By Melinda Byerley
Believe it or not, we didn’t own a Blu-ray player until a few weeks ago. No, we aren’t Luddites. In fact, I work in the Internet marketing business and we're tech-savvy folks that have many of the latest gadgets in our home.
But my partner and I (we’ll call him F) still have a nearly 10-year-old DVD player. Mostly, this is because we keep only one small television in a small apartment, and because my partner likes to live frugally. Think of the thriftiest person you know and double their thriftiness—you’ll get close to what F is like. It’s part of his charm.
He just didn’t see a reason to buy another format-specific device. So when DVD Netflix asked me to take the Blu-ray challenge, I couldn’t wait. Given our appreciation for technology, and our love for movies on DVD, it made no sense that we hadn’t moved to Blu-ray yet.
The challenge: Determine if the ultra-frugal F would find the slightly higher cost of Blu-ray service (~$3/month) from DVD Netflix to be as good a value as the classic DVD service, where we've enjoyed a 2-disc plan for almost fifteen years! A devoted and discriminating movie buff, F was eager to see how how his favorite movies would look on Blu-ray.
We discussed the shows and movies we could watch and settled on three for comparison’s sake:
Game of Thrones, Season 5 to compare streaming on HBO Go to Blu-ray service.
Pixar’s Up as a full digital medium that featured colors and animation that we felt would provide a worthy challenge to the competitors.
Inception as a live-action movie with great visuals that was shot mostly on film.
Would F decide to spring for Blu-ray? It was time to find out. We rented each title in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. We watched the DVD versions on our old player, and the Blu-ray versions on a new player from Samsung. Both were connected by the same HDMI cable to the television. In the case of the streaming test, we streamed HBO Go over WiFi via our Amazon Fire Stick.
Game of Thrones: HBO Go Streaming vs. Netflix DVD Blu-ray
For this test, we chose “Hardhome” (S5, E8) from Game of Thrones. We both remembered the intensity of the White Walkers streaming down from the mountains, and the intense amount of CGI. We wanted to see how Blu-ray would change our perception of this thrilling, graphics-heavy episode.
Starting from the scene of the tribe debate in the hut, we could already notice a difference: details in the shadows were now visible on Blu-ray in a way that hadn't been on DVD. We could see the colors in the fire and the contrasting icy blue downlight from the overhead opening in the hut. We immediately noticed more details in the costumes and hair, too: the textures of leather, metal, wood, fabric, and skin became far more detailed.
When the action moved outside, it emphasized just how many details had gone unnoticed before. We had never before seen that Jon Snow’s sword has the carved head of a Direwolf, or that the patterns in the fabrics of the Free Folks were embedded with varying tribal images.
On streaming, it was as though the White Walkers were like gray clouds. But in Blu-ray, they were rendered in frightening detail. We could see the head White Walker emerge from the fire much earlier than we had on streaming.
Within 60 seconds of watching the episode in Blu-ray, we were shocked at how much better the quality was. By the time we finished the scene, there was no contest: Blu-ray was better.
F put it this way:
And that was before we found the special features that would enable us to keep track of Game of Thrones’ vast world and characters with in-line references and explanations.
We don’t have surround sound, so it’s difficult for us to evaluate the quality of the sound at the same level, but we both felt the sound was richer. Like the superior picture quality, it just “contained more information” and made for a more complete experience.
Round one summary: Blu-ray is the slam dunk winner for the richness of detail vs. streaming's quality.
The difference between DVD and Blu-ray was not as stark as the difference between streaming and Blu-ray, but what we noticed is that colors were richer, sound was fuller, and we could find details more in the shadows. We noticed that the main characters' faces had details we hadn’t seen before, like the tiny liver spots on Carl’s face. We noticed that the balloons themselves had more of a translucency to them, and we could see them casting colorful shadows on the world around them.
Perhaps most outstanding, though, was the bird named Kevin. His feathers were luminescent on Blu-ray in a way that they aren't on DVD. In fact, we went back to the DVD to make sure we weren’t just making this up. Kevin’s feathers on Blu-ray are like a painting with iridescence, shine, and richness of color that cannot be perceived on DVD. We were also excited to watch the additional special features on the Blu-ray that are not on the DVD: voice-over commentary, more shorts, and different endings.
F’s comment: "It wasn’t as obvious as it was with streaming, but you get everything you pay for with Blu-ray, the whole picture with all the information that the filmmakers wanted you to have."
Round two summary: Advantage to Blu-ray for enhancing Kevin’s beautiful feathers and for the glorious rendering of the translucent balloons.
Inception: DVD vs. Blu-ray
This film was for me. I'm fascinated by the way Inception uses time, both in slow motion and in crosscuts. There is both CGI and film, with varying locales. Christopher Nolan used 35mm film at 1000 frames per second (not digital and not 3D) to shoot many of the slow motion scenes, which rendered water splashes, flying concrete, and drops of blood in ridiculous amounts of detail when I saw the film in the theater.
As a writer, I was eager to delve into Inception's plot again, and I hoped Blu-ray might help me enjoy the film as much as I did in the theater.
As this film was a little bit older, I thought it would provide a more accurate representation of how well Blu-ray could enhance films that weren’t entirely shot on digital or made on a computer. In fact, Nolan only shot about 500 special effects/CGI shots in Inception, about ⅓ to ¼ of the special effects shots that are used in most blockbusters today. Yet the film doesn’t look dated, old, or soft.
From the cracks in Ken Watanabe's "old age" makeup in the opening scene to the lovingly recreated modern Paris, Blu-ray delivered a visual experience that not only surpassed that of our well-worn DVD copy, but exceeded our expectations.
"Watching a film in Blu-ray is like wearing glasses for the first time," proclaimed F. "You can see details you never saw before, and everything is sharper, more in focus."
Round three summary: Blu-ray delivered the knockout punch to our DVD player with Inception, allowing me to see the depth of field Nolan intended. Many of the shots in the film are in extensive deep focus, with details in the foreground and background, and plenty of color, texture, and shadow. A film that took ten years to write surely deserves the best experience we can give it in our homes.
I asked F what he thought the value of Blu-ray would be worth as an add-on to our subscription (remember, I hadn't told him what an upgrade would cost).
For our 2 disc at-a-time plan, the additional monthly cost is actually only $3. F was happy with the price, and I’m happy with the quality. If you love movies and want to see everything the filmmakers intended, take it from the notoriously frugal F, who said that "Blu-ray is a no-brainer." And if Frugal F's perspective is not enough to convince you, take a moment to read Anne Silverthorn's take on Blu-ray vs. DVD.