Disney has made a lot of (mostly positive) changes to the Star Wars franchise since purchasing Lucasfilm in late 2012, and the latest Disney move is to finally release the series in a digital format. Disney announced this week that all six Star Wars films will be released in “Digital HD” this Friday, April 10th. First, we’ll quickly note that Disney’s liberal use of the term “Digital HD” format shouldn’t confuse you. There’s nothing inherently special about this new release; it’s just a normal 1080p digital download like every other movie available from your favorite online provide.
Second, and more importantly, the Star Wars saga and its associated bonus features will be available digitally on a number of online platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Xbox Video. From which retailer should you make your purchase?
If you’re an Apple fan, you might initially think that iTunes is a no-brainer. After all, Apple’s online digital store is easy to navigate, and your purchases will be instantly available on all of your computers, iDevices, and Apple TV. But before you break out the iTunes gift cards, you should note that Apple just might be on the dark side of this new release, at least from a value perspective.
As of today, Apple is only offering the six Star Wars films individually for $19.99 each, making it about $120 for the entire set if that’s what you’re looking for. While other retailers are also offering each film individually at $19.99, they also have an option to purchase the entire set at a discount. Star Wars: The Digital Movie Collection contains all six films and the non-exclusive bonus features and is priced at $89.99 at Google Play, Amazon, and Xbox Video (note: Xbox Video originally priced the collection at $99.99 when announced, but has since dropped the price to match Amazon and Google).
The important factor to keep in mind is that, although iTunes offers the best compatibility for the Apple ecosystem, those purchasing digital content from other providers, especially Amazon, still enjoy full compatibility on their Apple devices. For example, Amazon offers the the Amazon Instant Video app for the iPhone and iPad and a browser-based player for PC and Mac. There’s no dedicated Amazon Video channel for Apple TV, but users can easily watch the video on their big screens via AirPlay from their iDevice. For mixed-platform households, Amazon looks even better, as its services are available on a range of mobile devices and set-top boxes, meaning more flexibility in addition to a discounted price.
If you like to play the “prequels didn’t really happen” game and just plan to pick up a few individual movies, the difference between the platforms becomes less clear, as all films are priced individually at $20. You’ll still have more flexibility with Amazon, but if you’re an Apple-all-the-way kind of person, that advantage is negligible. But there’s still one more alternative that many users should consider: Blu-ray.
The Star Wars saga has been available in HD for several years on everyone’s favorite “bag of hurt” platform. The video quality of the upcoming digital release won’t be any better than the Blu-ray master (in fact, it will be technically worse based on bitrate, although likely indistinguishable to the majority of viewers), although there are some bonus features exclusive to each platform. Still, you’ll get all six films (or one of the trilogies, if you prefer), for the same $90 price as the digital release (or $42 for each trilogy).
Why go Blu-ray? Well, in addition to the slightly better video quality (and notably better lossless audio track), you’ll get a physical copy of the films that’s yours to keep as a backup and the ability to make a legally gray* fair-use backup of the films in any format, and of any quality, for digital use. This is particularly valuable as you’ll get to decide when and how to enjoy your purchased media: if you’re an iPhone owner today and decide to buy the films on iTunes, but down the road switch to Android, you’re a bit out of luck. But if you have a personal DRM-free copy of the films from your own Blu-ray collection, you can switch platforms at will. It’s the kind of consumer freedom that makes Chris Dodd throw a hissy fit.
Going with Blu-ray isn’t as simple as a digital download, of course. There’s the time it takes to get the discs in the mail or at the store, and the time to rip and encode the files. Add to that the fact that many consumers don’t have Blu-ray drives connected to their PCs or Macs. You can solve the Blu-ray drive problem easily enough, but it still may be more hassle than the average user is willing to go through. But if you’re willing to put a little time in up front, you’ll get to enjoy Star Wars in the best quality and with the most flexibility.
This Friday is sure to be an exciting day for Star Wars fans, and a great way to bridge the gap until Episode VII lands this winter. Just make sure you think twice about your digital platform before clicking that ‘Buy’ button.
*Check your local laws and regulations for guidance on the legality of making personal backup content of copyrighted information.
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