Netflix move to stream movies and TV in HDR to mobiles, starting in Asia, takes video on the go to next level

Company says high dynamic range streaming will offer more intense images for Hong Kong and regional subscribers watching on smartphones rather than TV; Amazon to roll out mobile HDR too

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 7:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 7:48am

What if your phone’s pixels were not bigger, but better? Tech companies usually like to talk about how only more pixels, bigger resolutions and better detail will deliver the total immersion we’re all looking for from video, but streaming service Netflix disagrees.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona it previewed a unique new service – due to launch within the next few months – that will see movies and TV streamed in HDR (high dynamic range) to mobile phones.

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On paper, it sounds like a hard sell. After all, who would pay extra to get more contrast, and higher colour definition? However, in practice, it looks good. Seriously good.

An example of Netflix HDR content

“We’re very excited about HDR because while 4K offers more pixels, HDR offers better pixels that have greater depth,” Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix, said at the recent Mobile World Congress.

HDR is all about increasing the contrast between the darkest and lightest areas of the screen, creating more depth and new levels of detail that have previously not been possible, but it also greatly enriches colours. Overall, it makes the images more intense.

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“And now you don’t have to have an expensive TV to get HDR,” Hastings adds. The tech is currently being used as a selling point for 4K TVs, but it’s now coming to flagship phones.

The first two HDR smartphones were announced in Barcelona – the 5.5-inch Sony Xperia XZ Premium and the 5.7-inch LG G6 – though only the latter has so far been certified to work with the new Netflix HDR service.

The Samsung Note 7 – the “exploding phone” from November – was also HDR-ready, so it’s likely that the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S8 flagship phone (which is expected to be unveiled in New York on March 29) will also have HDR capabilities. The brand’s 9.7-inch Galaxy Tab S3 and new Galaxy Book 12-inch tablets also support HDR.

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The drama series Marco Polo looks especially good when streamed in 4K HDR to a big screen TV from Netflix, but isn’t the jump down to watching on a smartphone a second-rate experience? In my demo, I can confirm that’s not the case; Stranger Things watched in HDR on a LG G6 looked brilliantly colourful, with vibrant reds and blues usually missing from LCD screens, and plenty of contrast.

An excerpt from the HDR Marco Polo series

In any case, the focus on phones, rather than TVs, is a made-in-Asia story.

“Mobile has become increasingly more important for us since the launch into Asia at the beginning of 2016,” says Todd Yellin, vice-president of product innovation at Netflix.

“Looking at the data, we got a higher percentage of use on mobile in Asian countries than elsewhere in the world.” In India, South Korea and Japan the figure was over half. “And Malaysia and Hong Kong aren’t far behind – mobile is big in Asia,” he adds.

Outside of Asia, about two-thirds of its customers watch on a smart TV, a games console or on a set-top box.

Netflix can collect data on every action its viewers make, from their choice of content, what device they use and how many times they watch. “The big dramatic TV series is the modern version of the novel,” says Yellin.

While Netflix is, for now, the only streaming video platform to embrace HDR for mobile, Amazon Prime Video also intends to stream HDR to phones.

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Going by the promotions visible at the Mobile World Congress, Amazon appears to have certified the Sony XZ Premium for just that reason, though both Amazon and Netflix are understandably device-neutral.

“If a phone is capable of HDR, it will play our content,” says Yellin.

Visual scientists recommend that people hold HD phones three times the height of their phone away from their eyes, and five times the height for standard definition.

Netflix also announced new data-light encoding technology that will benefit Asian viewers. While many mobile subscribers globally now have unlimited data plans, they’re still relatively rare in Asia. Aimed at those with data caps, the technology makes it cheaper and easier to stream or download a TV episode or movie.

The demos showed how Netflix had the bit rate down to just 277 kbps from 555 kbps, for top-quality HDR, and also vastly improving the detail of images streamed at a mere 100 kbps. “It’s about getting the biggest bang for your bits,” says Yellin.

It’s also made it possible to click a cellular data usage cap option in the Netflix app so it’s impossible to get a huge bill at the end of the month after accidentally streaming a movie over 3G or 4G.

The move towards ever-lower bit rates will also help assuage cable and cellphone operators, which have to physically support the relatively recent obsession with streaming video to TVs and phones; AT&T reported at the Mobile World Congress that video traffic grew more than 75 per cent in the past 12 months, with smartphones alone using 75 per cent of its data traffic. It’s a similar story for all operators, globally.

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Thankfully for those on limited data plans – and for those wanting to watch offline – it’s been possible to download movies and TV to a phone via the Netflix app for a few months, and even store them to a SIM card. It’s a move that was prompted by the service’s appearance in Asia, where Wi-fi at home is still the predominant place to download.

“Something we weren’t even going to do at all until we launched in Asia was downloads,” says Yellin. “We realised that it was going to be used a lot in various Asian countries.”

We got a higher percentage of use on mobile in Asian countries than elsewhere in the world
Todd Yellin

It’s a boon for anyone who travels frequently on planes or trains: “But for people that live with much poorer bandwidth situations, downloads is how they’re going to enjoy our content – it’s a necessity.”

Although it uses big data to tease out viewing behaviours (even down to where people start, stop, pause and rewind), it was an old-fashioned survey that recently found that many Netflix customers have started “cheating” on each other.

However, rather than suggesting infidelity, this is illicit streaming; 46 per cent of “streaming couples” around the world are watching ahead of their partners, binge-watching episodes they can’t wait to watch. Binge watching, it seems, is both irresistible (80 per cent of cheating is unplanned) yet still shameful.

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Netflix, which began streaming in Hong Kong in January 2016 but has not launched in mainland China, has a number of series that can be watched in HDR, including Chef’s Table: France, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Marco Polo. The service has 30 original scripted series.

Although it doesn’t release market-by-market subscription numbers, Netflix confirmed that it has more than 93 million subscribers globally, with over 44 million of them outside of the US.