Are You Streaming in the Best Quality Possible?

Are You Streaming in the Best Quality Possible?

To me, video quality matters. I try to watch TV and movies in the best possible resolution, especially if I’m paying for those pixels. Netflix, for instance, charges more for its 4K HDR content — a lot more, actually. But even if your streaming service offers 4K HDR content, you might not be experiencing it on your end. Deciding to watch a show on your laptop versus your TV might result in a huge drop in resolution potential, even though it’s not obvious why. Don’t roll the dice on 4K: There are ways to make sure you’re watching your favourite shows and movies in the highest quality possible.

Note, I’m covering services like Netflix and HBO Max for this angle. Other web-based platforms like YouTube offer easy 4K streaming on many different devices.

The basics on 4K and HDR

Streaming services love to advertise how good their content looks, and throw around words like 4K or HDR to promote them. But, really, it’s pretty basic.

4K refers to the resolution of the video that’s streaming to your device, which runs 3,840 pixels by 2,160 pixels. Because the video is roughly 4,000 pixels tall, we call it “4K.” By comparison, 1080p video has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. We tend to take the opposite approach in naming this resolution, since we’re referring to the width of the picture rather than the height.

HDR, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the pixels, but with the brightness of the picture. In short, HDR content makes the brighter areas of an image even brighter, and the darker areas even darker, creating a deeper contrast than typical video. Your display needs to be compatible with HDR for this feature to work, as you’ll see.

Sometimes, you need to pay extra for 4K

As mentioned above, 4K streaming isn’t standard on all subscriptions. Some services don’t differentiate, and offer 4K so long as you hand them money. Other companies, however, only offer 4K to customers that pay extra. Netflix is particularly notorious, both because it charges the highest amount a month for 4K content, and doesn’t offer HD content on its lowest tier. That said, it isn’t the only service to do business this way.

YouTube TV (different from YouTube) offers a “4K Plus” add-on for a limited amount of 4K live TV programming. Services with one flat subscription, like Disney+ or Apple TV+, offer 4K content to all subscribers by default.

Make sure your display is actually 4K

It goes without saying, but if your display isn’t 4K, you’re not going to be watching 4K television. A 1080p TV isn’t going to generate more pixels because you have a 4K Netflix subscription. Even if you get a 4K signal to this type of TV, the display will have to downsample it to 1080p.

That applies to all your screens. Your laptop or computer monitor also needs to be 4K in order to experience 4K content. Most streaming services don’t even offer 4K content on smartphones, with Prime Video being a notable exception.

Your streaming device needs to be compatible

Not all devices are capable of streaming 4K content, either. Perhaps that’s because the displays attached to them aren’t 4K, such as the aforementioned 1080p TV. However, streaming services skip support for 4K streaming on many devices, even if those devices have 4K screen resolutions.

Amazon’s Prime Video offers 4K resolution on Android phones, but not iPhones or iPads. If you have the option, you’re better off watching Prime content on Android than iOS.

Not all browsers support 4K

For the rare times when a streaming service does offer 4K browser support, like Netflix, it often doesn’t apply to all browsers. To continue the example, Netflix offers 4K for Microsoft Edge, Safari, and the Netflix app on Windows. That’s it. If you’re watching Netflix in Chrome, Firefox, or Brave, you’re watching HD, not 4K.

Check your internet connection

While online video players traditionally allow you to control the video quality manually, most streaming services these days opt for an automatic approach. That works out fine when your internet speeds are quick enough, but if the service detects your network is too slow, it’ll lower the resolution of your video to compensate.

Netflix, for example, requires your internet be 15 megabits per second or higher in order to deliver 4K content, while HBO Max requires a minimum of 25 megabits per second (they recommend at least 50 mbps).

Each streaming service is different about 4K

Each streaming service has its own quirks and rules for 4K streaming. Whether or not your setup supports 4K is based on a variety of factors. As such, the best approach is to check out the specs for the service you’re looking to watch in 4K.


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