Netflix Dropping Its “One-Size-Fits-All” Streaming Algorithm

The shows you watch and the shows your five-year-old niece watch probably differ: she might prefer short 30-minute animated cartoons about an exploring adolescent, and you might go for something with more action or political backstabbing. While you both deserve to have a high quality product streaming on your screen, Netflix announced today that it might have found a better way to make sure that still happens, while using less data. 

Variety reports that after four years of tests and algorithm tweaks, Netflix is on the verge of making a significant change to the way it streams shows by allocating different bit resolution for different programs, thereby alleviating Internet congestion and reducing the amount of data used by viewers up to 20%.

Under its current process, Netflix prepares its video files for streaming based on the bandwidth available to consumers: DSL connections, cable connections and fiber speeds. For each of these scenarios, the company created “recipes” for video encoding that made multiple versions of video files depending on available bandwidth.

The problem with this is that shows like rather uncomplicated My Little Pony would receive the same bit usage as an action-packed movie like the Avengers, essentially wasting data, Variety reports.

Netflix is currently responsible for about 37% of all Internet traffic going to people’s homes, Variety reports, and much of that data was the result of the company’s coding system.

Anne Aaron, Netflix video algorithms manager, tells Variety that the company realized the “one-size-fits-all” model wasn’t allowing customers to obtain the most optimal quality.

That realization came in 2011, propelling the company to undertake the task of creating a unique set of coding rules for each title as a way to not only save bandwidth, but better the overall quality of the streaming video.

Under the new system, Variety reports, a simple cartoon like My Little Pony could be streamed in a 1080p resolution with a bit rate of 1.5 Mbps, allowing someone with a slow connection to watch the show in full HD while still saving data.

Variety tested the new algorithm recently by streaming two episodes of Orange is the New Black in 1080p on two TVs mounted side-by-side.

While the images on the TV looked the same, one was streamed with 5800 kbps, using the older encoding system, and the other displayed the shop with 4640 kpbs. In the end, the show streamed on the new system used 20% less bandwidth than the old encoding process.

Netflix has already started testing the new encoding system with customers, pushing out some popular videos with re-encoded titles and monitoring their bandwidth usage and streaming duration.

The company aims to have a thousand re-encoded titled in its catalog by the holidays and the entire process completed by the end of 2016, Variety reports.

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Inside Netflix’s Plan to Boost Streaming Quality and Unclog the Internet [Variety]