Streaming Movies On Your Mobile Device? We Need to Talk.

Streaming Movies on Mobile Device
Is it ever ok to stream movies on a mobile device? We can hear you A/V enthusiasts screaming your emphatic answer at your screens now: “No! Never! Give me my home theater or give me nothing!” We hear you, and we get it. But we also understand that there are times you’ll want to watch a movie or TV show, and you’ll have no other option than to stream it on a mobile device to get your fix. So if you’re riding the train home from work and you just have to see the new episode of The Walking Dead, by all means, fire up a streaming app on your smartphone. But you should know that your experience is going to suffer greatly. And here’s why:

The compression game

First, a quick recap from our previous blog on streaming: content companies like Netflix and Hulu use a process called adaptive bitrate streaming (ABS) to offer up a number of different versions of a video file across a spectrum of compression qualities. Your device will request the highest quality file it’s capable of displaying, based on the device’s technical specs and the strength of your internet connection. If you’re streaming across a fast connection to a high-resolution device (like a 4K TV,) you may well get a good-looking file. Though we feel like we have to note, if your internet connection slows during your stream, you’ll automatically be switched to a lower quality compression and could likely wind up watching your content in SD. Unfortunately, there are currently no guidelines for what compression files should be across different platforms. Streaming Media Alliance is working on standardizing the file type requirements so that the image sizes meet certain standards, but for now, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Regardless, if you’re streaming across a 3G or 4G cellular connection to your smartphone, you can kiss your hopes of high-resolution HD content goodbye. Let’s dive a little deeper to discover why that’s the case—and why it matters.

A low ceiling

With 3G and 4G connections, the highest bandwidth service achievable is 1.8 megabytes/sec. This speed makes 1080p playback impossible, no matter what the salesperson at your cellular provider store told you. The highest possible resolution at this speed is 720p. And keep in mind, that’s the ceiling. 720p is the absolute best you can do. Frequently, the resolution will be much worse. But why does this matter? As long as you can hear the dialogue and see most of the action, isn’t the experience acceptable? We don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

Missing pieces

At low resolution, you’re missing many of the fine details the creator of the content wanted you to see. It’s like squinting when looking at a Picasso—sure, you’ll get a general sense of the painting, but you’re not seeing the full picture. You’re not getting the effect the artist intended. Lower resolution can also ruin your suspension of disbelief. High-resolution images appear more realistic, sucking you into the film’s story and adding to the illusion that what you’re seeing is really happening. Low-resolution content looks fuzzy and fake, continually reminding you that you’re viewing a fictional production. That awareness makes for a lesser film experience. Screen size is a problem as well. Watching a small screen for long periods results in visual fatigue. Your eyes have to constantly scan the picture for detail, rather than just being able to take it all in at once. And let’s not forget audio. Listening to a film or TV show through a mobile device causes you to miss out on important sound effects, and musical cues that add to the story. You wouldn’t listen to a Guns N’ Roses song with Slash’s guitar track removed. So why would you watch a movie with an incomplete soundtrack?

Mobile streaming—only a last resort

One of our technical advisors, Eric Gemmer, said it best: “I recently watched Mr. Turner, which relies heavily on the details of the landscape to help set the stage and tone of the film. You have to see all the features in the landscape to fully understand and appreciate the story. These details would be lost if streaming the movie on mobile. There’s a time and place for watching videos on a phone, but choosing to stream a movie on a mobile device if you have the option of watching it on a larger display can really affect your experience of the story.”

THX: Improving streaming for everyone

At THX, we’re currently working on ways to make the streaming experience better. Look out for more info on that in future blogs. But for now, do yourself a favor: watch your streaming content on a THX Certified TV with THX Certified speakers. You’ll come much closer to getting the full effect the creator intended—something you currently just can’t achieve on a mobile device.