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What happened to my Netflix?! Here’s why you’re not always getting HD

You’re home from a long day at work, you’ve just fired up your killer 1080p HDTV, and you’re stoked to watch Orange Is the New Black on Netflix in all its stunning, “Super HD” glory (because … ya know … the cinematography). But when you press play, it takes a while for the show to load, and when it does start playing it looks terrible.  Netflix very clearly states this show is in Super HD – Netlix’s equivalent to 1080p – but what you’re looking at is standard definition at best, and possibly much lower than that.  So what’s going on?

First off, if you’ve suffered such a problem, know this: You’re not alone. In fact, Netflix’s popularity could be partly responsible for your poor picture quality. But in recent months, we’ve learned a lot more about what’s going on between Netflix’s servers and your TV, and it turns out your Internet service provider (ISP) could be standing on the hose between you and all those 1080p pixels, too.

Then again, the culprit could be your own network setup. So before we start pointing fingers and blaming evil ISPs, let’s start with your TV and work our way backward to eliminate as many potential bottlenecks as possible. Then we’ll take a look at other factors that could be preventing you from getting the best possible Netflix experience.

Updated 2-24-2016 by Brendan Hesse: Updated to reflect current information and troubleshooting strategies.

Go to the source

Before you bring your holy inquisition down upon your network connection and Internet service provider, your first step should be checking your Netflix plan and settings. Chances are your plan supports HD streaming, but there are plans that only allow for streaming in standard def, so it’s worth at least double checking. If you’ve got the right plan, the next order of operation is to tweak Netflix’s streaming options. Begin by opening your account and under the “Your Profile” section, find the Playback Settings. Here, you will see four different options: Low, Medium, High and Auto. It’s probably obvious what each of those mean, but here’s a detailed breakdown of how each setting affects your quality (and, potentially, your data cap).

  • Low –  streaming at this level will use up about .3 GB per hour. Streaming in low quality will force the content to play back at standard definition. This is the best option for those with poor connections, or those who are streaming with data limits.
  • Medium – medium quality streaming will tick your data use up to around .7 GB per hour. At this limit, you’ll still be locked into streaming at standard definition.
  • High – streaming in high quality opens you up to HD streams, but that also means your data usage could vary quite a bit. Depending on your network, you could be using 3 GB per hour for basic 720p streaming, or up to 7 GB per hour for ultra HD streaming.
  • Auto – as the name implies, this will make let your streaming quality fluctuate in accordance with your current Internet speeds and network connection to provide the most stable streaming experience. However, with that stability comes a greater likelihood of drops in quality.

Related: Time to kill? Here are 120 riveting movies you can watch on Netflix right now

If your streaming on any option other than High, you won’t be getting HD quality from Netflix. Be aware that any change to these settings can take up to eight hours to take effect, so if you switch and don’t notice an immediate change in your picture fidelity, be patient. We also feel it bears mentioning that using more data can impact your data plan, so be mindful of your usage if you have data limits.

Browser Limits

Believe or not, but not all browsers were created equal, and that’s especially so when it comes to streaming. While pretty every popular internet browser is capable of streaming Netflix content in HD, just how HD it is will vary between browsers. Here’s a simple look at what maximum resolution each browser is capable of:

  • Google Chrome: up to 720p
  • Firefox: up to 720p
  • Opera: up to 720p
  • Safari: up to 1080p (on Macs running OS X 10.10.3 or greater)
  • Microsoft Edge: up to 1080p
  • Internet Explorer: up to 1080p

We’re just as surprised as anyone that IE out performs Chrome or Firefox at anything.

Are you geared up to stream HD video?

You might be paying for a fast Internet connection, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have fast Internet access. Try visiting testmy.net to see what kind of downstream speeds you’re getting. If you get anything under 10 Mbps and there’s more than one device in your residence using the Internet, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a full HD stream from Netflix … ever.

Mytest-test-image

Not seeing a good number? There are several things you can do to make sure you’re getting the speeds you should, from picking the right Internet plan, to installing the right kind of router. We cover everything in this comprehensive guide on how to optimize your home’s network for streaming HD video.

With your home’s network in tip-top shape, you can rest easy knowing your Internet pipes aren’t the ones that are clogged. With that in mind, it’s time to take a step back and consider whether then lines feeding your home are as open as they should be.

Related: How to set up a VPN to speed up Netflix

Is your ISP to blame?

A couple of big developments have taken place between Netflix and certain ISPs over the past few months. First, Netflix started paying off a few ISPs, including Comcast and Suddenlink, for so-called “fast lanes” which are meant to ensure its video streams get to its customers using those ISPs more quickly and reliably.

You could be doomed to poor Netflix picture quality…

Second, Netflix has engaged in a full-on schoolyard brawl with Verizon, claiming Verizon is throttling (slowing down) its customers’ Internet connections when they use Netflix. Verizon denies it’s doing anything of the sort, but there is some compelling evidence that shows Verizon FiOS customers are getting slower Internet speeds than they should, including Netflix’s own speed index report.

If you’re using an Internet service provider that hasn’t made some sort of arrangement with Netflix, be it a paid fast-lane agreement or through Netflix’s “open connect” program, it’s possible you could be doomed to poor Netflix picture quality – especially if you live in a large market with lots of Internet users. Check the speed report above to get some idea where Netflix stands in your ISP’s graces. If it looks like your ISP ranks poorly, it’s possible – though difficult to prove – that your ISP could be throttling you and all Netflix users on its network. If you suspect that might be the case, one way to hide what you’re doing from your ISP is with a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, as mentioned in our aforementioned how-to article.

Check your watch

If you haven’t noticed, Netflix will start playing a stream sooner than it can be played at its full quality, buffering for the full-resolution version along the way. As soon as it is safe to do so, the stream will be displayed at full resolution.

If bandwidth slows down, resolution will drop until the full-res stream is sufficiently buffered again. Ostensibly, Netflix does this to keep the load times short so you don’t feel like “it’s taking forever” to watch your show.

Netflix App loading

This intelligent adjustment makes Netflix feel snappy, but at the wrong time of day, it can also make it look like garbage. As we experimented with Netflix quality over the course of an entire day, we discovered that the biggest factor influencing stream quality is time of day, and whether that time falls under typical peak hours for watching.

Getting HD (720p) at 9 in the evening, for example was next to impossible, let alone 1080p or 4k Ultra HD.

Related: How to optimize your home’s network for streaming HD video

What else can I do?

If you know for certain your home’s network is solid, and the ISP you subscribe to is known to offer good Netflix streaming speeds, yet your experience is bad, then call your ISP and report the issue. Make sure the agent knows that you know what you’re talking about before they drag you through a 45-minute scripted troubleshooting session, and cross your fingers they’ll try to do something about it rather than just point a finger at Netflix.

Other than that, there isn’t much you can do aside from vote with your wallet. Cancel your subscription to tell Netflix that if they can’t get you a better experience in your area, you’re not going to pay for it. After all, until those that have the most stand to lose something, it’s possible nothing will change.