April 2023: Streaming TV Picture Quality Comparison - Your Results May Vary
Posted by: MB
Your Results May Vary
For the past seven or eight years I have been on quest to find a way to watch television, specifically sports, that provides what I would consider to be good picture quality.
This project started when I bought a 4k television and was frustrated at how bad Philadelphia Flyers broadcasts looked on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
During this time I bounced around between streaming providers (PlayStation Vue, Hulu Live TV, YouTube TV, etc.) and eventually settled on using location spoofing shenanigans so I could watch via NHL.tv. They provided a 720p stream that not only looked great, but was devoid of all of the logo bugs and digitally inserted advertisements. Unfortunately, NHL.tv is no longer an option.
Over the past year I have shared some of the results of my quest here on this blog in the hopes that this information might help others.
I've spoken to many people whose experience was similar to mine, but surprisingly (or not surprisingly), my posts have been met with quite a bit of hostility. Among other things it has been suggested that I must be blind, or using bad equipment, am a "fanboy," or that I have been using a provider for so long that I'm oblivious to how bad it actually is.
I am confident that my testing methodology is sound and reasonable within the constraints imposed by DRM protected video streams.
This being said, I'm comfortable in saying that not everyone will have the same experience. There are way too many moving parts here and we are all using different hardware and watching different shows on different channels in different TV markets streaming via different ISPs. There are bound to be differences.
Results may vary and it would be unfair for anyone to suggest than any service is 100% without a doubt better than another or that their personal experience is what everyone is experiencing.
Streaming TV providers are great because there is no hardware or installation involved. Give each one a shot and go with the one that works best for you.
April 2023 Comparisons
Moving on, here are the results of my most recent comparison. I'm mixing things up here and focusing on full frame video instead of zooming into specific sections to highlight differences. Each comparison is provided as a single video file that loops through a single frame from each tested source.
For best results it is recommended that you view these videos in full screen. Or even better, download them all, put them on a USB stick, and view them on your television. There is a big difference between watching on a smartphone and standing 3ft away from an 80 inch television!
Law and Order
It had been suggested to me in the past that Law and Order (specifically on the USA Network) is a problem area for some providers so we are revisiting that here (view previous comparison).
We will start this comparison by looking at the detail in the actor's face.
The YouTube version is a little soft. Almost as if there is some sort of digital noise reduction or other filter being applied to the video.
The DirecTV version adds back a bit of detail but we get a bit of macroblocking in the actor's face. Very minimal though.
The Peacock version includes even more detail and does so with no visible compression artifacts.
Moving over to the left side of the screen we see some more significant differences. It is important to note that these are very low light areas and may not even be visible on your TV at all. My television has a properly calibrated black level and these artifacts are visible, but not so much that I would likely see them in casual viewing.
The YouTube and DirecTV versions both contain visible compression artifacts in this low light area.Interestingly enough, these artifacts are the same shape and in in the same exact spot!
Obviously I don't know for sure, but this might indicate that both providers are working with the same source material and as such any difference is the result of their video processing and encoding methods. A really good test if true.
YouTube's noise filter/smoothing seems to be combining smaller individual compression artifacts into big 8-bit looking blobs. Specifically about halfway down on the left side of the screen and also below and to the right of the USA logo.
In the DirecTV version these compression artifacts are more distinct and as a result less visible.
The Peacock version looks great. Very minimal artifacts if any at all. Small bonus in that there is no annoying USA bug on the screen at all times.
Overall, I think the picture quality isn't massively different here, but I can see how the low light macroblocks in the YouTube version may be absolutely impossible to ignore in some situations.
It had been suggested that some providers struggle with rendering film content so I took a sample from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which happened to be on the SYFY Channel during this comparison.
This really needs to be viewed close up on a large screen or zoomed in to see a difference.
Similar to the Law and Order video the YouTube TV version is a bit soft and it looks like there is a noise reduction/smoothing filter in use. This is most evident in the background on the left side of the screen, but you can also see it on the actress's face.
The DirecTV version has more detail, but has a very minor amount of blocking on the actress's face and in the background.
Overall they are so similar that I can't say that the difference is worth mentioning.
Note: I was going to compare with the Peacock version, but that version is presented in the correct aspect ratio (not cropped and zoomed to 16:9) and at the correct frame rate (not converted to 60fps) and is really in a different league. If you are looking to get the best out of film content, cable TV (streaming or otherwise) is not the place.
Local News Broadcast
To finish this up we are going to take a look at a frame from a local news broadcast (WPVI 6ABC Philadelphia). Doing so allows me to bring the over-the-air broadcast into the comparison along with Verizon Fios cable TV and the dedicated ABC application.
The YouTube TV version is a bit soft, but otherwise great with minimal compression artifacts.
The DirecTV version brings in a small amount of additional detail. Not much of a difference from YouTube TV.
The over-the-air (OTA) version brings in a significant amount of additional detail, but is unfortunately filled with compression artifacts. There are dancing macroblocks at the edges of all of the on-screen elements. This is really bad and I actually prefer the softer versions.
The Verizon Fios version appears to be the OTA version, but compressed further! It's terrible. The reporter's right hand is starting to dissapear, BTTF style.
The ABC app steals the show here. It has all of the detail of the OTA version, but without the compression artifacts. It's great. Unfortunately this stream is a full two minutes behind the OTA version so it's a bad choice for sports.
Video Comparison Conclusion
As I said at the beginning, results may vary so please test the providers on your own before jumping to any conclusions.
I will say though, that in my experience in this test and in daily use, the picture quality differences between streaming linear TV services are small. It's most certainly not a situation in which one is "total crap" compared to the others. But if one of them doesn't work well in your environment (to no fault of your own) or for the content you frequently watch that could absolutely change the results for you.
In my opinion, if you are really looking for the best picture quality don't watch pre-recorded content on linear TV at all. Take advantage of all of the great 4k content out there on streaming services and on Blu-ray discs instead.
Side Note: DirecTV Bitrate
I just wanted to take a moment here to address a common misconception that DirecTV Stream's good picture quality is due solely to them streaming at a very high bitrate. I've seem claims that they are streaming h265 at 20, 30, 40, even 50Mbps.
This is 100% false.
This is easily confirmed by measuring data transferred over time and calculating an average but I would like to share another data point as a confirmation.
This photograph is from a Law and Order episode on the USA network (as tested earlier). Since DirecTV Stream uses the native Apple video playback libraries we can use the Playback HUD in the Developer Tools to get accurate video codec and bitrate measurements. This is from an Apple TV 4K (2022).
As you can see, it's streaming h264 (qavc) video with an average bitrate of 4.6 Mbps with a peak bitrate of 8.35 Mbps. This is perfectly acceptable and exactly what one would expect from a good h264 video stream. However it's far off from the exaggerated numbers that have been thrown around.
It's about the same bitrate as the ABC stream referenced above, but the ABC stream looked better. ABC probably gave themselves a better source feed, but point being there is more to all of this than raw bitrate. The same can be said about the Peacock version of that Law and Order episode. Similar bitrate, better picture quality.
Thank you for reading.
Please check out my previous comparisons for more screenshots and observations.