The Curious Case of Netflix Streaming Quality

We stream a lot of media in my house. Yes, we have a full Comcast triple-play package, and we take full advantage of on-demand programming. We have HBO and Showtime subscriptions. You’ll pry my TiVo from my cold, dead hands. No immediate danger of cutting the cable here.

But still. I rarely manage to tivo Fringe, because of conflicts, so I exclusively watch it via Hulu. Same for Chase, which is really a lot of fun. Between those two shows, and various other drop-ins, I use Hulu regularly.

We also use, ABC.com, etc., to watch full episodes when our TiVo (rarely) gets snarled up.

I use MLB.tv to watch at least a hundred Yankee’s games a season; my girls are being raised properly.

We rent, early and often, from Amazon Video On Demand. I mean, it is our first stop for rentals; iTunes has been long banished, same as my first-gen Apple TV. Amazon Video On Demand just works: great quality, one-click purchase, easy searching, perfect.

I do all of this through a dedicated media PC, running Windows Vista with Home Media Center. I’ve got an ATI card with HDMI out connected to a fifty-inch DLP Samsung HDTV (which is getting old, but the picture is fine, so…). At the moment, there is nothing a dedicated media box like a Roku could do for me, so I am sticking with my PC.

I’ve got Boxee on the PC, and I use it occasionally. It is nice, but my kids prefer to just use Firefox and access all these services via the browser. Denigrate Flash all you want but the picture quality is superb. Even MLB.tv, which manages thrity-plus live streams fo HD material from all over the country to all over the country on a given day in the baseball season is pretty damn sharp. Interestingly, it got much better this past season when they dumped Silverlight for Flash.

And then, there is Netflix.

I pay the $9/month single-DVD rate; we tend to let the current disc linger for weeks at a time, but my kids love the Netflix streaming library. They use it on the Wii a lot, and on the media PC a lot more.

But … why does Netflix streaming quality suck?

I mean it is awful compared to every other service. Tearing is particularly prevalent, enough that it detracts from the experience. The overall quality at any given moment is fine, but the overall quality is lousy.

I note that Netflix still uses Silverlight for streaming. I make no further comment.

My internet connection is plenty fast enough, as I have no problem with anyone else’s streaming media. Heck, even 480p from YouTube is better — to say nothing of the videos available in 720p on YouTube, which are gorgeous.

For a company which terms itself “primarily a streaming content” company, their lack of investment in the streaming client is pretty surprising. You could argue that for several of the services I’ve mentioned, like the broadcast networks, or MLB, streaming is a sideline. Yet their quality is head and shoulders about Netflix. I know they stream a ton of video, I know they use a sophisticated dynamic-bandwidth methodology, etc. But…

The bottom line is, in my house, we rather stream from Hulu, Amazon et al, because the quality is just better.

That seems to be a problem to me. And for Netflix, I presume.

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9 Comments on “The Curious Case of Netflix Streaming Quality”


  1. Apple TV is a good device, but when you buy movie from the internet you have to wait too much time to download finished. Some blu ray movies nearly 40 gb. This option is not suitable users that have an adsl with quota.

  2. Steve Says:

    I got a Roku for Christmas and am trying out the Netflix streaming-only subscription. I noticed the quality issue for the first time the other day. There was a shot with a flat dark sky in the background, and the gradient transitions were heavily pixelated. I hope they get their act together, because I love the service otherwise.

    I’m keeping my old AppleTV. It complements the Roku by streaming local content and providing YouTube access. Together they are a pretty complete media system.

    • designbygravity Says:

      I wondered if the Roku-class devices had a better streaming interface; I’ve been meaning to try Netflix inside Boxee (I have the Boxee app on my PC) to see if it is any better.

      Hulu has the reverse problem — the Hulu Desktop App has inferior quality to the browser. Go figure.

      • Steve Says:

        Another Roku data point…

        Last night I started a Netflix movie and noticed that the “quality” indicator that you see while loading went beyond the usual 4 blips and added an “HD” symbol. The movie then played in crystal clear, full HD.

        Afterwords I went back to look at the movie blurb, and it included an HD symbol. The movies that I noticed were pixelated did not have this symbol, even though they played in widescreen. So are they compressing some movies to death and others not so much?

        In any case, the poor quality of some content seems not to stem from a technical limitation, but rather a choice on the part of Netflix (at least where the Roku is concerned).


  3. […] subscriptions. You’ll pry my TiVo from my cold, dead hands. No immediate danger of… [full post] designbygravity Design By Gravity tech 0 0 0 0 0 […]

  4. Russ Werdin Says:

    Very interesting about NETFLIX quality. Looks like Amazon is a better choice for our movies unless there are contrarty views? For all who read this should we go AMAZON? thanks,

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