Which has better picture quality, satellite or streaming?

I’ve been a DIRECTV blogger for about 15 years, believe it or not. I’ve met a lot of people who think of satellite TV as a hobby. Probably hundreds, maybe even thousands. Over the years I’ve seen people struggle to get the “perfect” system, even when a “good enough” one would work. I’ve seen people pay thousands of dollars just to have the satellite system of their dreams.

Are those days behind us?

You’ll read a lot of articles about how satellite TV is falling behind, how AT&T is trying to push customers away from satellite to streaming, and how the brand is on the way out. I don’t think that at all. I think this is a world where there are more choices than ever. Some folks are going to want satellite, some streaming, and some both.

If you’re a hobbyist, though, one of those folks who has spent thousands of dollars, you want to know who has the better quality. You’re not going to like the answer but here it is: it depends

Challenge #1: Poor quality at the source

As I noted in this article, Disney-owned stations provide a lower-quality signal to AT&T than they do to Hulu and other streaming apps. This is a decision that dates back to the mid-2000s when TVs could display smooth motion -or- high quality, but not both. The quality of ABC and ESPN is about half what it should be and the difference is noticeable.

The worst thing is there’s nothing AT&T can do about that. It’s the signal they’re provided with. But, some clever post-processing does make it look as good as it can be.

Advantage: Streaming

Challenge #2: Smooth streaming

Satellite TV is a broadcast medium. In other words, the same signal goes out at the same time to every customer. Streaming is a multicast medium. Multiple people may be watching the same thing at the same time, but each one gets their own connection to a server.

This means the picture quality you get can vary. A lot. It depends on what other people in your house are doing, what your neighbors are doing, even what others in your hometown are doing. When the internet gets congested, streaming apps cut the quality of the signal so you don’t get the dreaded “buffering” message.

Satellite TV doesn’t do this. Period. You get the same quality picture all the time.

Advantage: Satellite

Challenge #3: Technology

DIRECTV satellite technology hasn’t changed a lot in the last ten years. Back in 2006, MPEG-4 technology was very advanced. Today it’s ok, but there are more advanced technologies. Better compression is much more important with streaming, because it lets the app do more with less. On the other hand, AT&T has launched three new satellites that give them lots of capacity. They can provide the best quality even though they’re not using the most advanced technology.

Why doesn’t AT&T upgrade to something more advanced?

Changing the compression technology used for DIRECTV would mean changing out tens of millions of satellite receivers with something more expensive. Today’s DIRECTV hardware is solid, reliable, and can be made without affecting the bottom line for AT&T. There’s no need for a change right now.

Advantage: Satellite

Challenge #4: 4K

In terms of raw data, 4K takes four times the amount of ones and zeroes as HD. You can address some of that with fancy compression, but often times this means cutting down on quality.

Streaming services tell you their stuff is in 4K but often times it isn’t. You’ll only get 4K if you have a perfect connection. You don’t notice because the 4K signal has been compressed down so much that it’s barely different from HD.

With satellte you get top quality 4K all the time. There’s plenty of satellite bandwidth so you get the best live 4K plus true HDR video that isn’t overcompressed.

Advantage: Satellite

Bottom line

Satellite doesn’t always deliver the best quality, but more often than not if you’re looking for premium video, you’ll find it on satellite television. Maybe in five more years streaming will have caught up but it’s not there yet.

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.