The Netflix Missing X-High Mystery: Solved!

December 6, 2012
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Have you noticed a change in the Netflix streaming’s video quality? Some Netflix customers have been asking that same question. In particular, customers with 1080P capable Netflix devices have noticed a significant change  to how those devices display streaming video quality.

I noticed the change a week ago as I was evaluating the WD TV Live. I know that the WD Live TV supports 1080P HD video from Netflix streaming. I was surprised when the WD reported that Netflix was streaming at “High / HD” instead of the best “X-High / HD” quality (I’ve consistently received X-High stream on my FIOS connection). I then went over to the AVS Forum where a number of folks had noticed the same issue on a variety of devices. Some of those devices include the WD boxes, the Sony Playstation3, Oppo BDP-103 and LG Blu-ray players. An example of the on-screen display is below. If any of the aforementioned devices displayed the “X-High” setting, it typically meant it’s outputting a 1080P video stream (assuming the content is available in 1080P). When a video first starts streaming, it initially displays “Low” or “Medium” quality as the bandwidth to the devices ramps up to the higher quality. The one exception is that some of the example clips on Netflix’s service still display “X-High” when streaming.

In the aforementioned thread, one enterprising AVS Forum member has historically monitored the bit-rates of Netflix streaming traffic. It was demonstrated that both 1080P and 720P videos now use 15% around 20% less bandwidth after the disappearance of X-High (not the 50% reduction eyeIO touted earlier this year). It was not just a bug in how the on-screen display functioned.

I reached out to Netflix to find out what, if anything was going on. Netflix had no comment at this time.

There are several possibilities. The most likely theory being floated on the AVS Forum is that Netflix is rolling out more efficient encodings. Early this year, a company called eyeIO announced Netflix was utilitizing their technology to deliver the same quality video with 50% less bandwidth (note, the measured reduction was 15%). At the time of the announcement, it was stated that Netflix was already utilizing the technology. However, perhaps it was limited to a small number of titles or a market outside of the US. It could also be that eyeIO has released a new revision of their software further improving their compression algorithms.

Another theory is that Netflix has throttled back their traffic for some reason. Technical glitch? Cost cutting? Pressure by ISPs to cut back on bandwidth? Introduction of a premium HD tier? Take your pick but Netflix has consistently stated they want one low monthly price for their service.  It will be interesting to see if these devices are eventually updated to make the new top streaming rate become the new normal and be displayed as “X-High”.

My own take:  When I first noticed that “X-High” wasn’t displaying on the WD TV Live, I didn’t notice any appreciable change in video quality. Watching tonight on the Apple TV 3rd generation and the Panasonic BDT-220 Blu-ray player, there does appear to be a subtle difference in clips I’m familiar with. In the words of one forum member, the video does appear to be more “soft”. However, without a side-by-side comparison, it’s challenging to know if there’s a difference. There’s also other variables that are difficult to control for such the amount of traffic between my device and Netflix’s servers.

Do you think there’s a difference in Netflix streaming video quality lately?

Mystery Solved! Netflix got back to us today and stated they have started to roll out eyeIO’s new more bandwidth efficient encoding. Netflix also said that the new encodes deliver better quality at lower bit rates. Thus, allowing customers with slower connections to receive 1080P video streams. They also stated that the new encodes should provide “additional detail in the textures, shadows, skies, and particularly faces”.

There was a conscious decision made to label these new encodes as “High” instead of “X-High” by Netflix. Responding to a follow-up question, Netflix wouldn’t commit to whether or not they are developing encodes with higher bitrates. However, given that they left “X-High” open, I believe that Netflix is working on rolling out a higher bitrate 1080P encode. Hopefully, this would be superior to the old “X-High” with the same amount or less bandwidth. Higher quality 1080P would be a big winner for customers! Stay tuned and keep streaming!

Netflix OSD

X-High: Where art thou? (Old Capture from the PS3)

Netflix OSD show High quality

1080P Netflix stream of Amadeus playing on the WD TV Live

Tags: Apple TV, Netflix, Panasonic, Playstation3, PS3, streaming, WD

6 Responses to The Netflix Missing X-High Mystery: Solved!

  1. Mike Scott on December 6, 2012 at 11:50 pm

    In my tests the difference in bit rate is actually a bit higher than 15%; old results percentage of new results is 122.5% for 1080p and 118.3% for 720p as measured with a PS3, 121.4% for 1080p and 118.6% as measured with a Roku 2 XS. Of course it’s not possible for me to make terribly precise measures starting and stopping my tests by hand using a stopwatch, but I repeated each of those tests twice and the results are too consistent between devices to be coincidental. I really think that they’ve re-encoded a lot of their library with the eyeIO tech and a number of people in the AVS Forum thread think that the highest quality video that they get now is noticeably “softer” than the old X-High/HD. I’ve asked a forum member who has an HDMI capture card to take some frame caps of the new encodes for comparison with caps that he took in the past; hopefully he’ll do that.

  2. Westly-C on December 8, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    Here’s the common sense question…If this new process is so much better, how is it that we all see that the streams are worse than they were before? Nobody should’ve noticed anything if the newer encodes were superior at this lower, reduced bitrate. The PQ is indeed softer. It used to be sharper, crisper.
    Now it reminds me of a very good commercial VHS tape played on a really nice Panasonic VCR connected to a 32in JVC analog TV. Okay, internet hyperbole there, but as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t an improvement on what we saw before…

  3. Simple on December 10, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Look at the blacks. It might be eyeIO but the video signature looks like an optimized x264 video. Nothing special.

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