How 4K video could resurrect the DVD

In our rush to streaming, we forgot its limits.

CES 2016 4K video 4K TVs 4K DVDs
Rept0n1x (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I'm of the opinion that we have been far too quick to abandon old technologies for the shiny new thing without thinking out the decision fully.

Music is the best example. We couldn't bury the vinyl record fast enough to move to compact disc and then digital music. Then people with a working pair of ears realized that digital music sounds like crap, and that vinyl has, in many ways, a superior sound. Vinyl production is one of the few aspects of the music industry that's growing, with the few remaining record stamping factories running at full capacity.

And I predict another form of discarded technology is due for a comeback: the DVD. The Ultra High-Definition (UHD) DVD, to be specific. You'll need it if you want to do anything with that shiny new 4K TV you bought for Christmas.

A Computerworld blogger lamented the sorry state of 4K TV in November, and he was not the first to do so. The thing is, all of the people complaining about the lack of content look at it from the perspective of streaming services. The fact is, streaming 4K video is likely to be a long way off and very limited.

There is, however, a perfectly viable alternative people don't seem to want to consider.

As it is, unless you have a satellite dish, you're not getting true high-definition video via cable or broadband. What you're getting is a heavily compressed 720p stream because so much of our cable TV infrastructure is based on copper wire, not fiber optics. The cable companies simply can't push enough bits over the wire. That's why they push a heavily compressed, lower-resolution stream over the wire. Again, satellite dish services are not included in this. The majority of folks in this country have cable.

Now, if the majority of cable providers can't give a true HD signal, what do you think will happen for UHD, which is four times the resolution of regular HD? There are multiple challenges in this regard. First is bandwidth. A HD movie consumes 25GB to 40GB of space on a Blu-ray disc. That's challenging enough for your Xbox/Playstation/Roku/Vudu gadget, or the TV itself.

With UHD, that means the size of a movie will explode to 100GB to 160GB, assuming there are no advances in compression, and there will be. Even at a 10% reduction, which is asking a lot, it's still a massive amount of data to send over the copper wires and then stream to your TV box.

Then there's the data caps. Sucks to be you, Comcast customers. The fact is streaming two or three UHD movies will likely blow your monthly allotment, which means either throttling, a higher bill, or being cut off completely. Now, multiply that by the number of people in your area who have UHD TVs. Do you think the cable companies will sit by quietly while their pipes get completely clogged?

Netflix is doing its darnedest to prepare for a UHD future, but it has its work cut out for it. It has a limited selection of content, and you need a least a 25Mbps Internet connection. They can only compress so much before the video will lose what makes 4K special, and there's nothing Netflix can do about cable companies and their data caps.

That leaves Dish Network and DirecTV as the only choice. For home owners that's OK, but for apartment dwellers in the city, a dish may not be feasible.

Your best answer is that old technology you were so anxious to abandon: a shiny silver disc. The UHD Blu-Ray spec is approved and testing is ongoing, with a big rollout planned for February. Expect a lot of UHD players to be shown off at CES this week.

But oops. Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video, and all the mom and pop video stores have been obliterated. The only place left to rent a movie is a Redbox in your local supermarket, and they only have so much room. Good luck finding "The Force Awakens" in a Redbox when it's released on home video.

This is what I mean when I say we were too quick to abandon the old ways. Streaming appeals to the laziness in people who find it too much trouble to drive a few miles to a video store. The result is wiping out an entire segment of our economy that pretty much can't be revived even though we could still use it.

But it will be years before streaming 4K is feasible, and given the creaky state of American broadband, many locations might never get it. What do we do for content in the mean time? DVD will be there, but the rental market won't be, and retail barely devotes any space to them anymore.

Is it any wonder there's a growing number of articles saying not to bother with a 4K TV?

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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