For those that remember the early days of media streaming on the internet, today’s smooth access to high-quality, high resolution video is borderline magical. Take Netflix, for example. The popular web streaming service is readily available from practically any device—from mobile phones to every major gaming console—and it’s able to deliver content with few hiccups to users all over the world, even those stuck with low bandwidth internet access. And yet, according to the latest reports, Netflix feels it can do better.
Four years ago, the folks at Netflix asked themselves a simple question with a complicated answer: How do we make our video look better while using less data? In the time since, a team of coders have come up with the answer: a smarter, better compression method.
This change comes just as the 4K Ultra HD pieces are beginning to fall into place. Netflix may not mention 4K streaming as a motivation for this change, but it will certainly prove useful as 4K content becomes more common in the coming years.
You may have already noticed that Netflix dynamically alters the bitrate of video depending on your connection’s capabilities. Those on a slow DSL connection, for example, will consistently see lower resolution video at a lower bitrate. It might not be noticeable if you have a steady connection but, from time to time, every Netflix user has experienced sudden drops in quality as the Netflix “recipe,” as the company calls it, adapts to current available bandwidth.
Now, Netflix has improved upon this tried and true formula through a greater understanding of the content it offers. Engineers discovered that different content has different requirements. The main example given is something visually simple like ‘My Little Pony’ as opposed to something more complex, like ‘The Avengers.’
Cartoons tend to feature large patches of color, which don’t need a very high bitrate to look good. And so, starting in 2016, Netflix will alter its recipe on a per-show basis, allowing certain titles to come through in 1080p quality while using lower bitrates, and lower bandwidth.
So, to achieve a crisp 1080p on Netflix’s old algorithm, a certain movie may require a bitrate of close to 6000 kbps. With the new algorithm, the company can achieve the same quality at closer to 4500 kbps, reducing bandwidth needs by around 20 percent. Not only does the user benefit, but so do Netflix’s servers.