You’re home from a long day at work, you just fired up your killer 4K Ultra HD TV and you load up your favorite show. 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 4K UHD, but what you’re looking at is standard definition at best and “early days of streaming video” at its worst.
What’s the deal?
First off, if you’ve suffered such a problem, know this: You’re not alone. The culprit could be any number of connection points, but the first place to check is your own setup.
So before you blame Netflix or your internet service provider, let’s start with your TV and work our way backward to eliminate as many potential bottlenecks as possible. Then we will take a look at other factors that could be preventing you from getting the best possible Netflix experience, whether that means HD or UHD.
Go to the source
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 definition, and UHD streaming is only available on the most expensive plan, so it’s worth at least double-checking. If you’re not sure, we’ve got a clear breakdown of all plans.
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 those mean, but here’s a detailed breakdown of how each setting affects your picture quality (and, potentially, your data cap).
- Low: Streaming at this level will use up about 0.3 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 0.7 GB per hour. At this limit, you’ll still be locked into standard definition.
- High: Streaming in high quality opens you up to HD and UHD streams with the proper plan, 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 UHD streaming.
- Auto: As the name implies, this will let your streaming quality fluctuate in accordance with your current internet speeds and network connection to provide the most stable streaming experience. With that stability, however, comes a greater likelihood of drops in quality.
If you’re streaming on any option other than High, you won’t be getting HD or UHD 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. Again, higher streaming resolution can impact your data plan, so be mindful of your usage if you have a data cap.
Not all browsers were created equal, and that’s especially true when it comes to streaming. While pretty much 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 on a computer.
- 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 4K (requires HDCP 2.2-compliant connection to a 4K display, with at least Intel’s 7th gen Core CPU, plus the latest version of Windows)
- Internet Explorer: Up to 1080p
Are you geared up to stream HD or UHD 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 download speeds you’re getting. If you get anything under 10 Mbps and there is more than one device in your residence using the internet, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a full HD stream — and definitely not UHD — from Netflix.
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 suggest checking our list of the best wireless routers to make sure you’re getting the fastest connection possible on your network.
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 the lines feeding your home are as open as they should be.
Is your ISP to blame?
After much pressure, 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
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. You can consult the Netflix ISP speed website 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 (VPN). We have a handy guide to everything you need to know about VPNs that will likely come in handy here.
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 possible to do so, the stream will be displayed at full resolution.
If bandwidth slows down, video 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. This intelligent adjustment makes Netflix feel snappy, but at the wrong time of day, it can also make it look like garbage during the first few minutes of viewing.
As we experimented with Netflix quality over the course of an entire day, we discovered that the biggest factor influencing stream quality is the time of day and whether that time falls under typical peak hours for watching. You’ll want to keep peak hours (essentially prime time hours after 6 p.m.) in mind and adjust your expectations.
What else can I do?
If you know for certain your home network is solid, and the ISP you subscribe to offers 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 that they will try to do something about it rather than just point a finger at Netflix.
Fortunately, this is a problem you will run into far less than you used to. On the other hand, depending on where you live, you may not have the option to switch ISPs or do anything else to get a better streaming experience. If this is the case, there isn’t much you can do aside from canceling 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. Otherwise, it’s possible nothing will change.