Quality vs. convenience/quantity, all over again

I just don’t get it. Which is nothing new.

What don’t I get? The thunder of voices saying not only that they all use Netflix streaming (or Hulu) instead of DVD and Blu-ray, but that everybody should. (Well, some of these voices just mention DVD, either saying that Blu-ray is a fraud or simply ignoring it.)

And, in many cases, asserting that there’s no difference in picture quality between streaming through any ordinary broadband and DVD/Blu-ray.

It’s your choice

So far, it’s your choice. Netflix is certainly encouraging people to go with streaming, especially given the changes in subscription prices. They won’t offer us a “no streaming” option for a slight discount, but they’re now offering a “no DVD” option…and increasing the prices for DVDs, albeit only slightly.

Here’s the thing, though. We didn’t get an HDTV until just three or four months ago–in part because our 12-yr-old Sony XBR had such a superb picture, one we’d paid a lot of money for at the time. But with the cutoff of analog TV (although we could still use cable) and the growing percentage of shows broadcast widescreen, we finally took the plunge.

We took some care to buy a set with a first-rate picture. We picked up a Blu-ray player. After watching one movie in Blu-ray, we switched our Netflix subscription to Blu-ray as a preference, and probably 80% of the movies we get now are in that format. Yes, we can see the difference–although DVD as upconverted by the player is certainly still very enjoyable, Blu-ray is a lot better.

As for TV itself (an antenna isn’t an option here without a humongous rooftop tower), Bones is the extreme example: Comcast gave us a consistently crappy analog image last year–and Bones in HD is magnificent. Just magnificent.

We don’t watch much current TV–it comes out to 7.5 hours a week. Some nights, we either watch a full-length movie or catch up on old series, using Netflix discs for some of those.

Yes, we tried streaming

Our TV has internet widget support (and we added the wifi dongle), including a Netflix widget. I got it working. And we tried it–a couple of little tries, then five minutes of a Lois & Clark episode, since that’s one of the old series we’re watching.

Neither my wife or I could stand it after five minutes: The picture quality was so vastly inferior to the DVD, at sort of a sub-VHS level, which might have been acceptable on a smaller screen but was just unpleasant on the big screen. Netflix surveyed me on the streaming quality. I told them: Unacceptable.

Oh, it’s your broadband…

Maybe. We have the fastest DSL AT&T will currently provide at our address. It typically tests out at 1.5 to 2Mbps download–right now, it’s 1.6 as I run speedtest.

You can’t stream true HD at 1.6Mbps. Hell, you can’t stream DVD quality at 1.6Mbps. (True Blu-ray quality would require a minimum of 30Mbps.)

So should we upgrade our broadband?

Well, Comcast (shudder) will sell us “6Mbps” broadband for $54 a month–$29 more than we’re paying for AT&T DSL. Want 20Mbps? That’s $100/month. Still not enough to stream at Blu-ray quality, but close. 6Mbps? Probably better than we’re getting now, but certainly nowhere close to Blu-ray, probably not even DVD quality.

And, of course, from everything I’ve heard, Comcast isn’t going to let you happily stream at full speed for hours on end: “usage caps” do come into play.

Plus…hmm. $29 more, plus $8 for a streaming-only Netflix subscription. That’s more than we’re paying for Netflix now–and if we drop back to a 2-disc subscription, it’s a lot more than we’re paying now. Since 1.5-2Mbps download speed is just fine for everything else we do, we would wind up paying more money…for still-inferior quality and the loss of Blu-ray and DVD extras.

What a deal.

(No, neither Fios nor I-Universe or whatever AT&T’s fiber-almost-to-the-home is called are options, at least not yet. And the I-Universe prices, after the first six months, aren’t all that attractive either. We have Limited Basic cable, $17/month including all the fees, and it suits us just fine.)

Just don’t tell us our choice is wrong

If you don’t see the difference between streaming and Blu-ray or streaming and HD, that’s your business (and maybe your TV set). If you see the difference but don’t care, that’s also your business: I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong, any more than I ever said people listening to 128K MP3 were wrong.

But when you say there is no difference, or that anybody who wants Blu-ray or HD broadcast quality is either foolish or wrong, then my back goes up. My wife professed not to care about the differences…until she started seeing the higher quality. She was the one who said to stop the Lois & Clark streaming, although I could certainly see that it was crap video quality.

As a sidenote: We don’t own a DVR. I’d love to be able to record shows in HD. What I wouldn’t love: Increasing our total electricity usage by more than 10%, because the DVR is running 24 hours a day and consuming 50 watts all the time (according to the tests done by somebody who refuses to give up the DVR). Sell a DVR designed for those of us who don’t record all that much, that spins down and uses 0.5 watts or so when it’s not needed, and we’d probably buy one. (Yes, adding 36 kWh a month to our usage would be at least a 10% increase.) That’s a different discussion.

7 Responses to “Quality vs. convenience/quantity, all over again”

  1. Angel says:

    That post made me think a bit about library journal packaging, something a colleague and I were talking about the other day. She would say, first it was the print. Then it was pay for print, we throw in the online. Then it was pay for both, but slight discount on the online/electronic. Then pay for electronic, get the print free (or lower price) to now get electronic or else pretty much (print may well cost more). That’s what the Netflix model you described made me think of for some reason.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. walt says:

    Interesting comparison. My primary point is about quality vs. quantity: For most people (those without incredibly fast broadband), streaming always substitutes quantity for visual quality. But your point is well taken.

  3. ash966 says:

    I agree that at 1.5 streaming is not adequate. I had that (actually more like .5 due to technical issues) and was unable to enjoy streaming. At 7, it is fine for TV shows (except maybe very cinematic stuff like MAD MEN or THE SOPRANOS), low-budget movies and documentaries, but I still want Blu-Ray for big budget movies. No way am I going to watch John Woo’s RED CLIFF on streaming. MAD MEN I buy HD on iTunes as it is the only show I can’t wait for that is on cable (I pay $1o/mo to Comcast for networks and public access, my condo doesn’t get over-the-air TV). I haven’t had any throttling/caps issues from Qwest so far, but that is a good point to consider.

    Even though I love HDTV quality, I am thinking of going to some streaming service/box (with iTunes as backup) such as Boxee or Hulu Plus because I loathe Comcast so much. They are trying to force me to get a huge box again when HDTVs don’t require them.

    I object to monthly fees for Comcast DVRs, so I use an EyeTV, which I love. I did install an additional cable line so I didn’t have to keep plugging and unplugging it from the TV. I guess some Elgato devices can be used with Windows, but you don’t get the software?


    I don’t know much about Windows equivalents, but here’s one:

    PS. I watch iTunes purchases on my (old) Apple TV and Netflix on my Samsung Blu-Ray.

  4. walt says:

    ash966: There are absolutely DVR programs for Windows–actually, with the tuner, Windows Media Center will probably do it. But that assumes (a) you’re willing to leave your PC on all the time, (b) your PC has HDMI out and is near your TV, or you have some method to stream over your wifi. Neither is true for me… And I’ve simply ignored Comcast’s suggestion that we should have a box: the cable’s plugged directly into the TV, which has a QCAM tuner as most modern HDTVs do. Wouldn’t work for expanded/encrypted channels, but we don’t pay for those anyway. Works fine for all the “n-1” broadcast HD channels, e.g. 3-1, 5-1, 7-1.

  5. ash966 says:

    I’m glad to hear someone else is fighting Comcast on this.

  6. walt says:

    I’m not fighting Comcast. I’m simply ignoring them. The TV store and delivery people said “try the cable first, before you pay for an HD box, it will probably work”; I did; it did.

  7. Steven Kaye says:

    For me, it’s the lack of a lot of TV content combined with the usage caps that keep me on the 1 disk at a time plan.

    And it amazes me that FIOS/U-verse/etc. aren’t options here in Silicon Valley (housemate gets a deal on Comcast Internet through work, which I’m pretty happy with, having tried AT&T DSL for work).