For me, video quality matters. I try to watch TV and movies in the best possible resolution, especially if I am paying for those pixels. Netflix, for example, charges more for its 4K HDR content, a batch more, actually. But even if your streaming service offers 4K HDR content, you may not be experiencing it. Deciding to watch a show on your laptop instead of your TV can result in a huge drop in resolution potential, though it’s not obvious why. Don’t roll the dice on 4K — there are ways to make sure you’re watching your favorite shows and movies in the best possible quality.
Note that I’m covering services like Netflix and HBO Max for this angle. Other web-based platforms like YouTube offer easy 4K streaming on many different devices.
The basics about 4K and HDR
Streaming services love to advertise how good their content looks and throw around words like 4K or HDR to promote them. But actually, it’s pretty basic.
4K refers to the resolution of the video that is streamed to your device, which has a resolution of 3840 pixels by 2160 pixels. Because the video is about 4,000 pixels tall, we call it “4K.” By comparison, 1080p video has a resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. We tend to take the opposite approach when naming this resolution, as we refer to the width of the image rather than the height.
HDR, on the other hand, has nothing to do with pixels, but with the brightness of the image. In short, HDR content makes the brightest areas of an image even brighter and the darkest areas even darker, creating a deeper contrast than typical video. Your display must support HDR for this feature to work, as you’ll see.
Sometimes you have to pay more for 4K
As mentioned above, 4K streaming is not standard on all subscriptions. Some services do not differ and offer 4K as long as you give them money. Other companies, however, only offer 4K to customers who pay extra. Netflix is particularly notorious because it charges the highest amount per month for 4K content and doesn’t offer HD content at its lowest tier. That said, it’s not the only service that does business this way.
YouTube TV (different from YouTube) offers a “4K Plus” add-on for a limited amount of live 4K TV programming. Services with a flat subscription, like Disney+ or Apple TV+, offer 4K content to all subscribers by default.
Make sure your screen is really 4K
It goes without saying, but if your screen isn’t 4K, you won’t be watching 4K TV. A 1080p TV won’t output more pixels because you have a 4K Netflix subscription. Even if you get a 4K signal on this type of TV, the screen will have to downscale to 1080p.
That applies to all your screens. Your laptop or computer monitor must also be 4K to experience 4K content. Most streaming services don’t even offer 4K content on smartphones, Prime Video being a notable exception.
Your streaming device must be compatible
Not all devices are capable of streaming 4K content either. Perhaps that’s because the attached screens aren’t 4K, like the 1080p TV mentioned above. However, streaming services omit support for 4K streaming on many devices, even if those devices have 4K screen resolutions.
Amazon’s Prime Video offers 4K resolution on Android phones, but not on iPhones or iPads. If you have the choice, you’re better off watching Prime content on Android than on iOS.
Not all browsers support 4K
On the rare occasions that a streaming service offers 4K browser support, like Netflix, it often doesn’t apply to everybody Browsers To continue the example, Netflix offers 4K for Microsoft Edge, Safari, and the Netflix app on Windows. That is all. If you’re watching Netflix in Chrome, Firefox, or Brave, you’re watching HD, not 4K.
Check your internet connection
While online video players traditionally let you control video quality manually, most streaming services these days opt for an automatic approach. That works fine when your internet speeds are fast enough, but if the service detects that your network is too slow, it will lower your video resolution to compensate.
Netflix, for example, requires your internet to be 15 megabits per second or higher to deliver 4K content, while HBO Max requires a minimum of 25 megabits per second (at least 50 mbps recommended).
Every streaming service is different about 4K
Each streaming service has its own quirks and rules for 4K streaming. Whether or not your setup supports 4K is based on a variety of factors. As such, the best approach is to check the specifications of the service you want to watch in 4K.