First, there was the leap from Betamax to VHS. Then from VHS to LaserDisc. Another leap from LaserDisc to DVD. Each of these massive shifts in the home video sphere marks a serious turning point — not just for film collectors but for the world of pop culture and home movies at large. Why, then, did things begin to seem less drastic after VHS gave way to DVD?
Only a fraction of films released on VHS made it to DVD, and even less from DVD to Blu-ray. Not to mention 4K UHD, which has seen the least number of upgraded titles to date. It might help to know the real difference between 4K UHD vs Blu-ray.
While the shifts from DVD to Blu-ray and Blu-ray to 4K UHD have received far less fanfare than past new home video formats, the two transitions are nevertheless significant. Alas — whether you blame streaming, incompatibility, or a simple lack of understanding — fewer people than ever seem to be purchasing 4K UHD discs compared to the greater success of Blu-ray and the continued sales of the DVD.
So, let’s outline the difference between 4K UHD vs Blu-ray in the hope of clarifying the distinction between the two formats. We’ll begin by comparing specs.
4K UHD vs Blu-ray: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Released||February 14th, 2016||June 20, 2006|
|Developed by||Blu-ray Disc Association||Sony|
|First Title(s)||Chappie; Hancock; Pineapple Express; Salt; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; The Smurfs 2||50 First Dates; The Fifth Element; Hitch; House of Flying Daggers; Underworld: Evolution; xXx; The Terminator|
|Resolution||4K (3840×2160)||2K (1920×1080)|
|Storage Capacity||66 GB (dual-layer|
100 GB (triple-layer)
|25 GB (single-layer)|
50 GB (dual-layer)
|Region Coding||None||A/1; B/2; C/3; ABC/Free|
|Typical Case Color||Black||Blue|
|High Dynamic Range||Yes||No|
|Average Retail Price||$25-$30||$15-$20|
4K UHD vs Blu-ray: What’s the Difference?
To understand what distinguishes 4K UHD from Blu-ray discs, it helps to outline the key differences between the two. It’s a lot harder to tell this sort of thing today. For instance, the distinction between VHS and DVDs is obvious in their differing sizes, shapes, and colors.
Same for DVDs and Blu-rays, which come in different case sizes. Alas, 4K UHDs and Blu-rays look exactly the same physically and have the same case sizes too (albeit in different colors). Looking deeper, the differences are there. They’re just harder to see.
Firstly, there’s the actual quality of the disc itself. Blu-rays offer up to 2K SDR (standard dynamic range) quality, while 4K UHDs boast 4K ultra-high definition HDR (high dynamic range) quality. That might sound like a lot of technical jargon, so it helps to think of it like this: 4K UHD quality is twice as good as Blu-ray quality. Sounds a lot more drastic and a lot more necessary, doesn’t it?
It’s a common complaint about the 4K UHD vs Blu-ray. Namely, that the former is unnecessary when the latter exists. Once you know that 4K UHD is twice as good as Blu-ray, then it’s obvious why you might want to upgrade.
Secondly, it’s worth discussing the difference in dynamic range. High dynamic range was first introduced in 2014 under the name Dolby Vision. Since then, it has gone on to encompass HDR10, HDR10+, HLG, PQ10, and several other variations on the same theme of high dynamic range.
This term is used to describe the process of altering the way a video’s images are displayed by tweaking the video signal’s colors and overall luminance. This virtually makes colors, highlights, and shadows appear more detailed and intense without adjusting the TV’s settings.
4K UHDs come equipped with HDR specifications, meaning that most (if not all) 4K UHDs also offer this unique process of better, brighter, bolder colors. Blu-rays, on the other hand, do not come with HDR specifications. They pre-date the process, and they don’t have the technological capability to support it, either.
Blu-rays are what’s now called SDR, or standard dynamic range. This means that the movie or television show being watched can only adjust its colors if you physically adjust them on the television or display itself. It’s another advantage for 4K UHDs, unquestionably.
Thirdly, there’s the elephant in the room – price. Because they’re more than 15 years old at this point, Blu-rays are much cheaper than the newer format of 4K UHD. You wouldn’t struggle to find Blu-rays as cheap as $5 at most major retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, or Target. Even new, Blu-rays can be as little as $10-$15 for smaller titles and $15-$20 for your average blockbuster fare.
4K UHDs, on the other hand, are much pricier. Now, they’ll cost you anywhere from $25-$30 (sometimes more). Older or less popular titles can sometimes be as cheap as $10 on sale, but rarely lower than that.
History of the 4K UHD Disc
Despite what detractors might try and argue, there’s a definite need for the 4K UHD disc. Technically called an Ultra HD Blu-ray (which only makes things even more confusing, so we’ll continue to call it a 4K UHD disc), this newfangled digital optical disc data storage format typically comes with both a Blu-ray and a digital copy of the film when bought new.
It was first released in 2016 with a batch of new and old titles alike: Chappie (2015), Hancock (2005), Pineapple Express (2008), Salt (2010), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), and The Smurfs 2 (2013).
4K UHD discs double the picture quality of Blu-ray discs, increasing the pixel resolution from 1920 x 1080 to 3840 × 2160. What’s more, 4K UHD discs offer up to 60 fps. They’re encoded using High-Efficiency Video Coding, or H.265, which is also what allows for the discs to offer a high-dynamic range.
A 4K UHD disc with HDR can increase a film or TV show’s color depth by as much as 10 bits, which is a far superior gamut of colors compared to the Blu-ray. While its size and shape match the Blu-ray discs, it’s clear that the 4K UHD disc is an improvement in practically every way.
Interestingly enough, 4K UHD discs are also region-free. This might not mean much to the average American home video purchaser, but for collectors, this is a major advantage. Being inherently region-free means that you could purchase a 4K UHD disc from Germany, China, or anywhere else in the world, and it would still play on your American 4K disc player.
This is not the case for DVDs and Blu-rays, which are both region-locked more often than not. 4K disc players reached peak sales back in 2017 with nearly 900,000 units sold.
The Lasting Demand for the Blu-ray
While 4K UHDs are highly sought after and collected religiously by home video enthusiasts, the Blu-ray continues to outsell them. (Despite never reaching the kind of numbers that DVDs continue to bring in to this day.) First invented and initially developed by Sony as early as 2000, the Blu-ray came to fruition with the help of the newly formed Blu-ray Disc Association.
This was a group of higher-ups from various consumer electronics brands, computer hardware manufacturers, and motion picture executives. Together with Sony, the Blu-ray debuted around the world on June 20th, 2006.
The “Blu-ray” name was established in reference to the blueish laser (which some might say is really closer to purple) that reads the disc itself. This proprietary laser inside Blu-ray players is an essential component, allowing more audio-visual info to be stored and read at much higher densities than the red laser used to read and write DVDs.
Thinking back to science class, this boils down to red light having longer wavelengths than blue or purple light. So, Blu-rays have been used for movies, television shows, concert films, and video games alike.
Blu-rays continue to sell well still to this day, even though DVDs outperform both the Blu-ray and the 4K UHD disc. Even though they are far worse in quality than both 4K UHD vs Blu-ray discs. Admittedly, the competition is pretty fierce.
Blu-rays have managed to hold their own against higher-quality 4K UHDs, more affordable and accessible DVDs, streaming and VOD platforms, and piracy alike. In the aftermath of its debut, the Blu-ray even managed to edge out an HD competitor in the form of the now-defunct HD DVD. 4K UHDs might be superior, but Blu-rays are nevertheless strong.
4K UHD vs Blu-ray: Pros and Cons
|Pros of 4K UHD||Cons of 4K UHD|
|Twice the visual quality of a Blu-ray||Fewer titles are available compared to Blu-ray and DVD|
|Region-free||More expensive than Blu-rays and DVDs|
|High dynamic range||Struggling to compete with streaming|
|Most releases also include a Blu-ray and digital copy of the film||Confusing branding muddles 4K UHD’s superiority over the Blu-ray|
|Pros of Blu-ray||Cons of Blu-ray|
|Far more titles are available compared to 4K UHD discs||Worse audio-visual quality than a 4K UHD|
|Still used for the latest PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X games||Fewer titles are available when compared to DVD|
|Better picture quality than a DVD||Brings in fewer sales than the DVD|
|Cheaper than a 4K UHD disc||Most titles are region-locked|
4K UHD vs Blu-ray: 5 Must-Know Facts
- When the first 4K UHDs were released in 2016, only 44% of American homes had Blu-ray players. Conversely, when the first Blu-rays were released in 2006, 81% of U.S. households had a DVD player. Additionally, 79% still had their VCRs.
- At their peak popularity, DVD sales topped 18 billion dollars annually. Contrarily, Blu-Rays saw their peak when they hit just over $2 billion in annual sales.
- Still to this day, DVDs account for about 50% of all home video sales. Blu-rays and 4K UHDs make up the other 50% combined, with 4K UHDs accounting for about 13% of that and Blu-ray taking the other 37%.
- It’s worth noting that Netflix — originally just a DVD-by-mail rental service — launched its streaming service in January 2007, just over six months after the launch of the Blu-ray.
- Theatrical windows, meaning the amount of time a movie spends in theaters before arriving on home video and streaming, are shorter than ever. While 90 days used to be the industry standard, it’s now typically half that at 45 days.
4K UHD vs Blu-ray: Which One Is Best?
By now, hopefully, the answer to the question of which format is superior has revealed itself. It’s the 4K UHD disc. At double the audio-visual quality, not to mention a higher possible frame rate and the inclusion of HDR, the 4K UHD disc easily takes the cake over Blu-ray (and especially over DVD).
Why don’t they sell better, then? This leads us to another important consideration not yet discussed thus far; the true cost of upgrading with each new home video format that becomes available.
The average American consumer cannot be blamed for feeling resistant to the benefits of the 4K UHD disc. After all, how many of us took the time and the energy to upgrade our VHS collection to DVD, then from DVD to Blu-ray, and now we’re being asked to do so again from Blu-ray to 4K UHD?
Many consumers simply can’t justify this kind of expense, especially when Blu-rays still have superior high-definition quality over the DVD. When you account for a compatible 4K TV and 4K disc player, it becomes even more obvious; 4K UHD is superior, but it’s ultimately too expensive for some to justify buying.