What Can I Do to Overcome Spotty Streaming?

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Q 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 AV quality? Are there any advances on the horizon? —Jason Acosta / via e-mail

A 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 AV 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.

africord's picture

I know it's old school, but a hard-wired connection from your router to your streaming device can tame data problems. My 802.11ac router solved a lot of my problems that were occurring even though I'm connected to a 100mb Internet connection, but Ethernet still can drive high bandwidth with greater consistency than even the best wifi router connection.

drny's picture

Streaming via wi-fi connection is mostly acceptable for your run of the mill programs, that is with a 802.11ac router and at least 100mps download speed from your ISP.
However, I must completely agree with africord in suggesting a good old fashion ethernet hard wire connection.
I stream Netflix, Amazon Video, and HBONow via the apps on my TV display through an ethernet connection to my router.
I also stream via wi-fi through Roku Sling TV and occasionally Hulu, for normal programming were visual impact is not a major factor.
GOT looks great in my 65" 4k TV because the display upscales the streaming signal. It does not match the level of Marco Polo 4k on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video 4k, but I do not suffer from lag, freezes or degraded video quality as it occasionally happens through my wi-fi Roku streaming.
Hey old fashion is sometimes the cool way to go.

brenro's picture

My home is hard wired throughout for internet. I consistently have over 200 Mbps download speeds but even the best streamed video doesn't hold a candle to a 4K UHD Blu Ray for picture quality.

rjmedich's picture

Hey Al,
I was completely with you above—until you praised Vudu. I've streamed a couple movies from Vudu (in HD). And both times, I found the picture quality lacking—quite flat and un-engaging, somehow. I wouldn't pay to rent from them again. Even HBO Now looks better to me.

But yes, Amazon and Netflix in particular look outstanding—often better than the picture quality I get from Fios.

ednaz's picture

I'd had wildly varying results streaming at HD for a long time. Everything fine, then dropouts here and there, then everything fine. A move to a new house (while still needing a network in the old house) led me to buy new wireless routing. I went with the Orbi. The master, sadly, is in the basement near the cable modem, with one on the first floor in the media room, the other on the second floor in the hall outside the bedrooms.

That back channel does make a big difference. The consistency of my streaming experience got way, way better. I still got into trouble, though, streaming HD music or multi-channel high def music. And sometimes I'd still get glitchy plain old streaming.

The Orbi each have four ethernet jacks on the back. For the heck of it, I attached my media computer to it, and attached my Roku and one of two DACs. (The other is fed from the media computer via fiber optic USB...) I was floored by the difference. When three or four devices were hitting the Orbi, there were occasions when I'd get a glitch. By giving the most critical devices an ethernet connection to the Orbi, that's never happened since.

I have an old Squeezebox Touch in the master bedroom (hacked to handle 24/96), feeding a DAC, and had to back down to 14/44 for streaming or I got drop outs. Ran an ethernet cable from the Orbi to the Touch, and now I can stream 24/96 for hours without a glitch.

I've had evenings where kids were streaming movies, I was listening to HD music in one room, my wife listening in another, a stupid number of computers and tablets in use, and no one had any glitches. Getting the critical stuff (streaming) onto the ethernet to Orbi made a big difference.

pw's picture

Much of the UC Berkeley is hardened for Nuclear Attack with 15 foot thick concrete walls on some buildings this was done in the 1950's..
Hence WiFi reception is awful and on the Science side of Campus..
A Engineering student invented the "Bear Extender" and was so successful has founded a company.. It's less than $40 on Amazon..
I use it to stream Tidal MQA into my garage.. Works perfect..

pw's picture

Much of the UC Berkeley is hardened for Nuclear Attack with 15 foot thick concrete walls on some buildings this was done in the 1950's..
Hence WiFi reception is awful and on the Science side of Campus..
A Engineering student invented the "Bear Extender" and was so successful has founded a company.. It's less than $40 on Amazon..
I use it to stream Tidal MQA into my garage.. Works perfect..

mtymous1's picture

I don't think people realize how easy it is to run Ethernet in their homes.

Lots of ways to run are shown online: under carpet, behind baseboard, through the HVAC return, ceiling drops, outdoors, etc.

You can get CAT6 for a song from Monoprice.

You'll never have to worry about wireless dropouts when your wired. EVER.

mtymous1's picture

...not your.


alchav21's picture

I agree, only Hard Wired Ethernet is the only way to go to Stream to your UHD TV. I'm Hard Wired straight from my Fiber Feed Switch to my Sony UHD TV, with Symmetrical 85Mbps and Amazon, Netflix, Vudu plus all my Streaming Providers come in Rock Solid!