subwoofer. It starts to get crazy when you have to find physical space to put more than 5 speakers in a room. In fact a lot of people have gone the opposite direction and skipped surround sound altogether these days, opting for sound bars instead. It’s only really your home theater buffs that are pushing anything more than 5.1 surround sound. Personally, I’m not even on a Dolby Digital system myself, I’m still using my old Dolby Pro Logic stereo receiver I got as a Christmas gift back in the early 1990s. So I still haven’t even experienced the full audio quality of DVDs I bought back in the late 90s.
Add to that the fact that DVD had all the basics one really needs on a disc format to begin with.  Chapters and subtitles and menus, all of which Blu-ray improved upon, but nothing that really is all that amazing of an improvement. Had Blu-ray only come with the same menu capabilites that DVD had, I think most of us would have been perfectly fine with it, maybe even preferred it. I still struggle with Blu-ray menus sometimes. Hitting the wrong buttons on the remote and trying to figure out how to get back to the home menu or out of a submenu. DVD is simpler in that way, so I kind of prefer its structure over many Blu-rays.

Of course, that didn’t happen. While I can dream of an alternate world where DVD had a resolution bump to 720p from the start, it doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t happen in our world. It is what it is. Maybe we are better off the way things really did happen. After all Blu-ray got a significant bump to 1080p with better color capability, 3D support and uncompressed audio options. Not to mention 7.1 and Dolby Atmos for the home theater buffs. Like I said before, had DVD come out at 720p HD to begin with, we may have never gotten 1080p Blu-ray because it wouldn’t have ben such a significant bump in quality over what we already had. Plus overall Blu-ray is a great format, even if it didn’t penetrate the market as much as DVD had. Not to mention it’s still around, so who knows, maybe over time it will surge more in popularity, especailly with its new UHD brother hitting the market and offering backward compatibility.

As for DVD itself, honestly even with its standard definition, it’s still pretty darn good. I think I’m just being a bit of a snob.
My son and I just finished watching Blade on DVD on my 42″ HD TV and I have to say it looked good. At least good enough that you really don’t notice once you’re involved in the movie. It certainly faired a lot better than the old VHS tape of Robot Jox I played the other day. It’s still digital and doeesn’t degrade the image quality with more viewings like VHS does. It’s natively higher resolution than VHS as well and it has 16:9 aspect ratio widscreen releases.
I was smart enough to buy most of my DVDs in widescreen from the start, which back then was all about seeing the films in their native widescreen format even on a 4:3 aspect ratio TV. Which meant black bars at the top and bottom. Today those same widescreen DVDs fill my native 16:9 widescreen HDTV. At least more than they did on the old 4:3 TVs. So in that way they were future proof. Plus if the source comes from a high quality master like a film scan, a DVD at the right viewing distance can still look good. Even an older telecine tranfer like Blade still looks good simply because the source material came from 35mm film.

So I guess I shouldn’t knock standard definition too much. I’ve lived with it most of my life and experienced a lot of movies I still love today for the first time on either VHS or DVD. The lower resolution didn’t take away from the magic of a good movie back then and it shouldn’t now (and it really doesn’t). In fact, crazy as it sounds, I’m even warming up to the idea that maybe I liked some movies better on DVD than on Blu-ray. That the extra resolution of 1080p HD takes away some of the magic by making the movies too crisp and high resoution, where you see detail (and thus flaws) you never saw before in some of your favorite older films. But let’s not get too crazy here. For the most part Blu-ray still rules. lol
But I still have to give respect where it’s due, and DVD does deserve it. It’s still a viable format. I guess in a realisitic way it really is the CD of movies. Where CDs were high quality digital copies of music that penetrated the market with a lot of support for a long time and were good enough for most listeners (even audiphiles for a long time), DVDs are that to movies. Good enough for most people most of the time, including cinephiles for many years. But just like audiophiles eventually got even higher quality music formats, so too did cinephiles get higher quality movie formats with the introduction of Blu-ray and now UHD Blu-ray.

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