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Samsung Drops Blu-ray, Drives Nail into Disc-Media Coffin

by March 07, 2019
Samsung Death to Blu-ray

Samsung Death to Blu-ray

Samsung, one of the world’s most prominent electronics manufacturers, and leader in the development of Blu-ray, has announced it will no longer produce and distribute Blu-ray players in the US. That announcement also included Samsung’s acknowledgement that it has completely abandoned plans to roll out a new, high-end 4K ultra high definition (UHD) Blu-ray player originally scheduled for release this year.

It’s shocking news from a company that has been a major backer of the Blu-ray high-definition media format since its introduction over a decade ago. When the technology was first unveiled in the mid-2000s, Blu-ray waged a protracted war against the rival HD-DVD format. While Samsung and Sony backed Blu-ray – with Sony adding a Blu-ray player to its PlayStation 3 console – HD-DVD received support from Toshiba and Microsoft, the latter releasing an HD-DVD add-on for its Xbox 360 video game system.

Despite HD-DVD hardware being generally cheaper, it lost out to Blu-ray. By 2008, the format war was decided and any remaining HD-DVD discs were relegated to the bargain bin before disappearing completely once Microsoft and Toshiba stopped supporting the format, Blu-ray became the dominant HD disc format. The disc format war was a fascinating study as it ran hot between 2006 and 2008. The battle for hearts and minds of your living-room HDTV between Blu-ray and HD-DVD can be seen as a proxy war between PC technology and an incumbent consumer electronics business. Blu-ray’s victory meant many more years of relevance for the kinds of plastic and brushed aluminum black boxes made by traditional consumer electronics companies like Sony and Samsung.

The defeat of HD-DVD in ’08 could also be seen as the defeat of an insurgent HTPC market, backed largely by Microsoft. Sony’s win had staved off the threat of Television entertainment being centralized around a PC operating system. It ensured your TV’s main display would look less like Windows 10, and would remain an A/V receiver switching between a variety of separate sources. Blu-ray saved the traditional consumer electronics model, and relegated HTPC to a niche market for several more years.

But the victory was short lived. Just as Blu-ray players became more affordable, a push away from physical media emerged. This was partly fueled by consumer dissatisfaction with the cost of purchasing Blu-ray discs, which, like DVDs, could cost upwards of $30 upon a title’s initial release. Digital streaming services like Netflix offered TV-shows and movies for a monthly subscription that amounted to far less than a single Blu-ray. With high-speed Internet service rapidly expanding, the need for physical media has been drastically reduced. In short, buying Blu-ray players and discs can get expensive, while accessing streaming movies and TV shows has become simple, straightforward, and surprisingly cheap. Today, affordable HDMI plug-in devices and smart TVs running on-demand subscription apps make it easier to forego any form of conventional set-top-box, and encourages a wider audience to “cut the cord”.

Samsung isn’t the first company to ditch Blu-ray. Last year, Chinese electronics firm Oppo Digital made a similar announcement. Although, it remains unclear how other hardware companies, such as Sony, Panasonic, and LG, will respond to one of its main competitors bowing out of the market.

A Lament to the Tragedy of Physical Media

Alien Quadrilogy

When the end finally comes - I will miss you, my beloved disc. I will miss having a product, a self-contained piece of personal property that allows me to proudly declare: “I OWN the Alien quadrilogy!” I will miss the quantifiable quality standards of Blu-ray releases. Sure, in theory, streaming media is capable of the same sound and picture quality as any disc. But in practice, real-world results are very different, as the Internet can be a cruel parent to a pristine picture.

Blu-ray discs routinely carry the latest in high-resolution, multi-channel audio tracks. DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD are common on both 1080P and 4K discs. But streaming media is incentivized to use as little bandwidth as possible, and will inevitably use as much compression as it can. Meanwhile, technologies like adaptive bit-rate streaming adjusts picture and sound quality to correspond to your household’s available data-rates at any given moment. This means network conditions will result in fluctuating quality. Unfortunately, only few of us who care about optimal sound and video quality remain. The market has spoken, and it prefers technologies of scale over quality. Or, at least, that is the demand the market makes of us.

I’ll also miss the intangibles, like the purchase of a brand new disc. I’ll miss that distinctive smell when cracking open a new Blu-ray box, as I inhale what are probably the gaseous residue of countless harmful polymers. I’ll miss the confidence of knowing the exact data-rate between player and A/V receiver, as presented in real-time by my Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player. I’m assured of a quantifiable constant, free of unnecessary added compression, as I enjoy optimal picture and sound quality at all times. And then there’s the matter of ownership.

Many of us like to collect, we may have favorite movies and shows on disc that we actually own. And we do own them, unlike movies and shows sitting behind authentication walls on iTunes or PSN. It’s nice having the right to lend a disc to a friend, even with the downside of having to remember to get it back. The always-online world of streaming and cloud media means owning nothing, with availability at the whim of the shifting and often temporary service licensing agreements. Your favorite movie on Netflix could be here today, but gone tomorrow.

But smart TV apps and affordable HDMI-plug-in devices are getting better, easier to use and cheaper, making it easier for the mainstream consumer to join in the cord cutting trend. But there’s a somewhat unnerving reason these devices are so cheap and readily available. It’s because they’re spying on you. Smart TV has become a standard feature on many affordable TVs these days, it’s almost as if the manufacturer wants you to use its smart TV feature. And they do, because it’s a potential recurring revenue stream. Every aspect of your binge-viewing is a carefully tracked and profiled commodity in a big-data marketplace. You have no rights pertaining to the data collected about you, even if you do read the fine print on the end user license agreement.

Samsung’s Exit from the Blu-ray Market

Samsung Blu-rayBut today, it’s still way too early to declare the death of physical media. With the price of 4K UHD players becoming more reasonable, sales of players and discs are actually on the rise. According to one report, sales of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs rose an impressive 68% in the third quarter of 2018, suggesting there’s still life in HD players and media. So, it’s a surprise that Samsung is abandoning the market in which it has so much history. The first 4K Blu-ray player in the US was Samsung’s UDB-K8500. Since 4K Blu-ray remains the best sound and picture quality available, without the need for a Internet connection, it will probably be some time before we see the format completely die off. But we’re left to wonder if Apple nudged Samsung in the direction of abandoning Blu-ray. It was announced at CES 2019 that new Samsung smart TVs will come with iTunes built-in. Perhaps the sacrifice of the US Blu-ray player market was Samsung’s price of admission into the Apple ecosystem.

It’s also worth noting that Samsung is terminating sales of Blu-ray players in the U.S. market but not Europe or Asia. It’s conceivable that Blu-ray players will continue to be available in U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico.

But it’s also hard to dismiss the weight of Samsung’s message in exiting this market. It has been one of the dominant companies, not just in producing HD and 4K players, but also the TVs capable of displaying the formats. In completely abandoning Blu-ray players, Samsung is sending the message that it believes physical media is on the way out, as it drives one more nail into the coffin of disc media.


About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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