When it comes to streaming video on mobile devices, one speed does not fit all. Users who don't have data caps want to stream at the highest available speed, for example, and others who need to be careful not to blow through their monthly data allotments may want slower speeds.
Until yesterday, Netflix's mobile users were limited to a slow streaming speed that conserved data but also delivered relatively poor video quality. Today Netflix subscribers can choose the stream rates that suit them best. "Our goal is to give you more control and greater choice in managing your data usage whether you're on an unlimited mobile plan or one that's more restrictive," wrote Eddy Wu, Netflix's director of product innovation, in a blog post.
Freedom to stream higher quality Netflix content
Netflix's default stream setting won't change, and it lets users stream about three hours of video per 1GB of data, according to Wu. However, users can now change a setting in the Netflix mobile app and choose a higher stream speed that delivers higher-quality video — and also consumes more data. (To change the stream-speed setting, you must first update the Netflix app, and then go to App Settings > Cellular Data Usage. Next, you should disable the default setting and choose the stream quality that works best for you and your data plan. Choose carefully, though, because some of the options will eat up your data allotment quickly, if you have one.)
The ability to change stream speeds isn't unique; Amazon lets its users adjust stream rates, Hulu does not. You can, of course, stream video via a Wi-Fi network, which doesn't use any cellular data.
One reason Netflix modified its app was to satisfy industry critics. In March, the company admitted it had been throttling video streams for years without informing consumers. Netflix said it slowed video streams to keep its customers from using too much data, but some critics thought the company's actions represented a Net Neutrality violation. By giving consumers a choice, Netflix likely hopes to end the intra-industry dispute and remain off the radar of the FCC.
Netflix stream-speed setting a step in right direction, but ...
The updated Netflix app does not change one particularly more annoying gap in the company's service: You still can't download video to watch later. Aside from the convenience factor, such a feature would let users download content via Wi-Fi at home and then watch it anywhere with no affect on their monthly data plans. Netflix said in the past that it may add that feature at some point, but it hasn't so far.
If you own a Samsung device and want to stream Netflix, you might be out of luck, at least for the time being; a Netflix help page reads: "We are currently experiencing issues streaming on some Samsung devices." I asked a Netflix spokeswoman about which specific Samsung devices are affected and requested additional clarification. However, she didn't provide answers and twice directed me to Samsung. (If I dig up any more details, I'll update this post accordingly.)