Roku Ultra Tag

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don’t Blame Netflix

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

We all take for granted that buying a better video display will result in a better home cinema experience. Ditto speakers and sound processors and amps and control systems and so on. But for some reason, even in an era where streaming has pretty much taken over as the dominant source of AV entertainment, we talk about services like Netflix as if the hardware delivering them doesn’t really matter.

 

This realization has been at the forefront of my mind recently, as I’ve had discussions with videophiles on Facebook and in the comments section of Home Theater Review about the quality of the streamed video experience. Even folks with roughly the same internet speeds as me, similar quality home networks, and comparable displays seem to be watching a wholly different Netflix than the one I enjoy.

 

This absolutely baffled me for the longest time. My first inclination was to write it off as pure bias. Or maybe even ignorance. But then I started asking about a variable we videophiles rarely discuss when we talk about streaming: “How, exactly, are you accessing Netflix?” (By the way, I’m using “Netflix” a bit like “Kleenex” here, as a synecdoche for high-performance streaming

video across the board. You could just as easily plug in your high-quality streaming service of choice, be it Vudu or Amazon or what have you. But none of this necessarily applies to lower-quality streaming apps like CBS All Access, etc.)

 

What I found is that almost none of the commenters who bemoan the quality of Netflix watch it the same way I do, via Roku Ultra. Some use cable or satellite boxes. Some rely on the smart apps built into their TVs. Some even have their laptops plugged into their TVs via HDMI.

 

This makes a difference. Way more than you would think. Way more than I would have ever imagined until I actually sat down for some exhaustive comparisons between the exact same Netflix programming streamed to the exact same display.

 

The first thing I discovered is just how substantially different loading times are between devices. I did all of this testing on my 75-inch UHD TV, installed just above my credenza, which houses my Roku Ultra, Dish Network satellite receiver, Kaleidescape Strato, and my other AV components. All are plugged into the same enterprise-grade, gigabit Cisco network switch, and as such have access to the exact same level of connectivity. If you’re a numbers nerd, you can check the “Netflix by the Numbers” sidebar below for a breakdown of exactly how long it took each device to load the Netflix app (after a hardware reboot), begin playing a title, and reach full UHD resolution and full bandwidth.

None of the above is even slightly shocking. What was shocking, though, is just how different Netflix looked via these different devices. Cueing up my recent favorite, Our Planet, I couldn’t help but notice that via the app built into my smart TV, this gorgeous nature doc looked a bit less gorgeous. A bit smeared. A bit noisy. A good bit less refined. A closer inspection of the screen revealed the cause: Numerous video compression artifacts, pretty much right in line with what all of the streaming detractors have been hollering at me about on Facebook.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

Switching inputs to the Roku Ultra—again, via the same network connection—I was a little staggered to discover a complete lack of compression artifacts. Ignore, by the way, the subtle swirling bands of brightness fluctuation in the image below. Those are a result of moiré, a misalignment of pixels between my TV and the digital sensor in my cell phone.

 

Ignore too the slight softness in the upper row of leopard spots. This frame is from about half a second later than the one above, and as such the cheetah is moving a little faster, so there’s some motion blur. Also, don’t focus on differences in color—my smart TV’s integrated Netflix app is delivering the program in Dolby Vision, whereas my Roku Ultra only supports HDR10, but the camera in my smart phone can’t capture the gamut of either format. This image was also taken a few inches away from the TV, so what you’re seeing is a tiny fraction of the screen, blown up way larger than life-size.

If Your Stream Looks Bad, Don't Blame Netflix

But I think what’s clear here is that via the Roku Ultra, Our Planet’s image is virtually artifact-free. (As I mentioned in my review of the program, the only compression artifact I could find in the series’ entire run, at least from any reasonable seating distance, was about a second-and-a-half of very minor, almost imperceptible color banding in one early episode.)

 

I sent a series of images to colleague Andrew Robinson, since he and I have been discussing the geeky particulars of compression a lot recently. He immediately started poking holes in my methodology, at my request.

 

“Are you using the same picture profiles?”

 

Yup.

 

“Are you letting the smart TV buffer up to full resolution?”

 

Uh huh.

 

“Is your Roku running through the video processing of your AV preamp?”

 

Nope. I bypassed my preamp and ran the Roku straight into HDMI 1 on my TV.

 

I’ve done my darnedest to think of any reason why the same UHD/HDR program would look so rough via one streaming device and so flawless via another connected to the exact same network switch in the same room, running the same

streaming service from the same account. The only thing I can come up with is something Andrew touched on in his most recent piece about compression: HEVC (aka H.265), the video codec Netflix uses to deliver UHD/HDR, is very processor intensive. The cost of shoving such high-quality video through such a small pipe is that it makes the device on the playback end do a lot of heavy number crunching. And if those numbers can’t be crunched quickly enough, the results look a lot like the top screen shot above.

 

My guess here is that my Roku Ultra has the horsepower to deliver Netflix practically flawlessly, whereas my smart TV simply doesn’t. (And as gorgeous as the TV is with native 4K video, its middling performance in upscaling lower-resolution video to 4K is further evidence of this. That’s why I use my AV preamp to upscale video.)

 

And look, none of this is intended to be an advertisement for Roku. It may be my streaming player of choice because it consistently delivers the best performance for the streaming apps I use most. But I haven’t tested every single media streamer on the market to compare their video quality. (As our own John Sciacca has reported, though, even the highly lauded Apple TV 4K sometimes struggles on the audio front, and Andrew reported anecdotally in our most recent conversation that he noticed a significant improvement in video quality when he switched to Roku.) Nor do I have a representative sample of smart TVs to confirm that all of their built-in Netflix apps render such poor video performance.

NETFLIX BY THE NUMBERS

A nuts & bolts comparison of different streaming devices

 

I started with a simple load-time test, to see how long it would take for Netflix to launch to the user-select screen via devices that had just been powered up. All of these numbers are, of course, influenced by the speed of my internet connection (500 mbps) and the quality of my home network.

 

Roku Ultra  3.05 seconds on average from the time I selected the Netflix app until it loaded to the user-select screen

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  4.41 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  22.38 seconds on average

 

I then selected three different Netflix programs (Our Planet, Love, Death + Robots, and Test Patterns) and ran numerous tests to find the average time it took each device to start playing the program after it was selected.

 

Roku Ultra  3.20 seconds on average, from the time I pressed Select until the program started playing

 

Dish Network Hopper  9.64 seconds on average

 

Smart TV  13.15 seconds on average

 

Lastly, I cued up the Test Patterns again, specifically the pattern labeled “YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps.” This test gives you a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and also displays playback resolution, which let me gauge how long it would take each device to reach full bandwidth (16 mbps) and full resolution/color bit-depth.

 

Roku Ultra  Played at UHD 10-bit immediately, although it did start at 12 megabits per second and took 4.15 seconds on average to report full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Dish Network Hopper DVR  Switched from 1920 x 1080 resolution to full 3840 x 2160 resolution after 15.62 seconds on average, and took an average of 46.26 seconds to reach full 16 mbps bandwidth

 

Smart TV Took 47.18 seconds on average to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and didn’t reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream

All I can say for certain is that the device you use to access Netflix and all of the other streaming services you subscribe to does matter. And it matters way more than I would have predicted just a week ago. Simply put, if you’re streaming Netflix in your luxury entertainment system and notice that the picture isn’t up to snuff, don’t blame Netflix. Start pointing your finger at the device you’re using to access the app.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How the XBox Became My Favorite Video Player

Xbox One X

I just finished reading Dennis Burger’s ode to his Roku Ultra, and it inspired me to write one of my own—to my Xbox One X gaming console, which has positioned itself as the preferred video playback device in my everyday home entertainment system.

 

I reviewed the Xbox One X for HomeTheaterReview.com a few months back. As I stressed in that review, I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but I have reviewed my fair share of Ultra HD Blu-ray players, as well as many generations of streaming media players from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Nvidia. My approach to the Xbox review was to answer this question: Does this gaming console succeed as a complete all-in-one media player? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the review: It does.

 

What’s my proof? Well, four months later, the Xbox One X remains the sole set-top box connected to my living-room TV, while an Apple TV 4K, Roku 4, and Amazon Fire TV sit idle in a box in my office/test studio. Sure, I’ll pull one of those players out when I’m reviewing a TV or projector, along with my Oppo UDP-103 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

 

But the player I choose to use on an everyday basis is the Xbox. Why? Because it really does give me everything I want in one box, with one common user experience.

 

First of all, the Xbox One X is the only gaming console to sport an Ultra HD Blu-ray player, so I can pop in UHD Blu-ray discs when I want the highest-quality video experience. I use a Polk MagniFi Mini soundbar in this everyday space—but if I had a surround sound/Atmos system here, the Xbox One X could accommodate it, too. I can also pop CDs into the disc drive . . . and only listen to them halfway through.

 

Second, the Microsoft Store includes all the streaming apps my kiddo and I use on a regular basis. That includes Netflix, Prime Video, Sling TV, Vudu, Tablo, PBS Kids, YouTube, and Pandora. Here I will confess that I do miss the convenience of voice search offered by Roku, Amazon, and Apple . . . but apparently not enough to make a switch.

 

As a cord cutter, I no longer have a cable or satellite set-top box. If I did, though, I could pass it through the Xbox’s HDMI input and unite that source into the user experience as well.

Xbox One X

And then there are the games. Over the years, the kiddo and I have casually enjoyed the simple, family-friendly games that are available through platforms like Fire TV and Apple TV—such as Crossy Road, Pacman 256, and Hill Climb Racing. But now my daughter’s eyes have been opened to a glorious new world filled with Minecraft, Super Lucky’s Tale, Star Wars Battlefront, and Rush: A Disney Pixar Adventure—and I’m afraid there ain’t no going back to Minion Rush.

 

As I said in my original review, if you look at each of the above categories individually—UHD Blu-ray player, streaming media player, or music player—of course you’ll find better performers. Products that deliver a higher level of AV performance or a better user interface. But the Xbox One X does it all quite well, and for me the convenience of being able to jump from a game like Minecraft to a streaming source like Netflix to live TV through Tablo and then to Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray—without having to switch inputs or remotes—is just too darn enticing to pass up.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

An Ode to My Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra

In her latest missive in our ongoing back-and-forth about media rooms—how to define them, how to design them, how to get the most out of them—Adrienne Maxwell made a point I want to make sure doesn’t get overlooked. In her discussion of sources that support High Dynamic Range, Ultra High Definition video, she points out that streaming media players like Roku are a great way to bring some truly great video content into your media room without breaking the bank.

 

Nothing could be truer. But I hope readers don’t mistakenly think Adrienne is positioning the Roku Ultra (or new Apple TV, or the Nvidia Shield—take your pick) as merely the low rung on the ladder of AV bliss.

 

Sure, if pixel-perfect presentation is the only criterion we’re talking about, my Roku Ultra fits into the “better” box of the good/better/best hierarchy in my own media room, with my satellite receiver holding down the “good enough” fort and my Oppo Ultra HD audiophile disc player currently sitting at the top of the hill.

 

But are perfect pixels the only thing I care about? When I’m watching Blade Runner 2049, absolutely. I’ll accept no less than perfection. At times like that, only a shiny silver disc will do. But what about the nightly news program I stream via YouTube? Or my weekly fix of The Star Wars Show? Honestly, nearly every box connected to my home theater system will stream those programs just fine. But none do so nearly as well as my Roku Ultra, with its instant-on accessibility and its ridiculously intuitive user interface.

 

All of the bonus features for The Last Jedi I recently reviewed? I didn’t plop in the bonus Blu-ray disc. I redeemed the digital code and streamed them via my Roku. It loads faster and is easier to navigate. When my mother-in-law visited last week and wanted to catch up on This is Us? I didn’t slog through the OnDemand menus from my satellite provider and wait for each episode to buffer. I turned to my Roku Ultra and asked it which streaming service had past episodes available for free.

 

If I won the lottery tomorrow and had the opportunity to build the home theater of my dreams, I can assure you, without question, that my first purchase would be a Kaleidescape Premiere System with banks of servers to store my massive movie collection. But I can also guarantee you this: Alongside those racks of hard drives—out of view, perhaps, but never out of mind—there would still be a space reserved for my lowly Roku Ultra.

 

Because other source components may outclass it, but nothing can replace it.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

My New Tech Resolution

There are two people in my life whose book recommendations I never ignore. The first is my daughter, with whom I share a brain. The second is my friend and mentor Brent Butterworth, who is, without question, the smartest human I know. So when he casually dropped a reference to Robert Lustig’s The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains in a conversation last week, I immediately rushed out and bought it. What followed was two days of outright fascination, a bit of righteous anger, and a ton of self-reflection.

tech gadgets--Hacking of the American Mind

I mention this merely because that book was weighing heavily on my mind when I read Adrienne Maxwell’s missive about all the technology that enters our lives during the Holidays, and the stress some of it brings with it.

 

What could those two things possibly have to do with one another? Well, perhaps it’s worth explaining what the book is actually about, because its title is a little vague. In its 352 pages, Lustig digs deep into three of the primary limbic pathways in our brains and bodies: cortisol (stress), dopamine (pleasure), and serotonin (contentment). I won’t spoil the meat of the book, since it deserves to be read with a fresh mind, but one of the key takeaways is that we as a society have, through no fault of our own, been conditioned to conflate pleasure with happiness. And that conflation is, very literally, killing us.

tech gadgets--Roku Ultra

Adrienne’s post also hit home with me because I had my own experience with tech-related elation and stress this Christmas. One of my favorite gifts this year was a Roku Ultra, a desperately needed upgrade over my tired and overheating Roku Stick, which served me well for five years but has recently become more a source of frustration than streaming bliss.

 

Here’s where the problem begins, though: The Roku Ultra supports the latest in Ultra HD and high-dynamic-range video, but to unlock all of that video goodness it also requires the very latest in digital copy protection, which my TV supports but my surround sound processor lacks. And the Roku Ultra doesn’t have dual HDMI outputs as my Ultra HD Blu-ray player does, so there’s no workaround!

 

As soon as I unboxed it, I felt my cortisol-fueled dopamine pathway begin to kick into overdrive. I need to replace my surround sound processor, too, if I want to get the most out of this little black box!

 

In the end, of course, that’s ridiculous. I’ll eventually replace my surround processor when the time comes. For now, I’m perfectly content with the faster operation, fewer lockups, and more reliable streaming provided by the new Roku. As I should be. I wasn’t unhappy with my old Roku because it lacked the latest in video format support—I was unhappy with it because I needed to reboot it every day. The new box solved that problem. So why did I immediately find myself wanting more?

 

I don’t want to give the impression I’m anti-technology here. Someone whose home has its own operating system has no place going on any sort of anti-tech rant. My point in all this is that, going forward, I’m going to focus more on tech upgrades that alleviate frustrations from my life rather than give me a quick dose of dopamine and long-term stress.

tech gadgets--Ecobee thermostat

My Ecobee thermostat, for example? It gives me all sorts of fascinating readouts and data to peruse. It feeds my dopamine pathways by rewarding me for making slight tweaks to my programming, informed by the charts and graphs it generates each month. In the end, though, all of that fuss saves me mere pennies. My time and energy are better spent letting it do its own thing. In other words, as with most of the technology in my life, I’m happier when it disappears—when it doesn’t call for my constant attention.

 

I’m generally not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I’m making one this year: Any new tech I add to my home (and believe me, there’ll be plenty) must meet that criterion. It must remove stress from my life, not add to it. So, instead of that shiny new iPhone X I’ve been drooling over and absolutely don’t need? I think I’ll add a motion sensor to my shower instead, to automatically turn on the bathroom vent fan when I bathe, which I always forget to do on my own (much to the displeasure of the missus). Instead of upgrading my Control4 remote in the bedroom to the latest model? I think I’ll add a second remote to the media room, so my wife and I stop bickering over the one in there now.

 

In other words, all new tech purchases this year will be made with an eye toward happiness, not pleasure. Because I never realized before just how much those two emotions conflict with one another.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.