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How To Adjust Video Quality on Netflix

Posted by William Sattelberg on July 20, 2018

It seems like high-definition video has been around forever, but in actuality, 480p was the standard up until about a decade ago. The falling costs of buying a 1080p modern television, combined with the rise of television and movies over web services like iTunes and Amazon made it easy for high-definition video to begin growing. In the mid-2000s, a standard war was fought between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray for 1080p content on home video, with the latter eventually winning out thanks to the inclusion of a Blu-Ray drive in the PS3. High-definition video has since become the standard in the last decade and a half. Though cable television still broadcasts in a limited 720p, over-the-air broadcasts, web broadcasts, and most other content is streamed or aired at 1080p, or “full high-definition.”

The concept of HD broadcasts and footage comes from the resolution of the video you’re watching. The higher the resolution, the better the quality of your video, giving you more detail in every shot. Standard-definition footage is typically shown at 480p, or a resolution of 640×480. These numbers measure the pixels on the display, with the first number measure the amount of pixels horizontally and the second number measuring the number of pixels vertically. At 720p, video becomes widescreen by default, with a resolution of 1280x720p. Bumping up from 720p to 1080p, as you might imagine, gives you 50 percent more pixels, with a full resolution of 1920x1080p.

Advancements in camera technology over the last decade has made it easier and cheaper to film in even higher resolutions than 1080p, and likewise, we’ve seen that technology come to home television sets. If you’ve looked at televisions in the past several years, you’ve likely seen that most televisions have been rated as “4K” or “Ultra-HD” panels. Both of these phrases mean the same thing, and they’re the evolution of 1080p sets that have been on the market for the better part of two decades now. 4K resolution is a major improvement over 1080p, the first real advancement in home televisions in fifteen years, and if you’re willing to put the money into upgrading your content, you can really get an incredible, theater-like experience right in your own home.

As you might imagine, as the leading streaming service around the world, Netflix takes video resolution pretty seriously. They offer a range, from standard-definition streams all the way to higher-resolution Ultra HD streams, making it easy to watch video at the resolution you most want. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn’t do a great job in advertising these resolution changes in their settings; unlike YouTube, for example, there’s no option in the video player that makes it easy to select your video resolution. Netflix doesn’t even go as far as Amazon in presenting a small notifier when you are or aren’t watching in HD; instead, Netflix attempts to provide you with the highest resolution possible, at all times. That lack of control can feel a little demanding from the service, but considering that most people would prefer lower quality on slower services and the best quality on faster ones, it does make some level of sense.

If you are looking for that sense of control, however, you aren’t out of luck. Netflix does offer some amount of control in the settings panel of their service, but the streaming service doesn’t make that immediately evident when you’re looking around, trying to stream your favorite content. If you want to control the quality of your streams—either to improve the quality as high as you possibly can, or to lower the quality on slower or capped services—you can absolutely do that. Here’s how to change the video quality on Netflix.

Netflix on Your PC, Smart TV, or Set Top Box

While streaming Netflix on your PC has become a thing done mostly by college students and other younger users, Netflix is incredibly popular on both set top boxes and smart TVs. No matter which of the three you use, you can change your playback settings with your account options on Netflix, and it only takes a minute of your time. To do it, however, you will need a computer in front of you to give you the browser, so grab your laptop, head to the Netflix website, and let’s get started with modifying your playback settings with better—or more data-friendly—options.

Load Netflix on your computer’s browser and select your profile. The streaming options will sync to your profile alone, as they’re under your profile options within settings, so make sure you choose (or switch) to the correct profile before diving in. Once you’re on the general landing screen within Netflix, you’ll need to open up the settings menu. To do this, move your cursor or tap on the upper-right corner of the display. This will allow you to open up the list of profiles attached to your account, as well as give you the option to view your account preferences. Select the Account option to do just that.

Within the settings for your account, you can view your payment options, your email address for Netflix, modify your plan and payment, and so much more. To modify your playback options, however, scroll to the bottom of the page and look for the “My Profile” options. These are where you’ll find the majority of your selections for changing how Netflix works, including the ability to clear your recently-watched list and change the order of your list—both helpful options that you should note if you’re looking to modify how your Netflix profile works. This section has seven possible selections here; you’ll want to choose Playback Settings to continue through this part of the menu.

The Playback Settings are, more or less, exactly what you might expect from this menu. While there is an option to enable or disable auto-play within Netflix, the main portion of the display is taken up by options to control the resolution your favorite Netflix Originals and movies will playback with. By default, Netflix sets this on every profile to Auto, meaning that the video will automatically switch based on the quality of your internet device. If you’re unable to support a fast-enough connection, you will not be able to play HD video, and Netflix will auto-downgrade your resolution. For most people, this is a solid compromise, showing HD quality most of the time and ensuring you can watch Netflix’s library of content in SD on the worst of internet connections. However, some users will want Netflix to force their playback at 1080p, while others will want to reduce their data usage in order to prevent passing a cap.

For both of those styles of users, Netflix has some fairly simple options. For those who want to have their video quality always be as high as possible, select the “High” option. This streams in either 720p/1080p or 4K Ultra-HD, depending on your plan, and consumes a fair amount of data per hour (3GB per hour of streaming for 1080p video, 7GB per hour for 4K video). If you’re looking to save on your data usage, you should consider dropping your stream quality down. The medium option streams in “standard” video quality, which we estimated to be around 480p, and only consumes about 700MB per hour. We don’t recommend switching to Low, because the quality drop is so major (as low as 240p on the slowest connections), but if you want to save on as much data as possible, it’s a good way to do it. Low quality only costs streamers about 300MB per hour.

These options only affect your computer or your television-based streams; it won’t change your streams on mobile devices. To do that, we’ll have to change the settings on your phone or tablet. Likewise, it’s worth noting that these options only affect your profile. If you’re looking to save on data for every profile on your account, you’ll have to change this manually, one by one, on each account.

Upgrading to 4K

While Netflix supports HD playback on all accounts, you actually can’t stream 4K on the most basic plan offered by Netflix. Though almost every Netflix Original is shot and streamed in 4K, and plenty of movies are given the option to stream in 4K as well, you need to upgrade your Netflix account in order to actually stream the higher-resolution files. If you’re looking to increase from 1080p to 4K streams, but you signed up for Netflix years and years ago without upgrading your plan, you’ll need to do so in the settings menu.

To upgrade your account, head back to the Account options and look for the “Plan Details” option in the middle of the page. You’ll find both your streaming plans and your DVD plan options here. If you’re on the Standard streaming plan, for example, you’ll see a small HD icon next to your plan, but not a 4K option. This means you’re only streaming in HD, not 4K Ultra-HD. Select “Change Plan” from this option to open up the menu for selecting your plan. As of July 2018, Netflix currently offers 3 different plans:

  • Basic: Allows for standard-def streaming on one display for $7.99 per month.
  • Standard: The most popular plan, which allows for 1080p streaming and two simultaneously streams. Though the price occasionally rises, this plan will currently run you $10.99 per month.
  • Premium: Includes support for Ultra-HD, and the ability to stream on four displays simultaneously for $13.99 per month.

If you’re looking for the best quality Netflix has to offer, you’ll need to pay that $13.99 per month. It’s expensive, but that’s what Netflix asks for when it comes to their high-resolution streams. Alternately, staying on the 1080p plan does save you $36 per month, and if you don’t have a 4K display, you’ll definitely be better off keeping that change in your pocket.

Netflix on Your Smartphone

Okay, so you’ve changed your options on your desktop and streaming box so your picture is crisp and clean. Meanwhile, you’re facing an altogether different problem on your smartphone: data caps. Even unlimited plans through carriers in the United States have a “soft” cap, which imposes throttling on your data speeds after a certain amount of streaming on the go. If you’re looking to make the most of your data—or you’re looking to change how your phone downloads Netflix content for offline playback—we have a guide for that too. Let’s take a closer look at each option.

Streaming Options

Open up the app on your Android or iOS device and look for the menu bar at the bottom of the screen. On the far-right side of the display, you’ll see an option for “More.” Click this, and then look for App Settings towards the bottom of the list and tap on that option. App Settings allows for you to select exactly what you want within the app, and the first option available is probably the one most people are looking for: video resolution playback.

The options here are very different than the ones typically provided by Netflix. Unlike the standard selection for streaming options on the normal playback settings display above, Netflix on mobile platforms focuses on changing your device’s playback around data. When you select the video playback option, you’ll view a menu labeled “Cellular Data Usage.” By default, this option is left with “Automatic” toggled on. If you wish, however, you can change this by simply toggling off the selection, then choosing one of the three options from the list below:

  • Wi-Fi Only: Completely stops the ability to stream on mobile networks.
  • Save data: Lowers the quality of your stream to save you data in the process.
  • Maximum data: Streams the maximum quality of video allowed by your service provider.

The reason this option doesn’t allow for you to change the actual video quality of your streams on mobile is thanks to those same unlimited plans we mentioned above. Every single carrier in the United States now throttles streaming video on their networks, which means you’ll need to  deal with the limitations of video streaming when mobile. As far as we’re aware, no mobile service provider allows for more than 1080p streaming on their network; many limit to just 480p or 720p video streams, depending on the carrier and plan. You’ll want to check with your carrier and your specific plan to see if this is spawning from something that has to do with your own network, and if you can upgrade your plan for better quality.

Download Options

Using the steps provided above, find your way back to the Apps Settings page. This list of options doesn’t just contain the ability to change your streaming options for playback, but also the ability to change the quality of the downloads you save on your device. Unlike the streaming options, the reason you’ll want to change your download options on Netflix actually comes down to the ability to save room on your device. If you’re planning to go on a trip by plane or a long vacation, you’ll want to make the most out of the likely-limited storage on your phone.

There are two options you can choose within the App Settings menu, in order to select the level of quality of your content:

  • Standard: A standard-definition download. If you’re watching video on a phone, you’re likely good to select this option, since you’re watching on a display no larger than six inches, making the quality difference negligible at best. However, for those of you watching on an iPad or other tablet, you may find this setting to be a bit disappointing.
  • High: This setting uses more storage and takes longer to download, but looks much better on your display. The resolution is somewhere around 720p or higher, though it may not look quite as sharp as a standard download from iTunes or another online marketplace.

Ultimately, you’re probably better off leaving your phone in Standard mode and your tablet in High mode. These options are the best way to experience how your device looks when streaming.

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Netflix doesn’t do a fantastic job detailing how to change the quality settings of your video, but once you know where to look, it’s actually relatively simple to change your device settings. Whether you’re looking to force your PC or television to stream the highest quality of content available by setting your preferences at the highest-available setting, or you’re looking to save some data on your mobile data cap by limiting the resolution of your Netflix videos, Netflix provides plenty of options for controlling the appearance of your content. Count in the ability to lower or raise the quality of mobile content on Android and iOS, and the ability to upgrade to 4K streams, and you have one of the most flexible services today for controlling the quality of your content.

Let us know in the comments below what you’re going to stream next in the highest (or lowest) resolution possible, and check out our always-updated list of the best movies on Netflix right here!

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