A Streaming Luddite Am I

by Tina Holmboe 6th of November 2013 (archive)

There are them what think I am a streaming Luddite. Who think I hate the technology; that I am stuck in a world of plastic discs and old–fashioned opinions.

And, well, yes. They are right, from — to quote old Ben Kenobi — a certain point of view. Let me make it clear:

I consider streaming of video, and music, from the Internet to be a waste of my time.

What a terribly backwards person I am, right?

The problem with streaming is two–fold today: the first, and most critical, is a near total lack of understanding of what it actually is by most people who comment or even use it.

Fact: when you listen to a CD (let’s keep tapes and LPs out of it), you stream music. If you view a DVD or Blu–Ray, you stream video.

To stream data, fundamentally, means «to copy bits from a source to a destination and, at the destination, play/show the content directly without storing other than buffering».

So: when you listen to a CD, the player will read the disc, lift off the 0s and 1s, and write these to a DAC (Digital–Analogue Converter) which, in turn, create the signal your speakers present (yes, after an amp is done with them).

If you stream a song from the ’net, your player will read the 0s and 1s from a file on the providers storage system and copy it to a DAC on your local system. There is, technically, no difference between these two methods.

If you rip your CD to FLAC and store on your own hard–disk, you do exactly the same. It’s a process I use all the time — with both CDs and DVDs. Caveat: it’s legal in my jurisdiction for my private use.

Despite the difference in names, streaming and playing music/video the «old–fashioned» way is exactly the same technique. The only difference is how the source material is stored: on a remote hard–drive or a local plastic disc.

In other words I am not against streaming.

The problem start with one word: bandwidth. «Broadband» is, in Sweden, defined as «2Mbit/s». Parliament has made law that no matter where you live, you should be able to purchase access to 1Mbit/s or better. Subsequently we have 100Mbit/s in the apartment in Stockholm, and 2Mbit/s at the house outside of same. The latter will not get anything more unless we pay someone to dig and connect a fibre.

Full CD–quality audio (44.1kHz, 16bit/channel, 2 channels) require a sustained bandwidth of 1.38Mbit/s. This is possible on 2Mbit/s. Just. As long as I don’t do anything else with the line. Most streaming providers supply some form of loss–less mp3. That doesn’t work so well with the NAD amp and JBL–speakers. Compressed FLAC is possibly, but at the time of writing only norwegian WIMP offer it.

Full BD–quality video (24fps, 1080p, 30bpp, PCM sound and subtitles not included, tho they should be) require a sustained bandwidth of 1.4Gbit/s. With compression you can squeeze this down to ~30Mbit/s. I leave the decision on whether this is possible on a 2Mbit/s line to the reader.

How about 4k «Ultra HD»? 144Gbit/s. Let’s compress it to 1%! 1.44Gbit/sec. Do YOU believe you’ll get access to that sort of bandwidth in your lifetime?

After all of these technical details … it gets worse. You see, I’m a film enthusiast. As such I am, for example, rather a fan of Fritz Lang.

It boils down to this: Can anyone supply me with a streaming provider from whom I can see the full–length, remastered, 1080p version of «Metropolis» over a 2Mbit/s line? And yet again in 10 years? No? ’cause the 15–quid blu–ray disc I have on my shelf will likely last me thirty years and play equally well every single time.

If you can, I’ll revise my entire opinion of Internet–based streaming of video — and music.

If you can’t — and it’d be a miracle — streaming movies from the Internet is pure bullsh*t, and will continue that way for a long, long time. Plastic FTW. Your opinion may differ.