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Friday, June 21, 2024

How to Make Sure You’re Getting the Best Streaming Quality

If you put down money every month for a streaming service (or seven), then you probably want the best possible video quality your service provides. However, that's not always going to be what you get by default.

Here we'll cover the different factors that affect streaming video quality—not just the speed of the Wi-Fi reaching your device but also the type of device you're watching on, and the particular plan that you've signed up for.

By the time you've finished this checklist, you'll be enjoying your shows and movies in crisp, sharp 4K resolution, if your devices support it. If that's not the case, at least you're going to know why.

Check Your Plan

Perhaps it's been a long time since you first signed up for your streaming plan (or plans), or perhaps you've never thought about the different plans each service offers. Whatever the case, it's important to know that some platforms offer different levels of quality depending on how much you pay each month.

Netflix is perhaps the best example of this. At the cheapest $9.99 level you don't even get true HD (High Definition)—720p, or 720 horizontal lines in each frame. You need to pay $15.49 a month for 1080p HD, and you need to pay $19.99 a month for Ultra HD or 4K. That top resolution is 2160p, or 2,160 lines in each frame, three times the quality of standard HD.

The good news is that most other platforms just offer a single option with resolutions up to 4K, though it's worth double-checking with the ones you're signed up for. HBO Max is another service that gives you a choice of plans, with the cheaper $9.99-a-month option introducing advertising breaks and limiting the streaming resolution to 720p HD. To get the full quality and remove the ads, you need to pay $14.99 a month.

What does apply to all streaming services, however, is that not everything is going to be available in crisp 4K resolution. Older shows and movies in particular may fall back to 720p HD, so that might be another reason that the picture quality you're seeing isn't great—it may be that whatever you're watching just isn't available in the best format.

Check Your Device

Along with checking your streaming plan, you also need to check the device you're using. A smartphone or a tablet with a 1080p resolution (1,080 horizontal lines of pixels) obviously isn't going to be able to show a 2160p 4K picture as it was originally intended. A quick search on the web should be enough to determine whether or not your streaming service of choice is available in 4K on your streaming device of choice.

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Take Netflix again: Your TV or computer monitor needs to run at a refresh rate of 60 Hz or above and support 4K resolution. If you're watching on a computer, meanwhile, you need to be using Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, or the Netflix app for Windows to get the highest resolutions—these resolutions won't be served up in other browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.

Then there's Hulu, which will only broadcast content in 4K to specific devices, including the fifth-generation (or later) Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV. Meanwhile, streaming through the Hulu website via a browser tops out at 720p. We can't go through the details for every single streaming service out there, but you can see what we mean in the apps you're signed up for.

It's also worth digging into your apps' settings pages to ensure they're configured to deliver the best possible streaming quality. In the Disney+ smartphone app, for example, if you tap your profile picture (bottom right) and then App settings, you can set the video quality for Wi-Fi streaming, streaming over a cellular network, and playing from the titles that you've downloaded to your device.

Check Your Wi-Fi

Just about every streaming service is smart enough to adjust the video quality in response to the available bandwidth on the Wi-Fi (or cellular) network that you're connected to. If your device of choice is struggling to get the best quality picture, it might be that its connection to the internet just isn't strong enough.

If you're not sure exactly what speeds you're getting to your devices in the corners of your home furthest from the router, it's a good idea to test them. We have lots of options for all of your devices, but for a quick one, load up Fast.com (which is actually run by Netflix). There are no menus to navigate and no settings to configure; you just load the site and it tells you the speed of your internet connection. Try running the test a few times to ensure that you're getting an accurate reading.

You'll then need to check up on the minimum speeds recommended for the services you're using. To give you an idea, Apple TV+ recommends a speed of 25 Mbps or above if you want to watch a steady 4K videostream, and if this isn't reached you might notice the quality start to degrade.

The usual rules apply for keeping Wi-Fi speeds as fast as possible: Keep your router as close to your devices as you can, think about connecting some of them via wired Ethernet connections, consider upgrading to a mesh network system, limit the number of gadgets you have connected to the internet at any one time, and perhaps (if you have the option) upgrade to a faster package from your internet service provider.

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