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Going All Digital

Unsurprisingly, video - in all its forms - is the most difficult to digitise satisfactorily. While music and books don't suffer appreciably for being digitised, and are arguably enhanced to some degree (greater interactivity/portability), the data intensive nature of video makes it difficult to digitise and distribute without sacrificing quality. I'm willing to compromise on many things for convenience, but quality isn't one of them.

And by quality I don't mean solely video quality, in fact I'd trade a small (and I mean small) loss of fidelity in the right circumstances, but the quality and the value of the product as a whole. A glance at the current options for digitally distributed films, whether they’re purchased outright or rented, leaves much to be desired.

Let’s take LoveFilm, recently rumoured to be hooking up with Sony’s PS3, as a starting point. I’m a LoveFilm subscriber. Every month I get four rentals and it costs me around £8 per month – i.e. £2 per disc. Included in this package these days is a seemingly random selection of films available to be streamed, either through a compatible TV, or on my laptop. I don’t have a compatible TV, but my laptop just so happens to be hooked-up to my TV almost permanently. More popular titles are available on ‘Pay per View’ for £2.49 or £3.49; a single TV episode is £1.89.
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LoveFilm has the convenience, but the low bit-rate makes it poor value.

While the TV episode pricing is outrageous, given the convenience the film pricing is reasonable enough. At least, it would be were it not for the quality. No doubt to serve those on slow broadband lines, the bit-rate of LoveFilm’s streaming is very low indeed – definitely sub-DVD quality, in fact worse than a normal quality iPlayer stream. For less money I can wait for a Blu-ray from my queue, such as the Prince of Persia disc I watched this week, and enjoy high-quality HD and a raft of excellent, HD extras as well. No contest.

A slightly different spin on things is iTunes. Here you can rent and buy films, and if you’ve got an Apple TV you can stream HD films as you go. On a PC, however, you must download them, and HD films - as far as I could tell - are limited to the Apple TV and the iPad. In standard definition the video is still distinctly below DVD levels of quality, though unlike LoveFilm it is at least watchable on a large screen TV.

It’s still rather expensive, though, particularly as you don’t benefit from any of the extras you’d get from a typical DVD or Blu-ray release. Okay, many people care little for such things, but the point remains that the product as a whole is significantly inferior.

Cast the net a little wider and you’ve got the various TV suppliers: Sky, Virgin, BT Vision et al. HD films are available, but the pricing is similar to the others and there’s the added cost of installation fees, and a monthly subscription for a bunch of channels I don’t want. Ho hum.

Consequently, much as I’d like to, the world isn’t quite ready for my quest for all things digital. Broadband speeds evidently need to be faster, and the content richer and better value. In the meantime, then, I’ll be painstakingly ripping my DVD collection, putting Blu-ray collecting on hold, and renting discs until prospects brighten.

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