Ask S&V: State of Streaming
The idea of physical media going away bothers me because video streaming quality still seems so spotty. Even my wife—I’ll call her a home theater appreciator, if not an enthusiast— noticed how bad the last season of Game of Thrones looked when we streamed it on HBO Now. To be fair, that’s not the case with all streaming services. For example, Stranger Things looked great on Netflix in 4K. With both examples, however, you will most certainly get the definitive experience by watching the show on disc. Here’s my question: Which of the video streaming services currently offers the best possible A/V quality? Are there any advances on the horizon?
Jason Acosta / via e-mail
It’s true that not all streaming services deliver the same quality. Netflix and Amazon Video offer a fair amount of programming in Ultra HD (3840 x 2160p) resolution. And some programs on both services are available in the Dolby Vision and HDR10 high dynamic range (HDR) formats, which can have a greater visual impact than the resolution boost that Ultra HD provides over regular HD. Hulu also offers some shows in Ultra HD (but not HDR), though you’ll need to use a PlayStation 4 Pro or Xbox One S console to stream them.
Most à la carte streaming channels such as HBO Now and Showtime, in contrast, max out at HD resolution. As an HBO Now subscriber, I can confirm that its video quality is spotty. Netflix, on the other hand, provides consistently excellent quality, especially on its Ultra HD offerings, which require a $12/month, four-screen plan to access. I’ve also come to depend on Vudu as a source for video rentals, both for its consistent streaming performance and for its selection of Ultra HD movies, including titles with Dolby Vision HDR.
While examples like Netflix and Vudu show that streaming is headed in the right direction, I’d agree that physical formats such as Blu-ray Disc remain a definitive source. That’s because Blu-ray, with its maximum 40 Mbps video data transfer rate, provides a consistent quality level, and it isn’t affected by factors such as your internet service provider (ISP) and the performance of your home’s Wi-Fi network.
While you can’t control what’s happening with your ISP, you can take steps to ensure that your home’s network is humming along properly. A key one is to upgrade to an 802.11ac wireless router. The 802.11ac specification boosts data throughput speeds significantly over the previous Wi-Fi version, 802.11n. Since it also transmits data on the 5-gigahertz band, it provides a less congested connectivity option than the 2.4-GHz band, which is used by older Wi-Fi gear and devices including household appliances, baby monitors, and garage door openers. The reach of an 802.11ac wireless connection is typically more limited than 802.11n, however, so if you have a large home, you may want to consider using a mesh system. Such systems use satellite units that connect wirelessly with the main router to extend Wi-Fi signals. Some, like Netgear’s Orbi, also use a second, dedicated 5-GHz channel that allows for signals to be broadcast to the satellite unit without compromising speed.
As for streaming’s future, an alliance of tech and media companies including Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are currently working on a next-generation video compression codec called AOMedia Video (AV1) to replace the HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) codec used for 4K streaming. While it’s unclear if the new codec will provide A/V quality benefits, we do know that it’s open-source (allowing companies to avoid paying royalties as they must with HEVC) and will reportedly provide up to 20 percent higher compression efficiency than current codecs.
I’m considering buying either an 82-inch Samsung LCD or a 65-inch LG OLED and am wrestling with the issue of TV picture quality versus size. Having happily owned a 50-inch plasma TV for the past 11 years, I’m wondering how the new LCDs stack up against plasma models when it comes to picture quality?
Gregorio Lopez / via e-mail
Since plasma TV production ended in the high-definition era, a key difference between old plasmas and new LCDs is that LCD TVs now offer both Ultra HD resolution and an ability to display HDR content. Both of those factors could bring a quality boost over your old plasma TV, especially when viewing on an 82-inch screen. Plasma, on the other hand, offered the advantage of an extremely wide viewing angle—a feature you don’t get with many current LCD models that OLED does provide.
Since you’re a plasma fan, I expect you’ll find OLED TVs more to your liking since that technology delivers the same rich, deep blacks and subtle highlight rendition plasma was known for. LCD TVs, in contrast, offer a better bang for your buck than OLED models when you make price comparisons based on screen size. For example,
LG’s 65-inch E7 series OLED UHDTV costs around $3,500—the same price you’ll pay for an 82-inch Samsung LCD UHDTV.
Which streaming services offer the best A/V quality?