The Overlooked Reason Streamed Movies Look Worse
If you're wondering why movies you watch on streaming look so ugly, a whole lot of answers await you. These include everything from the kinds of sets and costumes they build to the sort of camera they use to the colorizing they do after they finish filming. That all adds up to a final cut that looks ugly when the editors review it and looks ugly when it reaches your screen.
However, another factor makes it so even when a movie looks good when the editor reviews it, it looks bad once it reaches your screen. It's called bitrate, and it's so basic compared with the complicated stuff we listed in the last paragraph that it's surprising everyone doesn't know all about it already. (If you do know all about it, pat yourself on the back—you can even chip in and elaborate on the subject, since we're going to be simplifying it quite a bit.)
In short: Videos can be compressed, which reduces the quality. If you watch an HD movie, every single frame is 2 million pixels, and in a 4k movie, every single frame is 8 million pixels, but the digital copy doesn't record the value of every single pixel. Instead, a compression algorithm sees thousands of dark pixels together and just says "eh, all of this is black." That saves a lot of memory, but it results in reduced color, fuzziness, or sometimes weird checkerboard patterns.
We measure video quality (how much the video isn't compressed) using bitrate, which is how many bits of memory the video takes up every second. It's not a perfect measure, because good compression can zap the bitrate without any noticeable drop in quality, but it helps us compare different videos. When HBO streams an HD episode of a show, unofficial sources estimate that it streams using just 3.75 Mbps (3.75 million bits per second), while Netflix will stream using a better 6.44 Mbps. When Netflix streams in 4k, it uses a bitrate of 16.64 Mbps, but Apple TV uses a much better 26 Mbps.
You'd think Apple would be proudly advertising its high bitrate, but that would risk just confusing consumers, since many people don't know what bitrate is. Plus, if streamers start loudly talking about bitrate, consumers might realize buying a movie on a disk offers a much better picture than even the best streaming services, since the disk might have a bitrate of 100 Mbps.
If you must keep streaming, don't despair. In a few more years, maybe bandwidth will get even cheaper, companies will let go of the throttle, and suddenly, the old videos in the vault will come down the pipe looking much better.
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More on the mysteries of streaming, check out:
There's An Insane (And Useless) Arms Race Of Content
HD Remakes Are Making All Of Your Favorite Shows Unwatchable
Not All Good Shows Need To Be Confined To Ten-Episode Seasons
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Top image: Netflix