With millions of subscribers worldwide, Netflix is the most popular online streaming service, although it has plenty of competition and more on the way. During peak hours, it's using up to 34 percent of America's internet capacity, if you can believe it.
One of the reasons people use Netflix is its simple premise. You pay a monthly fee and can watch hundreds of TV shows and movies whenever and wherever you want. While Netflix may seem simple on the surface, though, the reality is that Netflix is one of the more complex services on the internet.
Netflix not only has to stream massive amounts of HD video without slowdowns and stutters, it keeps track of every movie every user has watched or plans to watch. Then it makes dozens to hundreds of recommendations on new videos that it thinks you'll enjoy.
All that complex behind-the-scenes action means Netflix sometimes doesn't work as well as you'd hope. That's why you need to know some of the lesser-known Netflix tricks that will help you track down problems and make it work the way you want.
1. Streaming speed affects video quality
A side effect of Netflix's massive popularity is that it sometimes overwhelms internet providers' networks. Some providers have even gone so far as to throttle, or slow down, their subscribers' connection to Netflix.
If you're paying for a hyper-fast internet connection and getting lousy video quality, this might be the cause. The chart below is Netflix's ISP Speed Index ranking for every cable company. It shows the average streaming speed Netflix measures for each ISP.
Just for fun, I'm going to include a chart comparing ISP so you can see whether your provider is improving or getting worse over time. Honestly, I was surprised how much most providers have improved. They must be getting the message that their customers want to watch Netflix without slowdowns.
Image: ISP Leaderboard (Source: https://ispspeedindex.netflix.com/country/us/)
So how can you tell what speed you're getting?
Fire up Netflix and search for "Example Short 23.976" or click the link to watch on your computer. This video is an 11-minute series of random clips.
If you look in the corner of the video, though, it shows you the bit rate and video resolution. The bit rate is how fast the video is streaming and the resolution is the quality. The faster the bit rate, the better the quality you can get.
Netflix streams 1080p resolution at 3 Megabits per second (3,000 kilobits per second). Make a note of the highest numbers you see during the clip.
Check the bit rate against the chart above for your ISP. That will tell you if you're getting the streaming speed that Netflix thinks you are.
If your bit rate is much lower than the chart says, then it might be a problem with your internet. Run a speed test to see if you're getting the internet speed you're paying for.
If you aren't getting the speed you're paying for, call your provider and let them know. Once it gets your speed where it should be, Netflix streaming should improve.
If you are getting the speed you're paying for, and it's faster than the Netflix bit rate, call your provider and let them know there's a problem with Netflix streaming. You might find out that it's being throttled. In that case, you can complain.
2. Time of day affects video quality
Poor video quality and streaming speed might have another cause, though. Remember when I said at peak hours Netflix uses 34 percent of the U.S. internet? That's a lot of information moving around at once. Traffic jams are bound to happen, which slows things down.
To keep things flowing, Netflix and ISPs might both decide to drop the video quality, and thus the amount of bandwidth needed, a little.
So, you might still get HD video from 7 to 9 p.m. in your area, but you probably won't be getting full 1080p quality. If you are testing Netflix for quality using the methods above, be sure to do it throughout the day.
The time of day can also have an impact in your own house. If you have several people streaming Netflix video in the evenings, it might be overwhelming your internet connection.
To find out, go back to the instructions above and run the same example video, but do it on every gadget in your home that normally streams video at the same time. You can see exactly what happens to the average bit rate when two, three or more videos are streaming to your home at once.
Consistent quality is actually the one area where traditional TV has streaming beat. If you need the best possible quality from your streaming video at all times, then you might want to consider flipping to regular old TV during primetime hours.
I know, you switched to Netflix to avoid paying cable bills. Well, you don't need cable to watch high-definition TV. For less than a month of cable, you can buy an indoor HD antenna that will let you watch local network channels, which includes local news, sports and great shows. Click here to learn more about the benefits of an indoor HD antenna and the best one to buy.
3. Tweak your recommendations
If you're a longtime Netflix subscriber, you've probably noticed that Netflix's front page has undergone a variety of changes over the years. The movie recommendations you see when you hit Netflix's home page are actually the only case of digital tracking that I'm not against.
Did you also know that Netflix takes every rating you give a movie into account when it estimates the star rating you'll give a new movie? It's true. Netflix compares your taste to similar users who watched a movie and uses the information to estimate whether or not you'll like a film.
Of course, it isn't always what you'd hope. Maybe you, or someone using your account, decided to check out a movie in a genre you really don't care for. Suddenly, you're seeing more movies like it that you don't want.
Handy tip: If you have several people in the house using one Netflix account, be sure to set each person up with their own Netflix profile to avoid these kinds of conflicts. On the Netflix website, click Manage Profiles in the top-right corner to get started.
Netflix takes every movie you watch into account when developing your Taste Profile. This helps it recommend videos from a pool of 76,897 genres. Sound like a lot? Well, Netflix has genres like Quirky Sci-Fi Comedies and Dark Independent Police Dramas.
The way to change your recommendations is by rating what you watch. When you're first starting Netflix, you'll see a lot of surveys called Taste Preferences that ask you to rate movies, shows and genres you've watched recently.
Taste Preferences are important to fill out so Netflix can build your Taste Profile. After a while, you won't see as many of these, however.
If you want to revisit your preferences, go to the Netflix site and under Your Account load the Taste Preferences survey. Or click this link and log in.