Back in May 2016, I gave you a comparison article which was, in retrospect, utterly worthless. I tried to talk my way through whether Netflix’s 4K offerings were better, or whether DIRECTV’s were. Could I do better five years later?
Here are the facts, as they stand in 2021
As it stands today, DIRECTV has three live free 4K channels and two pay-per-view 4K channels, as well as a large library of on-demand programs in 4K. Netflix has some new release movies in 4K and a few other programs, but surprisingly little content given that you pay extra for 4K on Netflix.
But how can we really, objectively, measure which is better?
Here’s what didn’t work
The first thing you can’t measure is bitrate. If you could, DIRECTV would win handily. Testing DIRECTV 4K on demand, I found that it pulls about 36 megabits per second from the one movie I tested. Netflix, on the other hand, seems to peak at about 16 megabits per second once it’s done getting a good buffer going. But, that doesn’t mean anything.
DIRECTV continues to use the MPEG4 codec that it uses for HD programs. Insiders and snobs consider this to be an outdated and overly bit-heavy form of compression. Netflix is rumored to use VP9, which is a much more efficient form of compression. So, smaller bitrates don’t necessarily make for a worse program.
I then tried to find the same program on DIRECTV 4K and Netflix 4K. I literally found no crossover at all. What I did find was a large crossover between the purchased movies on my DIRECTV account and the ones on my Vudu account. This is to be expected, since both services use Movies Anywhere to help you sync up your collections.
A visual comparison from very close up didn’t give me any real difference between the two, but that’s meaningless since we’re talking about Netflix, not Vudu.
And here’s where the real problem lies
I compared those movies I had in my streaming collection with ones I still had on Blu-ray Disc, which is an HD format. The 4K ones beat Blu-ray a little bit if I was standing close enough, but from six feet away I couldn’t tell one from the other. And that’s the real problem.
Our national problem with 4K is that we like to talk about it but we can’t decide what “looks better” means, or if we can even see a difference. I tend to think that the much-maligned “night battle” in the last season of Game of Thrones would look better on a properly calibrated 4K HDR presentation. But we may never get the chance to know.
By and large we’re at the same point we were five years ago. We still aren’t seeing widespread adoption of 4K. People buy 4K TVs but almost exclusively watch HD content on them. Why? Because it’s literally impossible for a normal human to tell the difference in most cases.
I did believe back in 2016 that we would all be watching on 80″ screens by now and the flaws in HD would be more obvious. But realistically, it seems that most TV purchases are still in the 40″ – 60″ range and more watching than ever is taking place on tiny screens.
So this brings up yet another question about whether 4K is relevant. If you’re on most cellular plans, your carrier is cutting the quality of the movie you’re watching to sub-HD levels. You don’t notice the difference because the screen is so small.
Is there a winner?
Well it’s still clear that DIRECTV has the most live 4K, and the most pay-per-view 4K. It’s about a tossup when you look at the quantity of on-demand shows, but I’ll say Netflix probably has more interesting on-demand content. But then they have nothing live. I guess I’ll have to take this up again in another five years.