Is Physical Media Worth It Today?

Yes. Of Course. But let’s argue why and why not anyway.

I love physical media. I grew up with all kinds of it. Vinyl, 8 Track, Reel to Reel Tape, Cassettes, CDs, VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, MiniDisc, DAT, DCC, DVD, Blu-Ray and now UHD Blu-ray. While I didn’t own all of these formats, I was aware of them and got to play with them at least once or twice. At some point they all fascinated me. I’m sure I’m leaving a few out as well. There were so many over the course of the last forty years. Not to mention all the video game cartridges or one-off formats made for kids that I’ve probably forgotten existed.

While most people have never heard of all of these formats, some did have a lifespan and purpose that made them popular in certain circles, even if they weren’t well known or used at all by the masses. Such as DAT (Digital Audio Tape). A popular format among audio recording professionals, like those out on location recording sound for film.

But is any of this still worth it today in the age of the internet and solid state memory cards?
Well first of all, we have to recognize that solid state memory cards, no matter which kind you’re using, are in fact a form of physical media. They just aren’t the kind you typically keep media on for long periods of time as a storage device. They’re typically used as an intermediary for recording files (video, audio, or other data) and then dumped to a larger capacity solid state drive or hard disk drive. Either locally and/or in the cloud, which is really just some else’s hard drive. Let’s not forget that.

To be fair, some of the older physical media was used in a similar way. For example, people using the same VHS or Betamax tape to record their favorite weekly television shows or sports games, simply recording over last week’s episode or game. I’m sure the same was sometimes true of all the re-recordable media on my above list. Though the vast majority of these formats were used for long term storage. With the idea being that you either record something to keep or buy something on that media that is permanently there. Such as a pressed vinyl record, CD, Minidisc, DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-ray or UHD Blu-ray.

At one point physical media was everywhere. I think it probably hit its peak around the turn of the millennia. I remember buying cereal boxes with movies on DVD inside of them. Not something I see today. Nor something I saw years before DVDs existed.
By that point, disc media was everywhere. It was cheap to produce compared to video and audio tape, or large vinyl records. The internet had yet to take off with the masses, nor did it have the bandwidth to handle that kind of media yet. It also wasn’t an always on solution, with dial-up being the most common form of connection, where your computer modem hooked into your home or business phone line, sacrificing your phone usage while you were online. Unless you had more than one phone line.
Ironically it would be CDs that would get many people on the internet, in the form of AOL (America Online) installation discs, which where everywhere in the mid to late 1990s. At one point making up half the CDs that were produced worldwide.

Today most of us have some form of high speed, always connected internet. We also have higher quality, smaller file size audio and video formats. Codecs like AVCHD (H.264) and HEVC (H.265) as well a MP3 and AAC (M4A) and even FLAC for audio. These file types provide high quality while reducing file size. As an example. DVD was built to hold 4.7 or 8.5 gigabytes of data, depending on if it’s a single or dual layer disc. Enough space for a standard definition movie or two using the default MPEG2 video compression codec that was used for DVD video. However if the format were to be reinvented today using the same disc capacity, we could use the H.265 (HEVC) codec instead of MPEG2 and fit high definition 1080p video on it at a quality that most people would be perfectly happy with. In fact most internet video streaming services deliver HD video at around those file sizes today. Typically less. You could even fit 4K (UHD) video in that file size, though very compressed. One would argue if you gained anything doing that over using less compressed HD video.
The point remains that modern video and audio codecs allow for smaller file sizes and higher resolutions, which translates to easier delivery over the internet.

So where are we today?
Today many if not most people stream audio and video over the internet. Especially younger generations. It’s just easier to pay a monthly fee, which is often auto-deducted from a debit or credit card, to a service that will give you access to thousands if not millions of movies and music albums. No matter the device you’re using. Be it your television, computer, game console or phone. It’s hard to pass up. Even for people who do enjoy physical media, such as myself. I’ve been know to subscribe to a few of these pay services in the past. Though only one at the moment.

Increasingly there are more and more free services popping up that are ad supported. The most popular and oldest of which being Youtube. A service I don’t usually lump in with the others since it’s mostly user generated content. But… let’s be fair, some of those users are making their living off the video content they produce. And not just a living, but serious bank. They’ve become celebrities in their own right, with endorsements. In fact when my son told me he wanted to be a youtuber when he grows up, when he was younger, I kind of laughed. “That’s not a job” I said. Yet he was right. Though to be fair, I probably said something more practical like “It’s not a job most people will succeed at” in the way most people don’t become successful film directors or rock stars or athletes. Not that I was trying to knock the kid’s spirit down, but I grew up with parents that told me I could be whatever I wanted to be and I ended up wanting to be a film director. They never tried to persuade me otherwise.
That didn’t really pan out as well as I had hoped. Once the reality of it all hit in my early twenties. Now I look back and wish my parents had pushed more practical career advice on me. Still, I would support my son in whatever he wants to do.

With that little side story out of the way, there is another option besides streaming.

With all the hype surrounding streaming services today, we often forget about digital downloads or just files on a computer you obtain some other way, like ripping your CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs. This is really the first way. Before streaming became popular.

In the late nineties it was all the rage to rip your CDs and compress them to MP3 files. You could then load all of those up in a program like Winamp or later iTunes, making them easier to play. You could even create playlists and later burn those playlists to CD-R discs and then to portable MP3 players. Apple’s line of iPods would come to dominate for several years before the transition to smart phones with MP3 and AAC files on them and then also as streaming devices.

With increased hard drive capacity over the last decade or so, along with more efficient video codecs, the same can be said about movies and TV shows. People ripping their DVDs, Blu-rays and even UHD Blu-rays to digital files they then play locally on their computer or over their network (or even the internet) with a platform like Plex or Emby installed on all ends. Creating what is essentially a personal streaming service of their own, using their own digital audio and video files. I’m one of those people. Having had a Plex server set up in my home for the last year or so. Which is super nice.
Now that I’ve had one for this long, I’m kind of shocked I didn’t set up a home media server years ago. Which ultimately leads me to writing this article.

Despite knowing about such things as home media PCs and even having tried out Windows Media Center, I think I didn’t see much point in it in the past. At some point in the aughts (2000s), Apple started selling movies and TV shows through the iTunes store. As did other services. I bought one season of Battlestar Galactica (reimagined) in standard definition, along with another movie and was generally dismayed by it all. While it was nice and easy to download an episode or season or movie, the tight, restrictive DRM (Digital Rights Management) controls in place made it nearly impossible to enjoy that media. There was a time I couldn’t even watch that media on my nineteen inch LCD monitor connected to my Macbook because I was connecting to it with an analog VGA cable rather than a secure DVI cable. iTunes wouldn’t allow it. Most likely because the movie studios wouldn’t allow it. Making sure that content couldn’t be stolen was apparently a bigger priority than making sure people who legally bought that content could easily enjoy it on the device of their choosing. Which is ironic as this was around the same time Apple was unlocking all their music files because people had been complaining about the restrictive DRM on those.

So what did I do? I skipped it. I just stuck with discs and other forms of media that were less restrictive. But it also didn’t make a ton of sense to me at the time to rip my movies to my hard drives, as movies were a lot bigger than music CDs that were compressed to MP3 files. Could I have compressed the movies more? Sure. But I’m more of a cinephile than an audiophile. I would noticed the difference in reduced video quality more than audio compression quality. Plus CDs use uncompressed audio, DVDs are already low resolution compressed copies of films.

Today, with higher resolutions and high quality codecs like H.265(HEVC), or even higher bitrate H.264(AVCHD) files, it’s not so much of a problem. In fact I’m perfectly happy with a Blu-ray that has been compressed to a 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 ratio using 10bit HEVC. Is there a difference? Sure. But I can barely tell on my fifty-five inch TV from nine feet away. Plus I’m getting older and my vision isn’t as good as it used to be. But we also have to remember that in the past I lived with DVDs and VHS tapes for more than the first half of my life, so things have gotten better. Even compressed HD files are better than DVD and VHS.

What changed my mind?
Like most people I chose convenience. The fact that hard drive capacities have gone up and prices have fallen, combined with better video compression codecs like HEVC, it meant that it finally made sense to start ripping discs to drives and putting together a home media server. This may not apply to everyone. For people with thousands of (UHD) Blu-rays and DVDs, it may not be financially sound to do that. Yet. Even if it is, it may not be worth the time and effort to rip and convert (compress) all those discs. Which is probably the more likely case. The time and effort is massive. But I only had several hundred discs, not several thousand. And I’ve done those rips over a couple years. Even now I still haven’t ripped and converted all of them.

At this point though, I’m so used to using streaming services and being able to browse through movie posters on a screen (instead of disc box spines on a shelf) or search something out with a search box, that it just made sense to rip and convert my physical media so I could do the same with it.

Today I barely touch the discs, they just sit on my shelf looking pretty.
I like having them there as a backup in case of a hard drive failure. I also like physical media as a principle. I like something I own and not rent and I like the packaging (well… some of it). A lot of newer discs in those cheap recycle boxes can turn me off. But I have to admit that digital files are easier. I can load up my Plex server on any TV in my house, which all have Roku, and I can pull up any of my movies or TV shows or even home videos. Without having to go out and get a disc and load it up and wait for all the warnings to pass and skip through all the movie trailers and promos. It’s just a lot easier with a file on a Plex server. So much so, that my girlfriend regularly uses Plex as well, and I’m not sure I ever saw her go to the shelf to pull a disc down to watch. Though I’m sure she has at some point.

So is physical media still worth it? Yeah, but only as a delivery method to get it from the distributor to your local media server and only as a backup to said files on said media server and only if the artwork and packaging is something worthwhile, and that’s something you care about (which most people don’t, unlike myself). And the only reason for any of that is because those distributors aren’t delivering Blu-ray quality digital downloads over the internet without DRM at the bargain bin prices you can usually buy movies for in big box stores. If they were, well then, I’m not sure physical media would matter much anymore for most people. It would just be easier, and more flexible, without any quality loss, to buy them as a digital download.

But wait a minute… that’s not all physical media is good for, delivering movies and TV shows and prerecorded music.
What about all our own content? Photos, home videos, audio recordings.

The truth is most people record that kind of stuff with their smart phones today and a lot of times it just sits on those devices and people look at it there. If it leaves those devices at all, it typically goes to some kind of social media account like Facebook or Instagram or Youtube or Twitter or any of the other newer services that have popped up over the years. Often at more compressed (lower) quality than the original file on the device. But people don’t seem to mind much. Some people will back that content up to a cloud server for safe keeping, but those usually cost money every month. So like streaming services, you’re constantly paying.
Sometimes people back those files up to their own computer and local hard drives. Even more rare, some people put that content on recordable physical media like CD-R, DVD-R or BD-R (Blu-ray). But sadly, those formats aren’t the best for long term storage. The dyes on the discs that the laser burns into will fade over the years, making the discs unreadable. Unlike the commercially pressed discs you buy at stores with professional content on them (movies,  music, etc.). Though even they have a shelf life, even if it’s much longer than a recordable disc. All of my oldest pressed CDs play back fine nearly thirty yearly later. Same with my DVDs that are twenty-three years old. But just two days ago I tried to play a CD-R disc I made back in 2003, and it was not having it. Although many of those older discs do still work fine for me. It’s hit or miss.

There is also M-Disc, which is a newer technology for burning optical discs, which is supposed to last longer. So says the US Navy. Though I haven’t tried it and even if I did, it would take twenty to thirty years before I could report back on that for you. But I will probably pick one up anyway at some point here. Along with with an ever increasing number of hard drives as the years go on.

Either way, it’s worth mentioning that physical media still does play a part in backing up our own generated media. Even if the number of people doing that is decreasing rapidly. Personally, I back up most of my home videos to Blu-ray (in the playable Blu-ray format) and put them on my shelf with my other Blu-ray discs, if just for the fact that it’s easier for people to find should something happen to me. It’s that of navigating my endless labyrinth of folders and files on my various hard drives. In that sense, physical media is still easier.

Let’s not forget all the other formats either. My Minidiscs I love, my MiniDV tapes, Video8 tapes, the endless boxes of VHS tapes I still have for some reason, the vinyl I keep around for hipster cred and a few old audio cassettes I can’t depart with because that just seems wrong.

I could keep going on. This topic endlessly fascinates me (what a nerd!). But I’ve already written a small novel here, so I think I’ll call it a day on this post. Let me know your thoughts below. If I don’t see them for months or even years, forgive me. I tend to miss my notifications here. I’m not trying to be a jerk. I appreciate you taking to time to read my ramblings.

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