How to get a true 4K experience on Netflix

How to get a true 4K experience on Netflix

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the best Netflix experience possible.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the best Netflix experience possible. (Mollie Sivaram/Unsplash/)

Netflix continues to be one of the go-to streaming services for on-demand entertainment, and a big part of its appeal is the multiple ways you can access it—from virtual reality headsets, smartphones, and the Amazon Echo Show smart displays to name a few.

But not all of these devices give you the very best Netflix experience. For those times when you just want to sit back and bask in the highest-quality resolution and the most immersive sound, you need to pick your hardware carefully.

Get the best Netflix plan

If you’re signed into Netflix on the web, you can hover over your avatar (top right), then pick Account and Change plan to see the different options and how much they’ll cost you.

At $13.99, the Standard plan knocks back image quality to Full HD 1080p, while the Basic plan ($8.99) reduces it further (there’s no knowing exactly how much, since Netflix doesn’t detail that on its website). But since you’re aiming for the very best Netflix experience, you’ll need to level up to the Premium plan, which is $17.99 a month at the time of writing.

Yes, this is the most expensive Netflix plan, but it is the only one that offers Ultra HD resolution, Dolby Atmos or standard 5.1 surround sound, and HDR (High Dynamic Range; in Dolby Vision and HDR10 formats) to balance contrast and colors. Any other plan, and your 4K TV or laptop won’t get enough pixels to process, and the sound just won’t be as good as it can be.

Your internet speeds and settings matter

Regardless what plan you’re on, Netflix adjusts the streaming quality to match your internet connection speed, and prioritizes seamless playback over image resolution. So, for the best picture quality throughout, you need to make sure you’ve got a stable, speedy link to the internet. For Ultra HD content, this is 25 megabits per second or higher, according to the streaming platform.

You can make sure Netflix is serving up video at the maximum resolution by tweaking your playback settings. On the web, go to Account by hovering over your avatar, then scroll down to Profile & Parental Controls. There, click on Change (right next to the Playback settings option), and set the Data usage per screen to High. This will force Netflix to serve up Ultra HD content on supported devices, even if it causes more buffering. If you pick Auto from the list instead, you’ll get the top resolution only as long as your internet connection speed is able to keep up.

Hardware (and software) matters

Even if you upgrade to a Premium Netflix account, you won't be able to watch Ultra HD content on one of these.

Even if you upgrade to a Premium Netflix account, you won’t be able to watch Ultra HD content on one of these. (Ikhsan Sugiarto / Unsplash/)

To take advantage of everything your Premium Netflix subscription has to offer, you need a screen capable and set to handle Ultra HD, and a refresh rate of at least 60Hz. This will unequivocally be a television or a computer monitor, as the small screens on phones, tablets, and smart displays are just not big enough to do justice to this resolution.

But not just any TV or monitor will do. It also needs to support HDCP 2.2—an industry standard that prevents the copying of content—and if you’re using a computer with an external display, then the connection needs to be over an HDMI 2.0 cable or above.

These specs should be easy enough to check on your TV set (just google the manufacturer and model of your device), but it’s not quite so straightforward on a laptop or desktop computer. On the software side of things, if you’re streaming from the web, you’ll need the latest versions of Microsoft Edge (if you’re on Windows) or Safari (if you’re on MacOS). Older ones don’t support Netflix Ultra HD—neither do other browsers such as Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. If you’re using the app for Windows, on the other hand, you’ll need to make sure you have the one made specifically for the latest iteration of the OS.

Then, there’s the hardware. Windows computers need at least a seventh-generation Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processor or newer, or an Nvidia GPU with HDCP 2.2 support, while Mac devices must have been manufactured in 2018 or later and have the Apple T2 Security chip on board. If you’re on older hardware and you don’t want to upgrade, your best bet is connecting your computer to an external monitor to make the most of all those pixels.

Several streaming boxes are compatible with Netflix and support both UHD resolutions and HDR, but they still need to be connected to a UHD, HDR-ready TV to work. Among these gadgets is the Apple TV 4K, the Chromecast Ultra, the Chromecast with Google TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, the Nvidia Shield TV (standard and Pro), the Roku Streaming Stick+, the Xbox One X/S, the PlayStation 4 Pro, the Xbox Series X/S, and the PlayStation 5. Unfortunately, there’s no data (official or otherwise) as to which of these give the very best experience.

When it comes to Dolby Atmos, 5.1 surround sound, Dolby Vision, and HDR10, you’ll also need the right devices to support these features: a television or computer monitor, and, in case you need it, a set of compatible speakers. This high-end Netflix experience is aimed at home theater setups, so you might have to upgrade your hardware to get absolutely everything. If you want to invest, make sure to check listings carefully to know if a product supports these requirements.

Choose what to watch

If you don’t have a top-notch setup to begin with, you’ll probably have to do a lot of upgrades, but we’re afraid to tell you there’s one last caveat here—not everything on Netflix comes in Ultra HD with HDR and surround sound. This means that even if you have the best hardware and are on the best plan, some content may still show in lower quality, as it may have not been encoded for playback on UHD setups.

Don’t worry if your Netflix habits consist mainly of keeping up with newly released shows and movies, though—just about all new content is shot in top resolution now, so it’s older stuff that you might have problems with. This is even more annoying considering Netflix doesn’t make it easy to sift through titles based on the formats they support. You can search for “Ultra HD” or “4K” to find matching titles, but it’s hardly the most intuitive system. A better idea is to turn to third-party websites such as JustWatch to find a list of Ultra HD content.

For content that also features Dolby Atmos and HDR, look for badges next to individual titles that indicate they’re available. Keep in mind these only appear if you’re on a device where these features are enabled, and it’s not possible to quickly sort Netflix titles by these criteria, as you have to open up the page of an individual film or show to to check.

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