Optical disc

Is Blu-ray the last optical disc format of all time? And after?

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With the rise of digital gaming platforms and streaming services, is there really a future for optical discs? Blu-ray discs hang on, but for how much longer? Will Blu-ray discs be the last optical format of all time, or will another replace it?

Blu-ray players are disappearing

In 2019, Samsung stopped production of its Blu-ray players, and it’s getting harder and harder to find a new player over time. Few pre-built desktops or laptops now come with optical drives. So if you have a collection of Blu-ray discs to play, you don’t have many options to play them.

Unless you are purchasing a current or previous generation Xbox or PlayStation console. Since Blu-ray discs are the standard format for console video games, the discs will remain in production at least as long as these consoles are relevant.

Blu-ray is not (yet) dead

Despite the decline of stand-alone players, Blu-ray movies continue to be produced. They remain the only way for moviegoers to grab a home-viewing copy of a movie that won’t disappear overnight. While you can probably find most mainstream movies on any of the mainstream streaming services, more obscure movies are only available through digital purchase or on disc. Digital purchases are not suitable for maintaining a collection, as their servers may go offline at some point. Sony, for example, announced in July 2022 that several films purchased through the PlayStation Store would disappear due to licensing agreements.

It’s also easy to forget that Blu-ray technology got an update in 2015 with the introduction of 4K UHD Blu-ray discs. At the time of writing, the highest capacity Blu-ray disc is 128GB, although this is the 100GB version that games and movies ship on.

Blu-ray discs offer some of the cheapest storage per GB, roughly equal to the most affordable hard drive storage, but without the mechanical complexity and failure rates that come with it.

While internet speeds are increasing rapidly, a 100GB Blu-ray disc is about as fast as gigabit fiber, much faster than most home internet connections around the world. Typical 4K streams use up to 40 Mbps at high end, but even then offer much more compressed video at a lower bitrate than Blu-ray.

Far from being obsolete, Blu-ray discs still have an important role to play in storage, as long as solid-state drive (SSD) technology remains small and expensive, and internet connection speeds are so much faster. slower than installing something from disk.

There are larger discs

Believe it or not, there was actually a Blu-ray successor in development. Known as HVD or Holographic Versatile Disc, it would offer capacities of up to 6 TB. This was under development as early as 2010, but market conditions and the eventual bankruptcy of the company responsible for developing the HVD technology put a halt to the project.

Although this commercial successor never became an actual product, that doesn’t mean that no one is working on more advanced optical discs. Optical discs, if made of the right material, can theoretically last over a century. This makes them desirable for archival purposes. In 2018, scientists announced that they had developed a 10TB optical drive with a theoretical life of 600 years.

In 2020, Sony (which developed the Blu-ray) announced its third generation optical storage system. These server-based optical devices use disk cartridges that store 5.5 TB each, delivering read speeds of up to 3 Gbps and write speeds of 1.5 Gbps. Obviously, there is still some leeway to create something much bigger and faster than Blu-ray discs in the commercial market.

RELATED: What are read/write speeds and why are they important?

8K movies and bigger games are coming

Visual comparison of SD, Full HD, 4K and 8K resolutions.
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While Blu-ray may be “only” as fast as gigabit fiber, media size isn’t standing still either. At some point in the future, 8K film media will be available, which is four times the amount of resolution compared to 4K, which in turn is four times that of 1080p footage. Delivering this content will be a big challenge and downloading it to a local player would be expensive.

Video games are also growing in size, and while it’s possible to simply ship a game across multiple discs, a new optical media standard with much faster read speeds could make it possible to only partially install a game on the SSD, then quickly load it. upcoming sections of the game in the background while you play.

RELATED: What 8K content is actually available?

Will there be other optical discs?

While we believe that optical discs still have a future role in the consumer world, whether we actually see one depends on several factors.

First, someone will have to develop a drive that offers such obvious advantages over the alternatives that it will attract investors. Second, confidence in the future of all-digital content needs to drop after the current hype peak. Loss of access to content and service outages can make people think twice about fully investing in a world without offline drives. Third, semiconductor memory devices are expected to remain too expensive by comparison.

We think the last factor is perhaps the least likely to be true. Semiconductor memory benefits from the same exponential performance and density increases as other semiconductor technologies. SSDs suffer from “bit rot”, where the electrical charges that represent data dissipate over time if the drive is not powered, but as long as they are powered every few years they should last as long as the typical user would. need them. If solid-state storage gets cheap enough, we could see movies and games delivered on a read-only cartridge format or just future flash memory connected through a USB port.