Since the popularity of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and the nearly 300 other streaming services out there for you to choose from, there’s been a debate raging between streaming vs physical media.
Each side has its own defenders. Likewise, each side has its own detractors. While both streaming and physical media certainly come with their own distinct advantages, there’s one clear winner to determine between the two. However, it’s not enough to simply name the winner. There’s a lot to take into consideration first.
To make the answer as clear as can be, let’s begin by taking a look at streaming vs physical media side by side. Next, we’ll examine the key differences between the two.
From there, we can examine the respective histories of the two and also go over some must-know facts about streaming vs physical media. After that, we’ll weigh some pros and cons of each and — lastly — name an ultimate winner. Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison.
Streaming vs Physical Media: Side-by-Side Comparison
|Popular Formats||Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+||DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD|
|4K UHD Support||Varies||Yes|
|Internet Connection Required||Yes||No|
|Cost||$0-19.99 a month||$3-30 per title|
Streaming vs Physical Media: What’s the Difference?
After taking a look at these above comparisons, it’s well worth diving deeper into some of the most vital differences between streaming and physical media. From picture and audio quality to the true cost of each, these are the key differences you need to know about streaming vs physical media.
Audio and Visual Quality
Firstly, there are differences in audio and visual quality to consider between streaming vs physical media. Because streaming relies on the internet, data rates, compression, and other heady technical jargon to provide streaming access to their full libraries, they have to reduce the file size of the content.
Naturally, this leads to a loss in quality. Some quality loss is far more noticeable than others, but you can almost always spot this reduction in the way dark colors look on a streaming service.
To be more specific, the transfer of video data is measured using the measurement Mbit/s. Whether you’re streaming or playing a physical disc, there’s going to be a transfer of video data. With this in mind, the difference in Mbit/s between streaming vs physical media is honestly pretty jaw-dropping.
For your average 4K UHD disc, there’s going to be a transfer of around 100 Mbit/s. For your average 4K title on a streaming service, you’re going to see anywhere from 7.5-25 Mbit/s (typically on the lower end).
For those who care about them, you already know that there are hardly any special features to be found on streaming services these days. While some smaller specialty streamers make a point to include them on their sites — namely The Criterion Channel — the vast majority simply provide you with the film, maybe some trailers, perhaps a recap or two, and that’s that.
Physical media, on the other hand, almost always comes with an extensive amount of bonus features, including commentaries, deleted scenes, and other supplemental materials.
Open up any streaming service, and you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking you’ve got an unlimited amount of movie and television choices to pick from. However, the truth is that even the biggest streaming service libraries — Netflix, Peacock, HBO Max — come in at 6,000 titles or less.
Amazon Prime Video offers over 10,000 titles including rentals, but its free-with-Prime streaming library is but a sliver of that. What’s more, a fraction of those thousands are movies released before 1970 — effectively cutting off over 50 years of film and television history.
Physical media, on the other hand, has the benefit of having been around for decades longer than streaming services. For this reason — not to mention the finer details, like digital rights and such — physical media has a far more expansive library for you to choose from.
At DVD’s peak in 2005, there were 35,000 titles available in the format. By Blu-ray’s 10th anniversary in 2016, there had been over 15,000 titles released. With 4K UHD discs still relatively young and slow to catch on, just over 1,000 titles are estimated to have been released thus far.
On the surface, streaming media seems cheaper than physical media. Peacock, Kanopy, Tubi, and plenty of other streaming services offer free, ad-supported streaming. Apple TV+ and others cost as little as $4.99 a month. Even Netflix and Hulu with their ad-supported tiers come in at around $7 a month.
Even with the most expensive streamers around $15-20 a month, that’s still less than one single DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K UHD. However, when you think about all of those costs together, you’ll be shocked at how much is spent on subscriptions — an average of $273 a month.
When you think about it that way, streaming costs over $3,250 a year. You’d have to buy three DVDs, Blu-rays, or 4K UHDs a week to hit that number with physical media. And that’s not even accounting for the fact that you can rent from Redbox or borrow from your local library for a fraction of that price.
You may ask: “But what about binging?” Well, at $50 a box set, that’s the price of a few months of streaming for a lifetime of enjoyment. Don’t be tricked by the seemingly lower cost; streaming costs can add up much higher than physical media costs.
The History of Streaming
While streaming media is seen as a uniquely 21st-century creation, it was actually first thought of as early as the 1980s. However, the sheer amount of computing power and storage necessary to make streaming media a reality put these ideas on hold until at least the mid-to-late 1990s.
The development of ethernet switches and advances made in compression around this time helped make these streaming dreams take shape in the real world. The bandwidth required for lossless streaming wasn’t impossible anymore.
The commercialization of the internet — and, in turn, the influx of funds poured into the advancement of the internet — naturally gave way to live-streamed performances and events. In time, iTunes and other digital video-on-demand services began to emerge, thus allowing people to rent or own digital movies and TV shows.
Then, with the debut of YouTube in 2005 and Netflix Instant in 2007, it finally became clear that streaming libraries were the wave of the future. More than 15 years later, streaming revenue dominates over physical media by a massive margin.
On paper, streaming media isn’t that different from television. In this case, you have a digital method of delivering and receiving media via an electronic device. The distinction is how it’s delivered and how it’s received.
Streaming services rely on the internet to deliver content, and consumers receive that content by browsing through libraries on streaming hubs. Very few streaming services actually offer live feeds of their content like a television network would. As mentioned above, this is what’s known as live-streaming.
Physical Media’s Foothold
While it might seem like the showdown between streaming vs physical media is nearing its endpoint, the truth is that physical media will never go away. It’s been around for too long, and it also serves too many useful purposes to ever truly disappear; no matter how popular streaming gets.
Beginning with 8mm and 16mm film reels back in the first quarter of the 20th century, physical media has served a key purpose in the home. It allows consumers to own their own copies of films and enjoy them whenever they want to from the comfort of their living room at no additional cost.
Videocassettes and videotapes emerged in the late 1950s. This was a huge leap forward for physical media, because it simplified much of what made 8mm and 16mm film reels so unattainable for many middle- and lower-class American households.
By the 1970s, VHS tapes were cheaper, simpler, and more accessible than ever before. It ushered in several physical media wars over the next 50 years, including Betamax vs VHS, LaserDisc vs VHS, DVD vs VHS, and more. With the establishment of video stores, money started to pour in.
With DVDs, Blu-rays, and 4K UHD discs today, physical media holds a much smaller foothold than it once did. However, that small foothold is still enough.
With increased audio and video quality, more titles available, and fewer fees over time, there’s no doubt why physical media is still around in spite of its plummeting sales. Physical media simply matters more, especially in the face of all of the downsides of streaming.
Streaming: Pros and Cons
|Pros of Streaming||Cons of Streaming|
|Instant access to films and television shows||Prone to censorship of film and television|
|Takes up no physical storage or shelf space||Ever-changing library of content|
|Allows for watching content on the go||Easy to be overwhelmed by the number of choices on streaming home pages|
|Several free streaming services to choose from||Frequent price hikes|
|Access to streaming service original films and television shows||Poorer audio and video quality compared to physical media|
|Requires a good internet connection|
|Can be more expensive if left unused|
|Few special features available for films and TV|
|Some may end up spending over a hundred dollars or more on streaming services a month|
|No true ownership of content|
|Fewer titles available than on physical media|
|4K UHD content is few and far between|
Physical Media: Pros and Cons
|Pros of Physical Media||Cons of Physical Media|
|You own the movie or television show — It can’t be taken away from you or removed from your physical library||Purchasing one new DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K UHD can cost more upfront than one month of a streaming service|
|Countless films and television shows available to borrow for free from your local library||Many streaming service originals don’t end up on physical media|
|Ability to loan physical media to friends and family||Physical media takes up more storage and shelf space in your home|
|Better audio and picture quality||Difficult to enjoy while on the go|
|Far more titles are readily available to rent, borrow or own|
|DVDs and Blu-rays can go for as little as $3-5 per title|
|Films and television shows cannot be edited, censored, or deleted by studios once you physically own them|
|No internet connection needed to watch|
|Far more titles on 4K UHD|
Streaming vs Physical Media: 5 Must-Know Facts
- Streaming services were estimated to be worth $372 billion in 2021. Physical media, on the other hand, brought in just $1.97 billion in purchases with an additional $883 million in rentals.
- DVDs still control the market share of physical media sales, accounting for about 50% of all physical media sales. Blu-ray and 4K UHD discs account for the other 50% combined.
- Netflix reached a total of 222 million global subscribers in 2021. However, its quarterly revenue has slowed over the last few quarters.
- Streaming is expected to hit an estimated worth of $1.69 trillion by 2030.
- The best-selling Blu-ray of 2022 so far has been Spider‑Man: No Way Home (2021) with 1,275,190 units sold and $30,673,750 in total consumer spending.
Streaming vs Physical Media: Which One Is Better?
Forget about how convenient streaming seems. Ignore how many movies and TV shows it seems like you’re able to access. Disregard the illusion of saving money by paying monthly fees. There’s just no beating around the bush here.
In the showdown between streaming vs physical media, it’s a sweep for physical media. Sure, you can watch Netflix on your phone. Yes, you can also borrow a friend’s login and save yourself some money. Absolutely, you can use just one streamer a month and reduce that monthly cost to almost nothing. But that doesn’t alter the hard facts about quality or availability.
When all is said and done, physical media is superior in just about every conceivable way: better audio and visual quality over streaming, far more special features at your disposal, and a drastically increased amount of titles available for you to view.
Also, in the long haul, a lower price on average. If none of this matters to you, then you can absolutely continue to enjoy streaming. As a matter of fact, there’s nothing wrong with using both streaming and physical media. But, truth be told, it’s clear to see that the latter triumphs over the former by a significant margin.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Song_about_summer/Shutterstock.com.