Swept into a low-quality stream.
January 17, 2010 5:52 AM   Subscribe

What software or hardware changes will help me improve Netflix streaming?

Yesterday, I queued up two movies to watch via the Netflix "Watch Instantly" video streaming feature.

The first, "Gosford Park," defaulted to 480p, and the colors were splotchy. Verdict: Unviewable on a large-screen TV. The second, "The Girlfriend Experience," defaulted to 720p (I know this because my TV's display flickered, then immediately showed "720p" in the upper right corner). Verdict: Eminently watchable on a large-screen TV, and DVD-quality.

At present, I'm streaming movies over a year-old "fat" PS3, and using an older-generation Airport Extreme base station as my wifi router. The base station is two (wooden) floors above the TV, and usually shows a signal strength of 60% when running the PS3 diagnostic. It's the "flying saucer" shaped base station, and is four or five years old.

I'm led to believe that my equipment is okay, because "The Girlfriend Experience" defaulted to 720p for a DVD-quality image. Even so, would upgrades to either the PS3 or Airport give me better quality for movies that can't quite make the grade?

Also, it seems that there's a wide variation in image quality with Netflix streaming. Is this due to the network load on individual movies, or to the poor quality of the source data? Is there any way to "tweak" my system or signal to improve the quality of a stream?
posted by Gordion Knott to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
We stream Netflix on a roughly year-old "fat" PS3 hooked up to a 1080p projector that's about a 100-inch screen and get really good results -- whereas even playing a PS2 game on the projector is unbearable awful quality -- but we pay extra money to get a very fast internet connection. I would bet that your internet connection is the bottleneck; not much else is going to effect the quality.
posted by Nattie at 6:11 AM on January 17, 2010

Oh, also to answer your last question: yes, it's because of the source data. Not everything streams in HD. It will indicate if it's HD before you select the movie, otherwise assume it isn't.
posted by Nattie at 6:12 AM on January 17, 2010

Look for the little "Starz Play" logo and avoid those movies, the quality is generally crap. (Gosford Park appears to be such.)
posted by anaelith at 6:38 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, we get pretty good results for most things through our Roku using the newer Airport (the flat one) with an N connection. Some shows are still crap in ways that indicate bad source quality, though. Specifically, we like to watch old-series Dr. Who episodes and I'm sure their transfer quality is crap. Newer stuff has been pretty good, though--we've been watching a lot of Primeval lately and there's been a bit of pixellation in scenes with low contrast (like everything is underwater or in a jungle), particularly if there's fast movement. Again, I think that's inherent to the source.

We got the N before we got our Roku, so I can't say if that improved quality for Netflix. It significantly improved quality for the Apple TV we use over the same connection. We had previously hooked the Apple TV up to an ethernet cable because the quality and the connection were so bad.
posted by immlass at 6:47 AM on January 17, 2010

We have the new "thin" PS3, and stream over a Linksys "G" router, not "N" connection. There is a variation in the source data; like immlass we recently tried to watch Season 1 of the Dr Who reboot and it was very blocky and unwatchable (our TV flagged it as 480p).

That said, other programs from the UK showed up as 480p and were fine. They usually tell you if they are HD or not. Our connection is the fastest one Comcast offers in our area, so check your bandwidth first. Overall our experience has been good with the instant streaming.
posted by arcticseal at 7:53 AM on January 17, 2010

I have a 60G PS3 and had terrible luck streaming even locally over wifi. Run a cable if you can.
posted by rhizome at 9:33 AM on January 17, 2010

I've noticed that despite having an impressive library, Netflix watch instantly leaves a bit to be desired in terms of quality for most of their offerings, often being bested by Hulu.
posted by dantekgeek at 10:10 AM on January 17, 2010

Bandwidth can definitely have an effect on the quality of your Netflix streaming experience. They encode content at multiple levels of fidelity and will deliver whichever they think is most appropriate based on a network test at the time of play. Assuming you are on a solid broadband connection to begin with, I would probably first look at the possibility of running a hard cable to the PS3 or getting a cheap repeater and see if that improves it, and then at upgrading the router if not. Of course you are always limited at the very top by the best rate at which they encoded the media, but I have watched a lot of streaming from Netflix, and have never found anything to be unwatchable.
posted by sophist at 10:49 AM on January 17, 2010

Oh yeah, some details on their encoding process here.
posted by sophist at 10:52 AM on January 17, 2010

Sophist has it - Netflix detects your bandwidth and gives you an appropriate quality so as to avoid buffering. On the PC (Silverlight player) there's a sneaky hotkey that lets you see and choose your quality - ctrl-alt-shift-s.

If this doesn't work for the PS3 users out there, you may want to check your internet connection speed. In my old place, we had "basic speed" DSL, and I had to force the quality up all the time. We upgraded to the higher speed line, and now Netflix usually defaults to the highest quality. Also, if you can, run a cable to eliminate the possibility of wireless interference.

And I've been watching the new Doctor Who on my 1920x1080 monitor, and it's not blocky at all, so the source quality is fine in that case. Starz Play films do seem to have a little worse quality sometimes, but nothing unwatchable.
posted by Wulfhere at 11:50 AM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

you left out the important part: what kind of internet connection do you have? have you checked your speed out somewhere (DSLReports' speedtests are pretty decent)? if you've got a lower-tier DSL or cable package, you might be better off upgrading it. or, if your service isn't good in your area, you might want to switch. note that it's best (especially when using cable) to do multiple test; sometimes the internet is slow and sometimes (moreso on cable) there might be more traffic around you, slowing things down.

if you know someone with another router, you might try that too to see if your Airport is slowly dying, or adjusting the settings on your Airport if there's lots of other wireless access points around you. most routers default to the same channel, so if there's a lot around you, you'll get interference.
posted by mrg at 1:11 PM on January 17, 2010

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