written by: Ty Wingfoot•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/22/2011
First came VHS. Then DVDs appeared. Now there's Blu-ray. Will the next leap in home viewing media be something you can hold in your hand? Or will it be like the Internet - always there but never really there at the same time. Ask the high-definition content streaming into your home for the answer.
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Streaming's Good For Everybody
Ever new form of media up to now for watching movies at home has come in a package that had to put into a player. It's true that the quality of the video has improved over the years as VHS tapes gave way to DVD and now Blu-ray, but this simple physical fact hasn't changed. The advent of the Internet is looking to be a game changer though. A movie studio or content provider can have a film or TV show or pretty much anything that you want to watch kept as a digital file on a server that could be blocks or Cities or Continents away from your home. Yet it can still be accessed by a simple selection from a menu to start it streaming into your home. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of this next leap for home viewing?
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How We Got Here
When people think of streaming, two things come to mind. First, that it is being downloaded over the Internet using a broadband connection provided by an Internet Service provider, and, second, that the picture is about as good as that of a DVD.
Of the two, the first thought that only the Internet is used for streaming is false. Satellite providers, like the Dish Network, send a video stream in real-time to a person's satellite receiver which then displays the video in standard or high-definition (depending upon what is being watched). Additionally a Dish Network also can provide a link up to the existing broadband connection to add streaming through the Internet for watching through the satellite receiver and onto the HDTV connected to it as well.
The second conception, that the picture seen through the Internet is about as good as a DVD, isn't really true. But it does have some basis. Services like Netflix stream video of movies through devices that initially only displayed standard-definition pictures. This is changing, with popular boxes like the Xbox 360 able to handle HD streams as well as Blu-ray players having Netflix functionality.
Truth be told, the quality of the HD stream is about what you'd expect from a highly compressed signal. There are artifact problems and some fuzziness at times. The AppleTV says it can display 720p high-definition (remember we're not talking about upscaling to match the native resolution for the HDTV), but it's still a compressed signal with some video problems that are apparant to the eye at times.
It's fair to say that the convenience of streaming HD makes up for the minor complaints. And since people tend to be forgiving when watching something they like, for practical purposes the HD quality is more than acceptable.
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Who's In Control?
The way that a film is physically handled isn't an issue when streaming is involved. The issue of how to control what is being watched is though.
A physical disc can be started or stopped or paused at will- there are no issues of a clogged Internet or a buffer overflow, etc. Streamed content can be started and stopped and paused too, and thanks to faster Internet connections most of the time you're not waiting more than 30 seconds or so before the film starts to play (considerably less time that starting up a BD player, btw).
That's not to say that a streaming connection is perfect. Any problem or interference from the Internet will affect the picture. This could be as simple as too many people sharing the cable modem in your area so there's a delay in the video being streamed, or a major problem like a rainstorm soaking a buried hub and killing the Internet signal altogether. Or a power failure forcing you to wait while the Internet modem restarts itself.
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The one thing I know is that technology never stands still, but always moves forward. Sometimes that movement is stunted - for example by being priced out of reach of the general public or requiring you to jump through too many hoops to consider getting it. But as people become more dependent and comfortable with using Internet streaming content on a "need to have" basis, it is sure to take over from the act of buying or renting something that you have to hold onto. That may not be so good for the folks who sell Blu-ray discs, but it certainly will be of benefit to us who want to watch something when we want without having to exert any real effort.
So will high-definition streaming take over? We're more likely to know in a couple of years than not.