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Netflix is re-encoding its whole catalog for better streams that use less data

Netflix is re-encoding its whole catalog for better streams that use less data

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Netflix has spent four years rethinking the way it serves movies and TV shows to its customers over the internet, and it's in the process of rolling out the result. Pretty soon the company's streams will use up to 20 percent less data, though Netflix is confident that no one will notice any degradation in picture quality. In fact, the content you care about most may actually start looking better than it does today. Variety has the backstory on the company's new encoding process which, rather than apply blanket rules across the entire catalog, now adjusts the quality level depending on the content you're streaming.

So Netflix's servers will send out very different streams for an animated show like My Little Pony versus a proper feature film like The Hurt Locker. Animated content rarely calls for the same, consistent visual fidelity as Hollywood blockbusters, so Netflix will now use less bandwidth to stream the former. They'll still be in 1080p, but Netflix is pulling back on bitrate to somewhere around 1.5Mbps. That actually lets more people watch animated shows and movies in Full HD, since previously — when Netflix tried to deliver everything at a top bitrate of 5.8Mbps — weak internet connections might've produced viewing interruptions or dropped the overall stream quality down to 720p.

Netflix realized streaming animated shows and Hollywood blockbusters at the same quality is stupid

Netflix says it's also making optimizations to how other content looks. The company ran the same video on two TVs side by side and asked its employees to try figuring out which was 5.8Mbps, the current max quality, and which was a newer 4.64Mbps version that saves 20 percent in bandwidth. Apparently even with a bottle of champagne at stake, no one was able to do so. When you're responsible for the insane amount of internet traffic that Netflix handles during peak times, 20 percent makes a huge difference — especially to ISPs that've voiced frustration with Netflix and other content providers over congestion, forcing the company to pay up so customers keep getting reliable, high-quality streams. It could also help the company's ambitions in countries with less speedy internet connections.

The new system is incredibly granular; each individual episode of a TV series might have different encoding settings, and Netflix also must make its way through re-encoding the entire catalog for greater streaming efficiency. This per-title approach is all automated, so the system could theoretically make some bad decisions. Without seeing it ourselves, we can't yet say whether the process truly makes for a better or worse viewing experience; maybe the difference is as indiscernible as Netflix claims. The company has already been quietly testing the new streams with a select batch of customers, but the whole point is for them not to notice.