Your choice of web browser determines Netflix picture quality
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Got a big weekend planned in front of the laptop watching Netflix? Before you settle down with the popcorn and all five seasons of Better Call Saul, there’s something you should know about the web browser you’re watching with. It’s probably the wrong one.
The majority of the world – around two thirds of it, according to the latest figures from NetMarketShare – uses Google Chrome as its computer’s web browser. However, Chrome is a frankly terrible choice of browser for watching Netflix. You will almost certainly get much better picture quality by choosing one of its free rivals. Here’s why.
Netflix browser choice: why there’s a big difference
Netflix and many other video providers protect content using something called digital rights management (DRM). This, in a nutshell, makes it harder for people to record Netflix on their computer and then upload it to file-sharing services etc.
The different browser makers use different DRM technology. Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox use a software-based DRM system called Widevine. Unlike some other, stronger hardware-based systems, this makes it possible (although not easy) for people to use screen-capture software to record Netflix shows.
This, naturally, doesn’t impress the rights holders, who don’t want their movies or shows ripped off and pirated in super-sharp 4K quality. So, Netflix limits the playback resolution to 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels) for both Chrome and Firefox on Windows, Mac and Linux computers. On Chromebooks, where a slightly different system is used, you can get Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) using Chrome.
So, no matter if you pay Netflix a hefty premium for its Ultra HD streams or if your laptop has a spanking sharp 4K screen, the maximum you’ll ever get watching Netflix on most computers using Chrome or Firefox is blurry old 720p.
What’s the best Netflix browser on Windows?
Both Apple and Microsoft use hardware-based DRM systems, which are harder to crack than the Widevine software. Consequently, Netflix allows users of the Microsoft Edge and Apple Safari browsers to enjoy much better picture quality.
For Windows users, Microsoft Edge is the best browser for Netflix, allowing you to enjoy resolutions of up to 4K. However, there are some provisos. To get the maximum picture quality you must have:
- A 4K capable display (obviously)
- Intel’s 7th generation Core CPU or newer
- Windows 10 version 1607 or newer
The Netflix app from the Windows Store is also capable of 4K playback if your computer meets the above conditions.
What’s best for Mac owners?
Perhaps not surprisingly, Safari is the best choice for Mac owners.
If you’re running macOS 10.10 to 10.15 (which is the latest version, called Catalina), you’ll be able to watch Netflix at Full HD quality.
However, most MacBooks have much better than Full HD displays, and the good news is that with the forthcoming macOS 11 (Big Sur), Safari has been upgraded to support 4K streaming – finally allowing you to get maximum video quality from a top-tier Netflix subscription.
Big Sur will be released in the fall, but if you can’t wait that long, there’s a beta version available to install now. My colleague, David Phelan, has written an excellent piece explaining five other benefits of macOS 11 here. Be aware that beta software may contain bugs and that it’s normally safer to wait for the full release.