What’s up with the quality of YouTube TV videos?

By Microsoft 9 Min Read
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Looking for a unique way to drive you crazy? Try to find a clear correlation between the average bit rate of a TV streaming service and its perceived video quality.

It’s not a fun exercise, but it’s one that a paintings of YouTube TV subscribers engaged in&sref=https://www.techhive.com/feed&xcust=3-1-1528723-1-0-0) for months now. Some users insist that the live TV streaming service is changing its users on video quality, producing reams of evidence in the form of detailed bit rate statistics AND close comparison shots with other services. In response, YouTube engineers promised to do so improve video quality in the coming year (e could already do it).

I bet most users won’t notice the difference, but here’s the rub: video streaming services are always trying to reduce data delivery costs without users noticing, and advances in video compression will make it even easier bit rate reductions. get away with it. This means that obsessing over bit rates might not be all that productive in the long run.

YouTube TV bit rate under investigation

Full disclosure: I may be too late to the party here, as some users have reported seeing a increase in YouTube TV bit rates this week (although some argue that the problems persist). However, I wanted to measure them myself and compare them to other live TV streaming services.

For testing purposes, I connected the Amazon Fire TV Cube to my Eero router, then used Eero’s Live Activity View to measure the device’s data usage with YouTube TV, DirecTV Stream, and Hulu + Live TV. With all three services, I did the same recording of a college basketball game on ESPN, as bit rates can vary based on what’s happening on screen. The results:

Youtube TV: 5.9Mbps on average
DirecTV stream: 5.5Mbps on average
Hulu + Live TV: 5.3Mbps on average

This is a great result for YouTube TV, but it also made me wonder if metering video from the DVR might be problematic. It’s possible, for example, that a service could buffer a large amount of video ahead of time before settling into a lower level of data usage.

So I ran another test, this time on a live ESPN baseball broadcast. While each service streamed different segments of the game, in all cases the on-screen action was similar. The results:

YoutubeTV: 4.8Mbps on average
DirecTV stream: 5.2Mbps on average
Hulu + Live TV: 5.9Mbps on average

Here, YouTube TV appears to be a step backwards, but the evidence is inconclusive. So, for my next test, I went with on-demand flow Slender manwhich a Reddit user named as looking worse on YouTube TV during dark scenes even after this week’s supposed bit rate improvements. The results:

YoutubeTV: 2.7Mbps
Hulu + Live TV: 2.3Mbps
DirecTV stream: 5.9Mbps

The real surprise here is how the bit rate of DirecTV Stream is more than double that of Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV. But does that translate into a better looking video?

To find out, I conducted another test using a completely different methodology: my eyeballs. The results:

YoutubeTV: It looked fine.
DirecTV stream: It looked fine.
Hulu + Live TV: It looked fine.

I’ll admit I’m no videophile, but it was hard to distinguish any difference between each service, whether with ESPN’s live sports or on-demand video. I’ve even used a USB capture card to capture still frames Slender man across all three services and I can’t see any major distinctions between them. See for yourself (for a larger view, open each image in a new tab):

origin 1A frame from Slender Man on YouTube TV.

Jared Newman / Foundry

origin 1A snapshot of Slender Man on Hulu + Live TV.

Jared Newman / Foundry

origin 1An image of Slender Man on DirecTV Stream.

Jared Newman / Foundry

Sure, I could see video compression results with all three services. It’s especially noticeable when text fades in or out on a solid background in live sports, resulting in a sort of ripple effect around the text where there should be only a single color. However, YouTube TV looked no worse in this regard than its competitors.

Because bit rates may not matter

I don’t want to underestimate people’s experiences with YouTube TV. It’s possible that YouTube has quietly rolled out some video quality improvements (the company ignored my requests for comment), or that other streaming devices may provide a different experience.

But if there’s one benefit to all of this, it’s not to get too carried away with bit rate as a measure of quality.

Dan Rayburn, an industry analyst and streaming video technology expert, pointed out that many variables go into streaming and that new compression algorithms and video coding tricks can improve quality by reducing the bit rate. Netflix, for example, has bragged about optimization of individual titles based on what happens on screen, and a few years ago, he said he could halve the bit rate maintaining the same level of quality.

“Here’s the thing,” Rayburn said, “1080p streaming today is already better quality than it was three or five years ago, yet we’re delivering fewer bits. Why? Because compression algorithms keep getting better.”

origin 1The effects of compression are real, you see artifacts around text, but no streaming service is immune to them.

Jared Newman / Foundry

If anything, Rayburn believes bit rates will drop further as they go streaming services try to cut costs. While Disney currently streams at some of the highest bit rates in the industry, for example, it expects the company to streamline its encoding this year to reduce video delivery and storage costs. Meanwhile, an emerging video codec called AV1 it’s about further reducing bit rates, rather than strictly improving video quality. For streaming services, the savings could be tens of millions of dollars a year, according to Rayburn.

“In this macroeconomic environment we’re in,” said Rayburn, “cutting budgets and doing more with less, tens of millions of dollars is a large number, even for a large company.”

However, there’s a wrinkle to consider: Last week Google got started test a “1080p Premium” setting. for its regular YouTube website, unlocking the higher bit rates YouTube usually reserves for 4K content.

It’s unclear what Google intends to do with this option. Rayburn suspects it may just be a test of YouTube’s infrastructure, but one could also imagine high bitrate streams as yet another bump for the cutters. Just as some music streaming services charge a premium for high-resolution audio, video streaming providers may be selling higher bit rates to those who can hear the difference (or claim to, at least).

But Rayburn has his doubts. Even with 4K video, few customers are willing to pay more for it. Last year, a major streaming provider he told him that only two percent of watch time on their platform was in 4K, and that content delivery networks saw almost no increase in 4K streaming year-over-year. Regardless of what streamers do, higher video quality will have limited appeal.

Perhaps that’s bad news for videophiles who swear they’ve been duped by YouTube TV. But for everyone else, ignorance is bliss.

Subscribe to Jared’s Cord Cutter Weekly Bulletin for more tips and insights into streaming TV.

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