You’ve finally taken the plunge and decided to get a Netflix subscription, but wait — there’s an issue. Instead of coming in crystal clear, everything you watch looks blurry and unfocused. What gives?
You shouldn’t have to live in the dial-up ages, and if your Netflix isn’t coming in HD or 4K, we can help you troubleshoot the problem. You’ll be back to watching Black Mirror or Tiger King before you know it.
Go to the source
Your first step should be checking your Netflix plan and settings. Chances are your plan supports HD streaming, but some plans allow for streaming only in standard definition, and 4K Ultra HD streaming is available only on the most expensive plan, so it’s worth at least double-checking. If you aren’t sure, we’ve got a breakdown of all the plans the streaming titan offers. You will need a Premium plan if you want to watch in 4K/UHD, which currently costs $16 per month.
If you’ve got the right plan, the next order of operation is to tweak Netflix’s streaming options. Begin by opening your account, and under the Your Profile section, find the Playback Settings. Here, you will see four different options: Low, Medium, High, and Auto. It’s probably obvious what those mean, but here’s a detailed look at how each setting affects your picture quality (and, potentially, your data cap).
- Low: Streaming at this level will use up about 0.3GB per hour. Streaming in low quality will force the content to play at standard definition. This is the best option for those with poor connections, or those who are streaming with data limits.
- Medium: Medium-quality streaming will tick your data use up to around 0.7GB per hour. At this limit, you’ll still be locked into standard definition.
- High: Streaming in high quality opens you up to HD and 4K Ultra HD streams with the proper plan, but that also means your data usage could vary quite a bit. Depending on your network, you could be using 3GB per hour for basic 720p streaming or up to 7GB per hour for 4K Ultra HD streaming.
- Auto: As the name implies, this will let your streaming quality fluctuate with your current internet speeds and network connection to provide the most stable streaming experience. With that stability, however, comes a greater likelihood of drops in quality.
If you’re streaming on any option other than High, you won’t be getting HD or 4K Ultra HD quality from Netflix. Be aware that any change to these settings can take up to eight hours to take effect, so if you switch and don’t notice an immediate change in your picture fidelity, be patient. Again, higher streaming resolutions will burn through data like it’s covered in kerosene, so be mindful of your usage if you have a data cap.
If you access your settings on a mobile device, you can also go into app settings and switch to Wi-Fi Only mode or Set Automatically, both of which can help you avoid going over your data limits when watching Netflix.
Hardware requirements for high-quality streaming
Hardware is also an important part of watching high-quality Netflix, especially if you are aiming for ultra HD quality. You will need at least a 60Hz TV or monitor that is designed to handle 4K, and if you are streaming via an additional device, compatible cables are important, too. Here’s an in-depth guide on everything you need and how to set up a TV for 4K.
Not all browsers were created equal, and that’s especially true when it comes to streaming. While pretty much every popular internet browser is capable of streaming Netflix content in HD, just how HD it is will vary between browsers. Here’s a simple look at what maximum resolution each browser is capable of on a computer.
- Google Chrome: Up to 720p
- Firefox: Up to 720p
- Opera: Up to 720p
- Safari: Up to 1080p (on Macs running OS X 10.10.3 or greater)
- Microsoft Edge: Up to 4K (requires HDCP 2.2-compliant connection to a 4K display, with at least Intel’s 7th-gen Core CPU, plus the latest version of Windows)
Internet quality for streaming HD/UHD
You might be paying for a fast internet connection, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily have fast internet access. Follow our guide to see what kind of download speeds you’re getting. If you get anything under 10Mbps and there is more than one device in your residence using the internet, you’ll be hard-pressed to see a Full HD stream — and definitely not 4K Ultra HD — from Netflix.
Not seeing a good number? There are several things you can do to make sure you’re getting the speeds you should, from picking the right internet plan to installing the right kind of router. We suggest checking our list of the best wireless routers to make sure you’re getting the fastest connection possible on your network.
With your home’s network in tip-top shape, you can rest easy knowing your internet pipes aren’t the ones that are clogged. With that in mind, it’s time to take a step back and consider whether the lines feeding your home are as open as they should be.
Is your ISP to blame?
After much pressure, Netflix started paying off a few ISPs, including Comcast and Suddenlink, for so-called “fast lanes,” which are meant to ensure its video streams get to its customers using those ISPs more quickly and reliably.
If you’re using an internet service provider that hasn’t made some sort of arrangement with Netflix, be it a paid fast-lane agreement or through Netflix’s “open connect” program, you could be doomed to poor Netflix picture quality — especially if you live in a large market with lots of internet users. You can consult the Netflix ISP speed website to get some idea where Netflix stands in your ISP’s graces. If it looks like your ISP ranks poorly, it’s possible — though difficult to prove — that your ISP could be throttling you and all Netflix users on its network. If you suspect that might be the case, one way to hide what you’re doing from your ISP is with a virtual private network (VPN). We have a guide to everything you need to know about VPNs that will likely come in handy here.
Check your watch
If you haven’t noticed, Netflix will start playing a stream sooner than it can be played at its full quality, buffering for the full-resolution version along the way. As soon as it is possible to do so, the stream will be displayed at full resolution.
If bandwidth slows down, the video resolution will drop until the full-res stream is sufficiently buffered again. Ostensibly, Netflix does this to keep the load times short so you don’t feel like it’s taking forever to watch your show. This intelligent adjustment makes Netflix feel snappy, but at the wrong time of day, it can also make it look like garbage during the first few minutes of viewing.
As we experimented with Netflix quality over an entire day, we discovered that the biggest factor influencing stream quality is the time of day and whether that time falls under typical peak hours for watching. You’ll want to keep peak hours (essentially prime time hours after 6 p.m.) in mind and adjust your expectations.
What else can I do?
If you know for certain your home network is solid, and the ISP you subscribe to offers good Netflix streaming speeds, yet your experience is bad, then call your ISP and report the issue. Make sure the agent knows that you know what you’re talking about before they drag you through a 45-minute scripted troubleshooting session, and cross your fingers that they will try to do something about it rather than just point a finger at Netflix.
Fortunately, this is a problem you will run into far less than you used to. On the other hand, depending on where you live, you may not have the option to switch ISPs or do anything else to get a better streaming experience. If this is the case, there isn’t much you can do aside from canceling your subscription to tell Netflix that if they can’t get you a better experience in your area, you aren’t going to pay for it.
Also note that sometimes Netflix may reduce streaming quality in your region for their own reasons. Notably, this happened for 30 days in Europe in early 2020 due to bandwidth concerns. While rare, this can also impact your streaming quality.