How in the name of… can Netflix do 4K?

Netflix has been talking all over town about its 4K streaming plans. Check out this article in The Verge where Netflix’s chief product officer says that 4K is coming within one or two years. Really?

Of course Netflix is going to talk about 4K. Blu-ray discs are widely acknowledged as the best quality right now, and there is no disc standard for 4K. Netflix’s past hijinks — threatening to split the company in two just to get rid of discs — should convince you that they really hate those friendly silver circles. They are going to look for any angle to try to make streaming more attractive than disc mailing.

So far, Netflix hasn’t done a good job of getting the streaming rights for first run movies, and that’s meant that discs are still a big part of their business. Maybe they are hoping that 4K will give them the boost they need to get first-run movied to their streaming customers.

The problem is that it’s pretty near impossible that they will be able to offer a level of quality that is any better than Blu-ray disc. Why? It’s all about bandwidth. Netflix manages to do a decent job of providing HD video over a five megabit connection. Decent, but certainly not comparable to a Blu-ray disc. In order to give that level of quality, a sustained connection of about 40 megabits per second would be required and most homes (not to mention most server farms) can’t handle that.

How, 4K uses about 8 times the bandwidth of regular HD, meaning that if you were to use the same technology, you’d need a 300 megabit connection. Increases in technology mean that it is probably possible to get passable 4K images using a sustained 50 megabit connection but today’s homes don’t even have that! Will homes in 2015 have internet service that’s so much faster? Doubtful.

Most likely, Netflix will compress and compress and compress that 4K picture until it fits in a 10 megabit stream. It will still be 4K, but the actual quality level will be barely that of Blu-ray. Netflix will get bragging rights, but not much else. Will it be enough?

We’ve done our part to educate people about compression artifacts, but will people really care? It wasn’t that long ago that people bragged about the stretched picture on their HDTVs… won’t they just think that 4K is just super-awesome when it isn’t?

Maybe Netflix has the right idea after all.

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.