Here’s why you’re not getting Netflix in HD or 4K, and how to fix it

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 Highyou 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.

Browser limits

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.

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 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.

Netflix App loading

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.

Computing

Lost your router? Here's how to find its IP address to help track it down

Changing the login information for your router isn't always easy, that's why so many have that little card on the back. But in order to use it, you need to know where to go. Here's how to find the IP address of your router.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2019

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s more difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.
Movies & TV

How much does Netflix cost? Here’s a pricing breakdown of its plans

Wondering how much a Netflix subscription costs? You're not the only one. That's why we put together a quick-hit guide covering all the Netflix plans, whether you want to opt for 4K streaming or a disc-based option.
Movies & TV

Best new shows and movies to stream: ‘Annihilation,’ ‘True Detective’ and more

Need something to watch this weekend? Check out our list of the best new shows and movies to stream right now. On the list this week: Annihilation, the start of a new season of True Detective, and more.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Home Theater

Sony’s 360 Reality Audio is the epic sound revolution you didn’t know you needed

After Sony’s utterly bizarre press conference, I almost missed what was perhaps the most impactful sonic experience at the show. Luckily, I went back to Sony’s booth on the last day of the show, only to have my mind blown.
Music

Tidal faces legal jeopardy over fake stream numbers accusation

In another challenging chapter for music subscription service Tidal, Norwegian authorities have begun a formal investigation into charges that the company faked millions of streams for artists such as Kanye West and Beyoncé.
Home Theater

Need to get rid of an unused Netflix profile? Just follow these simple steps

Need to delete an unwanted profile from your Netflix account? It's easy to do, no matter what kind of equipment you've got. Check out our handy how-to guide for step-by-step instructions.
Home Theater

The seven best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2019.
Computing

Beam up the videos: AirPlay support is coming to VLC player

At CES 2019, the developers of VLC player announced they are adding support for Apple's Airplay feature, allowing consumers to beam video and other content from their iPhone and Android devices to an Apple TV. 
Home Theater

Not chill: Netflix is hiking prices across all its tiers

Netflix has to get the billions of dollars it's spending on new content from somewhere. The streaming giant announced price hikes across the board, raising its monthly rates between $1 and $2 per tier in the next few months.
Home Theater

Polk Audio’s Command Bar joins Alexa’s multiroom music party

Polk's Command Bar is a home theater soundbar with Alexa built in. But with a new update, it can also be grouped with Amazon's Echo products and other third-party speakers for a multi-room experience.
Home Theater

Sling TV offers free shows, a la carte subscription channels to Roku users

If you are among a select group of Roku users, Sling TV has added free TV shows and the option to subscribe to individual channels without having to subscribe to the company's base level of channels.