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Netflix Boost Mobile Video Quality Without Needing Faster Broadband

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016 (10:45 am) - Score 1,296

Internet video streaming giant Netflix is constantly trying to improve video quality over low-bandwidth (slow) broadband connections and a new change looks set to deliver more efficient video encodes (higher quality), albeit without needing a faster Mobile Broadband service.

Earlier this year we ran an article that examined the dramatic impact of advanced video compression methods on video streaming quality and broadband speeds (here), which among other things showed how today it’s possible to stream a much higher quality video online and all without needing a faster broadband connection. This is important because online video content accounts for around 70% of consumer Internet traffic (here).

In keeping with that Netflix has just moved to improve its video encoding on mobile platforms by introducing two new methods (AVCHi-Mobile and VP9-Mobile), which bring improvements to compression, optimal encoder settings and per-chunk bitrate optimization.

Netflix’s Anne Aaron said:

“Last month, we started re-encoding our catalog to generate the new mobile bitstreams and the effort is ongoing. The mobile encodes are being used in the brand new downloads feature. In the near future, we will also use these new bitstreams for mobile streaming to broaden the benefit for Netflix members, no matter how they’re watching.”

According to the streaming giant, all of the above changes combine to result in “better video quality for the same bitrate” compared to their current streams (AVCMain).

Netflix’s Video Encoding Methods

* AVCMain: Our existing H.264/AVC Main profile encodes, using per-title optimization, serve as anchor for the comparison.

* AVCHi-Mobile: H.264/AVC High profile encodes using more optimal encoder settings and per-chunk encoding.

* VP9-Mobile: VP9 encodes using more optimal encoder settings and per-chunk encoding.

Netflix will tend to choose either AVCHi-Mobile or VP9-Mobile, depending upon the type of video content being shown (i.e. they each work better for different things). Generally AVCHi-Mobile streams were found to deliver the same video quality at 15% lower bitrate via one measure and at 19% lower bitrate according to Netflix’s own measure of Video Multimethod Assessment Fusion (VMAF) test.

By comparison the VP9-Mobile streams showed more gains and can deliver an average of 36% bitrate savings according to both tests that were run. As a result even somebody who suffers a Mobile Broadband (3G or 4G) speed of 1Mbps should benefit from “noticeably better visual quality“.

netflix_video_compression_vs_bitrate

Incidentally some may ask why Netflix has yet to support the arguably more favourable H.265 standard and the reason has to do with support and restrictions on certain platforms. For example, Android (Google) somewhat requires VP9 for Netflix’s new download feature and some Internet-connected TV’s only support up to H.264 etc.

Likewise H.265 needs a faster processor (not always present in many Netflix supporting TVs etc.) and there can also be issues with royalties and licensing.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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20 Responses
  1. John says:

    I dumped them as soon as they started blocking smartDNS and VPN’s as all the good stuff is on US and the latest is on Netherlands.

    SO all this is pointless to me until I can watch what I want AND the UK selection gets unboring.

  2. DTMark says:

    Ironically, when we got our 100GB 4G broadband allowance, I signed back up to Netflix to watch a couple of things, and they were unwatchable – I think due to downscaling. I’d gone for the middle package without the 4K because of the amount of data it would use.

    “Stranger Things” was so glitchy it was unwatchable. Checked on TV and PC, it isn’t the bandwidth need – it appears to be a direct result of compression.

    A car going from left to right quickly does it in several “jumps” and it’s dizzying to watch so I gave up and cancelled the subscription again.

    Other shows had the audio and video fractionally out of sync and were unwatchable too. And the TV needs the audio put into PCM mode explicitly for the audio to work at all. That seems to be another Netflix issue that occurs with things that have a 5 channel soundtrack.

    In the meantime Amazon Prime is fine. It’s just Netflix.

    Hopefully this can be “got right”.

    1. craski says:

      Its the total opposite for me, I find that Netflix is far superior in quality and uses far less data than Amazon. I’ve found that the Amazon fire TV and the Amazon App on my Sony TV are real data hogs, they will happily chew through >20Mbps with little to no improvement over the picture quality than when they are limited to 4Mbps at my router.

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      Only problem I have with Netflix is with the irritating 4 device limit even on their 4K plan, which in a household of many.. many devices can be a real choir to manage. Plus if even one extra person tries to login on a new (5th) device then for some reason Netflix prevents our Internet-connected TV and other kit from being able to login. Ugghh.

    3. Malcolm says:

      @Mark Jackson

      “many devices can be a real choir to manage”

      I think you mean “a real chore”; unless you plan to make a song and dance about it!

    4. Mark Jackson says:

      IMO both words work in that context 🙂 , more or less.

  3. Data Analysis says:

    VP9 for ‘legal’ online content is the future as i mentioned in a story only a few weeks back. Within just a few years this will shift to VP10.

    ““Stranger Things” was so glitchy it was unwatchable. Checked on TV and PC, it isn’t the bandwidth need – it appears to be a direct result of compression.”

    That sounds more like a frame rate issue(A common issue is screen or equipment displaying and set to a standard 23.976fps while content is being sent/encoded at 24fps or vice versa IE encoded wrong or with poorly applied IVTC {inverse telcine}) tends to be more noticeable in fast moving screens and or scenes where the camera pans/zooms from one thing to another. The other problem is often either more butchered encoding wher they have left the content at 29.97fps or 30fps but de-interlaced it without applying IVTC at all. This normally gives you either the stuttering effect, a ghosting effect to movement or a combo of both.

    Normally with modern encoding its older content it happens to more where no record was kept as to how it was originally filmed and the person converting it from old film to digital had to some extent guess. There is no excuse for it happening with modern content yet it does, theres even bee a few bluray titles recalled for similar issues.

    “Other shows had the audio and video fractionally out of sync and were unwatchable too. And the TV needs the audio put into PCM mode explicitly for the audio to work at all. That seems to be another Netflix issue that occurs with things that have a 5 channel soundtrack.”

    I touched on this in the same news story as the VP9 info a few weeks back also. Current MP4 encapsulated h264 or similar content should be using AAC for more than 2 channels AC3 2.0 for stereo. This seems to be another thing that can ruin content, the other nag i have on sound is the inability for some studios to normalise the sound level properly, meaning you have to crank the volume up for one movie and crank it all the way down on another.

    As to who is to blame….. That depends on content, Netflix like Amazon do some encoding thereself and can do either a superb job or a complete shower of the proverbial job (depends on who was sat at the console doing the encoding) other content they buy pre-encoded from the studio. Ironically that often has even more flaws like poor cropping (end credits unreadable due to too much cropping to the left or right making words miss the first few or last letters unreadable).

    Could be worse though… My biggest peeve, 4:3 old content thats been re-encoded to 16:9 and all they did was change the resolution which means circular stuff ends up being a horizontal oval shape… Or even the worlds skinniest super model longs like a fat chick that ate all the pies.

    Anyways enough of my ranting, at least encoding is improving for the most part.

    1. Nucco says:

      All sensible theories, but I would bet the problem is the playback device. Possibly the device is too slow to properly decode and play the video. Low-.powered android without hardware acceleration?

    2. DTMark says:

      3 year old (?) Panasonic Viera TV and Windows desktop both unable to play “Stranger Things” at the HD setting. Allegedly this show is OK if you have the top 4K package.

      I’d guess this isn’t dynamic downscaling due to the processor overhead but was done previously and stored then made available to be streamed, and done badly. It reminds me of my experiences of copying some ancient VHS videos onto my PC with a capture card.

      Other shows on Netflix play OK. As I was a fan of “Beverly Hills 90210” back in the day (humour me) I did try “90210” but that has too much of the “speech out of sync” issue. It’s only slight but enough to be annoying.

      The “PCM sound issue” afflicts everything on Netflix but not on any other TV app. A quick Google reveals that this also afflicts Sony and Samsung TVs. It may have something to do with using the digital output on the TV which is run to a separate DAC.

    3. Data Analysis says:

      “3 year old (?) Panasonic Viera TV and Windows desktop both unable to play “Stranger Things” at the HD setting. Allegedly this show is OK if you have the top 4K package.

      I’d guess this isn’t dynamic downscaling due to the processor overhead but was done previously and stored then made available to be streamed, and done badly. It reminds me of my experiences of copying some ancient VHS videos onto my PC with a capture card.”

      If the 4k version is ok then the issue is almost 100% what i stated (some other muppet encoded the HD versions and did a shower of proverbial job at it).

      PS if you still have you VHS capture device try it again with different software, software has moved on significantly with options now that make more sense to the average user rather than very basic options which butcher content or so many options which just seem to be gobbly gook to most people.

      “The “PCM sound issue” afflicts everything on Netflix but not on any other TV app. A quick Google reveals that this also afflicts Sony and Samsung TVs. It may have something to do with using the digital output on the TV which is run to a separate DAC.”

      Will affect any device that can not do dolby passing over HDMI direct and resorts to re-encapsulating with its DAC. Another reason it should be AAC for 5.1 and similar rather than AC3 5.1, AC3 for streaming should only be used for mono or stereo nothing higher on a streaming service, AAC has sync to video features which in many (not all if its bad encoding) will sort out sound which is minorly off (500ms or around half a second max).

      You could try a cheapo amp and run the HDMI via that and if needed uses the amps functions to delay or advance audio timing. That many solve the sound issues but not the stutter problems on other content.

  4. AndrewH says:

    Netflix way better than Amazon. I watch on a 50″ Plasma and over a 1.7Mbps ADSL connection the quality is easily as good as DVD if not slightly better.

    1. DTMark says:

      To watch Amazon Prime I have to fire up my iPhone which I don’t normally use and bring up the show on there, then fire up the Apple TV box and switch on mirroring.

      That uses Wi-Fi not Ethernet (Netflix on TV = Ethernet) so the first 10 seconds or so are blocky, then it ramps up the quality to maximum and with some things like “The Expanse” it is very good. Really churns through data with that.

      Turn on the microwave in the kitchen and it becomes.. less good 😉 I can see why few supply streaming kit with Wi-Fi, it’s just not really optimal.

    2. Data Analysis says:

      At 1.7Mbps the quality to someone used to better must be like watching through a vaseline covered screen, smooth, blurry, washed out content with no fine detail left…
      https://help.netflix.com/en/node/306
      Probably about on par with one of the poorly broadcast freeview sd channels if lucky.

  5. Nucco says:

    @mark,

    I find Netflix to be generous in terms of device allowance. I’ve got 4 profiles across maybe a dozen devices and recently upgraded to the 4k plan just so ai cn get 4 simultaneous views. No complaints from here.

  6. Nucco says:

    @DTMark,

    I found that Panasonic devices have a poorly optimised video pipeline. My 4 year old Panasonic home theatre could pkay blurays just fine at over 30mbps but struggled to play netflix in HD.

    My unverified conclusion was that blurays are getting hardware decoding support but anything off the browser (which their apps are) only gets software.

    Unforgivable. So Use a Chromecast and buy most of my movies off Google Play since Amazon doesn’t work on this. Netflix too will play well off Chromecast.

    On occasions where I need to watch Amazon (the grand tour) I just use my games console which isn’t the most power sipping device.

    1. DTMark says:

      It’s not just the TV, though. It’s the same on a PC.

      It is also only certain titles. Just happens to afflict the one I signed up to watch 🙁

      Seems pointless to ‘upgrade’ to the 4K streaming package when neither device is 4K-capable. The TV was bought just before the price of those things came right down.

      The moral of the story is that downscaling and compression are fine if done properly and so long as they don’t render the thing unwatchable.

    2. nucco says:

      I upgraded to the 4K plan just so I can have 4 concurrent streams. I don’t yet have any 4K devices, my current TV being only 3 years old. I want a 4K TV, but don’t yet have a spare grand to spend.

    3. Data Analysis says:

      Unless you want a top end 4k set or just released model from the main manufacturers, with an overly huge screen you are no longer looking at anything like £1000. You can get a 45-55″ Samsung or Panasonic or LG for around half that amount, the are also the 3 main manufacturers which will give you the most streaming services. Avoid latest Sony screens (too many HDMI bugs) and Android based sets (sounds a good idea but many apps wont work) IMO.

    4. nucco says:

      @Data Analysis

      could you elaborate on the Sony HDMI bugs? Are they still an issue at this stage in the lifecycle of their various models?

      I have my sights set on a 65in Sony due to a combination of eyesight and typical distance from screen. The choice is Sony because I have found through experience that Sony pay the most attention to usability of their appliances. Samsung ranks the worst (a hodgepodge of every feature imaginable). My current TV is a Panasonic, non-smart, and no real complaints about it, so a Panasonic is second choice for me. I have had no experience with LG’s WebOS, so I can’t tell how it ranks on usability compared with Sony.

    5. Data Analysis says:

      Sony and Philips TVs are known to suffer with various HDMI handshake issues with devices. One of the most common is the green screen issue, which seems to happen when connecting boxes like Freeview or Android TV boxes.

      If you google things like “Sony HDMI green screen” and “Sony HDMI handshake” you will soon get an idea.

      The issue appears to be related to devices where HDMI output is set at YUV color space and these televisions don’t support that fully over HDMI.

      Some manufacturers of equipment have added options/settings in Display Settings to enable FORCE RGB OUTPUT which solves the problem, HOWEVER its the TV at fault as HDMI should support both colour spaces.

      As to what exact models i could not give you a list only that it seems to affect Sony and Philips the worst.

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