Are Netflix and the rest set to turn the stream into a river?
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309Like it or not, the way in which we watch our video media is changing – inexorably and at a rapid velocity. Not so very long ago, choices were simple with many of us remembering the days when three, four or five channels was the limit of our expectations.That or a trip out to the cinema or a visit to the local video store to hire a tape to stick in the VCR, which effectively halved the resolution of what we now consider standard definition. Nowadays, should we so desire, we can whip out our phones or tablets and watch in 1080p. How things have changed but is our quest for everything, everywhere, right now at the ultimate expense of picture and sound quality or will streaming soon reach the heights of a good Blu-ray disc? Further still, what is its role in Ultra HD (4K) and can it possibly keep up?
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it but I love streaming video. As a TV reviewer for AVForums and fully qualified THX and isf video calibrator my ultimate goal should be maximum video fidelity and preservation as true to the source as possible. And it is, honestly, but there’s something very seductive about being able to flop out on the couch after a long night’s testing and writing and having a whole library of TV shows and movies readily accessible through a polished and easy to use interface. My personal favourite service – as it is for many – is Netflix, although I use BBC iPlayer quite a lot, as well as the extensive on-demand services a TiVo XL package brings and have used the likes of LOVEFILM and AceTrax in the past.
So how do I justify it? Well let’s start with what is a pressing concern for many, cost. For £6 a month, I can potentially get through a couple of high quality TV series and have children’s shows-aplenty, on tap, for when the kids need to be put in front of the rectangular babysitter. Netflix has introduced me to the glories of Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy and House of Cards, to name but a few; the latter being a show I couldn’t have seen without the service, it being commissioned and made for Netflix exclusively; but that’s a story for later on. To give some perspective, at current Amazon prices, to order/pre-order the available episodes of Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy on Blu-ray would cost me about £174 – 29 month’s worth of Netflix subscription. For around another £3 per month, I could – there is no law against it, after all – subscribe to a VPN service giving me access to the libraries of 10 regional Netflix services from around the globe. The US Netflix has far more TV series than the UK equivalent, for instance, and Netflix in Canada has lots more up-to-date Movies.
With a strong cost to choice advantage over physical media, there’s also the consideration of convenience. It would be nice to have the space for a vast library of Blu-ray discs but the spatial demands of children extend outside the boundaries of their bodily selves, in to toys and beyond so it’s now a select few that land through the letterbox. It’s not just the physical advantages there are other added benefits, not the least the ability to watch on multiple devices, both around the home and when I’m on the train. At any one time I’m likely to have Netflix available in three rooms with the ability to pick up what I was watching, from where I was, in the other room. It’s even now possible, with some of the 2013 Smart TVs, to launch the mobile app from my Nexus 7 or iPad and chuck it straight to the screen. More logically, I could launch the TV app from the tablet and use the touchscreen interface to browse and launch the content. It’s all mega-slick and super-duper user friendly.
And I’m not alone, far from it, and with over 26 million subscribers Worldwide, the service is going from strength to strength with many others trying to emulate their success. Amazon has ‘Instant’ in the US and bought out LOVEFiLM in the UK, Tesco is even getting in on the act and owns Blinkbox but is also offering its Clubcard holders a free streaming service to keep them loyal. The BBC reports record figures for iPlayer, month on month, with much of it fuelled by smartphones and tablets, whose use to access iPlayer increased by 177% in 2012 and with mobile (and soon wearable) technology the current big thing, that trend looks set to continue in to the foreseeable future.
It’s getting to the point where, for my own personal way of watching the TV, I could consider dropping Virgin and moving to a Freeview or Freesat PVR. I just about only watch ‘live’ events when they are actually live and could probably easily fill my recreational TV viewing with what’s available free-to-air, time-shifted, and what I can watch on-demand. Traditional TV providers should beware as a recent survey in the US found that 30 percent of internet users would consider dropping their existing provider in favour of streaming services. As a very personal added benefit, watching Netflix through the US service means I can switch off the critical part of the brain as it’s generally content sent at 60Hz and I only really have to worry about 50Hz material and 24 frames per second. Of course, that’s not going to be a concern for many but, as an aside, many TVs perform more optimally when fed 60Hz signals as they match the internal refresh of the panel or marry better with their sub-field driving.So what of the quality?When ultimate fidelity is needed for the likes of Skyfall, Looper or the 3D presentation of Dredd, to name some recent acquisitions, I will still go for Blu-ray disc but with TV shows, especially, I honestly don’t feel like I’m losing much over the broadcast equivalent. At its highest quality, ‘Super HD’ option, Netflix is streaming at a bitrate of up to 12Mb/s, which is probably around where the variable bitrate the BBC use averages. On anything around a 40 to 42-inch display, and under, the difference in quality between the two is negligible at typical viewing distances and some of the really well encoded stuff looks great, even on a bigger screen. Sure, I know it will look better on Blu-ray but, for some things, I’m happy to compromise.
That compromise in quality could soon be lessened considerably by new compression techniques; the successor to the widely used H.264 codec, H.265 or HEVC – as it’s commonly known - has recently been approved as a standard which will improve video quality, double the data compression ratio compared to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC and can support 8K UHD; so it has its eyes on the future but could also be used to deliver 1080p24 content at Blu-ray style quality, streamed. The improving network infrastructures and emergence of 4G – and even 5G – internet services will also play a part and we could see the likes of Netflix offering much higher bitrate content as the constraints are removed.
There’s no doubt that Netflix sees itself as a key component of the 4K ‘revolution’; they expect their online streaming service will be capable of servicing U-HD TVs within a 'year or two', according to Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt and he believes streaming is the best fit for 4K as the broadcast infrastructure is going to take a lot of time, not to mention a great deal of investment, before it's ready for the challenge. Hunt is also sceptical that a Ultra High Definition standard for Blu-ray will be reached although a recent AVS interview with THX’s Senior Video Engineer, Eric Gemmel, let slip that Sony were presenting a business case for disc based 4K. Sony’s full U HD plans have yet to be laid bare but we wouldn’t be shocked if streaming – when a certain buffer threshold had been reached – wasn’t amongst the options.
So the future looks set for Video on Demand and streaming services, perhaps we’ll even see a model, one day, where we can just simply pay for exactly what we want, on a channel or network basis. I certainly don’t want or need 80-90 percent of the channels I pay for through my Virgin XL subscription and I’d rather they allowed me to pick and choose exactly what I do want and let me pay pro rata. That business model may never work for them, of course, and certainly wouldn’t at present but if at some point in the future I could go directly to the content providers and pay a modest fee for something I really do want, I’d be first in the queue. I’d be more than happy to pay HBO, BBC, Channel 4 and Sky Sports, for example, on a by channel or per event basis and suspect there are many others who would be happy to do so. Sky themselves have actually opened up this ability, to some extent, with their movie and sports content available to non-package subscribers and Virgin are attempting to follow suit but I wouldn’t even consider until they let me do so in High Definition, which is not currently an option.So what’s your stance?Are you a streamer? Will it eventually replace physical media and, if so, how soon? Will you miss the joy of collecting discs or are you ready to de-clutter? Is the infra-structure where you live up to the task, or will it be soon? And would you consider ditching your existing Pay-TV service for a combination of free-to-air and on-demand? These are certainly questions going through my mind so it would be great to hear your thoughts!
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