Why Your Cable TV Resolution Looks Like Crap (and What You Can Do About It)

bourbiza19 April 2022Last Update : 8 months ago
bourbiza
Tech
Why Your Cable TV Resolution Looks Like Crap (and What You Can Do About It)


Image for article titled Why Your Cable TV Resolution Looks Like Shit (and What You Can Do About It)

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If you’re used to crispy, colorful content on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, watching something “live” on cable is likely going to be disappointing. The image probably won’t be as crisp, the colors might not pop like you’re used to, and, at times, the picture might legitimately start to fall apart. Live TV costs an arm and a leg, so why doesn’t the quality stack up?

Streaming services and cable TV are very different

Most streaming services offer content at up to 4K resolution, with some extending that to 4K HDR. That means you’re not only experiencing an image with a higher pixel resolution, you’re seeing a much higher contrast ratio between the bright and dark areas of that image. Streaming services have also made great achievements in video compression, meaning your movies and shows don’t need to be as degraded in order for your internet connection to handle the stream (more on that later).

For some reason, cable simply hasn’t kept up. You might think providers would want to entice cord-cutters back with upgraded technologies to justify the costs of cable, but as far as I can tell, things haven’t changed all that much in the visual department over the past few years.

Live TV has a maximum resolution of 1080p (or less, depending on the channel). That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the content you watch on streaming services is 1080p too, especially if your particular subscription doesn’t include 4K (Netflix’s bottom and mid-tier plans don’t). Even if you do have access to 4K content, not everything will be that crisp: Many third-party movies Netflix acquires, for example, are shown in 1080p.

And resolution, while important, is far from the only consideration when it comes to quality. An increase in pixels is always welcome, but if the quality of the image is good enough, a lower resolution can work. Bitrate—the amount of video data transmitting across a stream—is a much more important factor. While not a hard and fast rule, in general, the higher the bitrate, the better quality video you can achieve. However, the higher the bitrate, the more demanding the video is on the delivery service, which, in turn, makes delivering that video more expensive. That’s where compression comes into play: Compression, at its best, reduces video quality as subtly as possible, balancing the “size” of the video with its quality.

Streaming services tend to do a great job at this; many TV channels do not. It’s this poor bitrate balance that often leads to poor image quality, especially when compared to the modern standard.

How low bitrate and bad compression affect live TV

At first, you might not notice; in bright scenes, things appear passable. Once the lighting gets dim, however, things start to go south, fast. Bad compression rears its ugly head quickly with darker images. You’ll see color banding and artifacts on-screen; characters’ faces will turn to mush. In general, you may encounter a blocky, pixelated mess. A lot of streaming options were like this back in the day, but in 2022, many can handle dark scenes a lot better. Unfortunately, certain cable TV channels cannot.

I hate to slag on a favorite of mine, but AMC is one that suffers from horrible compression. Last night’s Better Call Saul premiere was fantastic from a storytelling perspective, but also a great reminder of why I do not pay for live TV. Going from watching season five on Netflix in high-quality 4K to season six‘s cable TV compression depression was eye-opening. (In this case I was watching via YouTube TV, not a traditional cable service, but apparently AMC is okay with this type of video-out, and a ton of YouTube content certainly looks way better.)

All this assumes your TV setup is optimized. Your cable box or live TV app should be set to full quality (1080p), there should be a solid connection between the hardware and your TV with a good HDMI cable (if not using a smart TV), and you should have a good connection with your internet if using a service like YouTube TV. If all that is true, and you’re experiencing poor video quality on one of your TV channels, it’s likely the channel’s fault.

What can you do to watch live TV in better quality?

While this type of video delivery shouldn’t be a thing in 2022, because it’s 2022, you have other options. Returning to Better Call Saul as an example, you can watch the first episode of the two-episode premiere on AMC’s website for free, and, wouldn’t you know, the compression there is pretty solid. It’s no 4K experience, but it’s much better than what I watched last night. To watch the second episode, you’d need to sign in with your cable login or subscribe to AMC+, which gives you on-demand access to Better Call Saul, as well as other AMC and AMC-licensed content.

However, you don’t have to subscribe to AMC+ if you already have Netflix. While the latter doesn’t get Better Call Saul on the platform for a year or more after a season aires, other regions get new episodes the next day. You can use a VPN to switch the region Netflix thinks it’s in to access those new episodes of Better Call Saul in Netflix quality.

While this article is starting to get Better Call Saul heavy (I’m a big fan, sorry!) the principle applies to other shows that air live on cable. If you’d rather watch new episodes in better quality than the channel offers, you’re better off waiting a day and going through one an alternate routes. Some channels offer higher-quality versions of their shows for free online, while others require you to sign up for their streaming service. Depending on the show, Hulu might have it the next day, and so might Netflix, if its in another region.

The point is, you have options. It’s just too bad you can’t more easily get the quality you’re paying (a lot) for.

    



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