Why All Video Is Not Equal
"When it comes down to it, video is video, right? I don't need to spend extra to get the exact same thing."
This topic comes up again and again, particularly when you're talking to folks who are (understandably) trying to save a buck. I first encountered it way back when my husband and I invested in a home theater projector. "Why?" people asked us. "Why spend extra just because it says it's for home theater? It does the same thing as my office projector!"
More recently, I've encountered a similar issue with folks who want to use their laptop as their primary source of video content. "It's all the same," they tell me. "Why should I spend extra to have yet another little box that can spin a disc around?"
The answer is that, though all of these pieces of equipment can do the same general things as each other, the ones optimized for watching video have certain hardware and software that makes them do a much better job.
Let's take the projector as an example. My home theater projector had a cousin, a very similar model by the same manufacturer that cost a good deal less. However, the reason it cost less was because it couldn't handle certain kinds of home theater connections (it relied on traditional PC monitor connections), it couldn't do widescreen viewing, it had a more limited contrast ratio, and it wasn't as responsive as my projector when it came to motion. Why would it be? It was designed to handle nothing more difficult than the occasional PowerPoint animation, not taxing sports action or video game motion.
The home theater version, on the other hand, had all that good stuff, meaning it was easier to connect, easier to see in varied lighting, and just plain looked better. (A friend actually had the lesser version and noted the difference in picture quality as well; in fact, he used much stronger terms than this, but I'm trying to be objective.)
The same kind of thing comes into play with a computer. The computer's graphics capability has a lot to do with the kind of picture quality you can count on. Many computers have only a basic graphics chip, because manufacturers know that most computers are only used to read emails and websites or let the user view and edit documents and databases.
Some computers, however, have a high-end video card. The result is crisper, more fluid video, whether it's the stuff you see on YouTube, video games, DVDs you pop in the drive, etc. (Incidentally, these kinds of improvements in technology are also why TVs, Blu-ray players, DVD players, and the like sometimes cost more than apparently similar models; they have much better processors in them, and those processors translate to a smoother, more detailed, more watchable picture.)
So what should you plan on doing? Just consider quality when you make investments or decide which piece of gear to use for what. If you're customizing a computer and planning to hook it up to your new HDTV so you can watch web videos, it's probably worth it to spring for a top-notch graphics card. If you're comparing Blu-ray players, take processing into account when comparing models (if they don't mention their processors or digital-to-analog converters at all, you can probably assume there's nothing too fancy about them).
That's why, when it comes to watching high-def videos from Hulu, my husband and I will do better using a Mac Mini with an updated NVIDIA graphics card than our elderly laptop. And when it comes to discs, well, that's what our disc player was designed to do - and it still does the best job in the house.