Which is better, Netflix 4K or DIRECTV 4K?

OK you have to first agree that as of today, it’s a tossup. The amount of 4K content is so small that it really depends on what you want to watch. There’s only about six titles on either service and that’s not because they don’t want more content… it’s because more content isn’t available.

One thing you do need to realize, though, is that when the amount of content ramps up, DIRECTV is going to blow Netflix out of the water, plain and simple. Why? It all comes down to bandwidth.

Netflix depends on your internet connection, and sure your cable company will “tell you” that you have 100Mbps service. A speed test might even show that. But the whole system needs to be able to deliver at least 20Mbps, consistently, or you’re not going to get anything even resembling 4K. That means good servers, your neighbors not clogging up the local switch, good bandwidth at the central office, and of course good Wi-Fi between your router and your TV. That’s a lot of potential failure points.

On the other hand, DIRECTV 4K is just starting to be delivered over satellite with a nice open connection and the only failure point will be your dish. If it’s aimed right, you’re all set. Today (and for about another week) the only content can be downloaded, and it comes through slower-than-real-time so that it can have maximum quality.

See, it’s Netflix’s “have it now” mentality that actually kills quality when you’re talking about 4K. Netflix would rather show you a lower quality image than make you wait for buffering, and I get that. I actually agree with the idea most of the time. But it keeps Netflix from providing a truly high-quality 4K image because it’s limiting the stream to “only” 20Mbps. On the other hand, DIRECTV’s live 4K programming is able to use much, much more bandwidth and more bandwidth means better quality.

Now, some of you are going to point out that Netflix can easily upgrade its technology to use more advanced compression. And that’s absolutely true, and if there were this awesome improvement in compression that let you use only 10Mbps to get the kind of picture quality we associate with a 100Mbps stream, that would be great. Maybe that will happen at some point. But right now, in 2016, both DIRECTV and Netflix are using high-quality compression that reduces the bandwidth about the same amount.

The bottom line is that DIRECTV can use quite a lot more bandwidth, and it won’t be affected by whether or not the neighbors are watching. You can’t say that about Netflix, so… DIRECTV wins. Or at least they will, as soon as there’s something we all actually want to watch.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.