A little over a year ago, my article Streaming Frustrations addressed some of the things streaming got right and many of the things streaming got wrong, a mix of both service and device related issues. While there have been some improvements, streaming is still a rather frustrating experience when it really shouldn’t be.
The big change from last year was the introduction of new streaming devices from the top three companies: Apple, Roku, and Amazon.
The updated model of the Apple TV 4K was geared more towards supporting the company’s Apple Arcade gaming service than video streaming, adding support for variable frame rates of up to 60fps (with the potential of 120 further down the road since the device has an HDMI 2.1 output port). The only other notable updates are the redesigned remote and Wi-Fi 6 support. From a current streaming service standpoint, there is little change in the overall video performance in this newer device versus the older model.
In late 2020, Roku introduced a new Ultra model, their first device to support Dolby Vision HDR. It was also their first device to stream both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos on Netflix, but with a list price of $99.99. A year later, Roku introduced a lower cost device that also supported both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K at nearly half the price of the Ultra. It, too, streams Netflix in both Dolby Vision and Atmos. If you recall, that was one of my main complaints with both Netflix and streaming devices from Amazon and Roku. Reportedly, nearly all of Roku’s new 2021 4K-capable models (even those that only support HDR10/HDR10+) are now capable of streaming Netflix in Dolby Atmos, provided you are subscribing to their 4K plan.
Speaking of Dolby Atmos on Netflix, Amazon’s latest streaming device released in October 2021, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, also has that capability, but at a price (and I’m not just referring to dollars). This new 4K Max stick which retails at a higher $54.99 price point, unfortunately, performs frame interpolation (or motion smoothing) by default with no option for the user to turn that “feature” off. There is absolutely no need for a streaming device to have that feature, as most displays have some form of motion smoothing capability built-in that the user can adjust or turn off completely, and forcing this on a customer with no option of disabling it is just plain wrong. This is, perhaps, the only streaming device I have ever advised to avoid at all costs.
Unfortunately, nearly all new streaming devices and even some TV models have HDR “upconversion” turned on by default, and this includes Apple, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV devices. This is becoming more and more common, and for no real reason whatsoever. Thankfully, these devices do have a way of disabling that “feature,” but they are often buried deep within the device’s setup menu.
Let’s take a look at some of the services that have either improved or have become worse since my last report.
The streaming giant continues to dominate in original programming, both in series, specials, and movies as most studios are allowing their licensing deals to expire so they can add their previously licensed content to their new streaming services (HBO Max, Disney+, Hulu, Paramount+, etc.). The big announcement last year was the deal struck with Sony Pictures, which will bring their 2022 and beyond theatrical releases to the premier streamer for a period of 13 months (give or take) before they head over to Disney+ and/or Hulu. This will include movies like Uncharted, Morbius, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part 1 to name a few. The other big recent news was yet another price increase, making Netflix the most expensive subscription streaming service at $19.99 per month for their premium 4K tier.
Formally known as CBS All Access, the service was rebranded to Paramount+ as part of the CBS-Viacom merger (now known as Paramount Global) last year. This is a service that appears to still need a lot of TLC from its parent company, particularly in the development of its app on many devices. Currently (as of March 23, 2022), direct premium subscribers using the Paramount+ app on their 4K HDR-capable Roku devices have been unable to stream HDR content on the service in anything better than 1080p SDR since early December of 2021 (possibly longer). Paramount+ customer service has been telling customers the issue was caused when Roku updated the operating system on their devices and displays running the Roku OS to v10.5. Roku has denied that their OS update caused the issue (directly) since Paramount+ appears to be the only streaming service where HDR playback was disabled on Roku TVs and devices. The two companies have been in a quiet finger-pointing war for months, up until rather recently when Roku posted in a thread for this issue on their own Community Support forum that an update (from who is unclear) was in the works to fix the issue sometime in the near future (whatever that means). Meanwhile customers have found a few workarounds – subscribe to Paramount+ thru Amazon Prime Channels or Apple TV, or simply install the Paramount+ app on a 4K HDR-capable Amazon Fire TV device (such as a FireStick 4K) or Apple TV 4K device. The former requires that a customer cancel the service and subscribe to the ad-free version on a month-to-month basis ($9.99/month with no annual upfront discount), while the latter does allow a customer to simply log in to their Paramount+ account. One other workaround is for iPhone owners, who can load the Paramount+ app on their iPhone and then use Airplay to cast the content to their 4K-capable Roku device or TV. The simple fact that this has been going on for months with no resolution is alarming, but there is some indication that this is very possibly an issue on the Paramount+ side and their need for a better app design team, since Roku’s v10.5 update had no effect on nearly every other streaming service that has 4K HDR content (including Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, etc.).
Paramount+ began offering content with Dolby Atmos audio last summer, beginning with the movie A Quiet Place Part II, with little to no fanfare and in the movie description stating that Dolby Atmos was available on select devices. There was no list of what those devices were at that time, not even on the service’s website, and customer service wasn’t even informed of this new format being offered. As it turned out, Dolby Atmos was only available on Apple TV 4K devices, and supposedly remains that way today. Except that the movie Rumble somehow is playing in Dolby Atmos (albeit in 1080p) on all of my 4K-capable Roku devices, and is the only title on Paramount+ that does so despite several other titles displaying the Dolby Atmos logo. I’m chalking that up as a fluke, that somehow that title was encoded with a Roku-compatible Dolby Digital+ track with Atmos metadata. Apparently also a fluke, the series premiere of the highly promoted Halo only streams in HD and stereo on Roku devices (and I assume Roku TVs as well), despite the fact that Fire TV devices stream the program in Dolby Vision and Dolby Digital+ 5.1, while Apple TV streams in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. The only good news to report regarding the Paramount+ service is that Fire TV devices now play most supported content in Dolby Digital+ 5.1 by default, and newer content from approximately four months ago to present also playback in Dolby Digital+ 5.1 by default on Roku devices (older content on Roku still requires a manual audio selection change).
The adopted sibling of Disney+ is still lagging behind in technology. While Hulu has apparently worked out the kinks it was having with enabling 5.1 audio on Apple TV devices, much of its newer original programming now displays the Dolby Atmos logo in the end credits, even though the service only streams in Dolby Digital+ 5.1. Why, then, are we seeing the Dolby Atmos logo in the end credits? In most territories outside of the US, Hulu Originals stream on either Disney+ or its mature-themed add-on service STAR or STAR+, which does support Dolby Atmos. Is Atmos coming to Hulu? According to the customer service agents I’ve spoken with, it is “being looked into” as a possible feature in the near future. Another head scratcher – Hulu supports Dolby Vision HDR on Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick 4K as well as Amazon FireStick 4K, but the service is currently having issues with Dolby Vision on Apple TV 4K and developers have been working on the issue, but at least content is still streaming in HDR10. The big news recently was the announcement that once the deal Fox had with HBO expires later this year, most new 20th Century Studios films will debut exclusively on the Hulu service. The bad news that I have noticed lately is that Hulu has begun adding commercial breaks to their movies for those with the lower-priced ad-supported service tier. Previously, movies on Hulu would have one commercial break of approximately 90 seconds prior to the start of the movie, and then the movie would play without further interruption. Recent movies like The King’s Man are now playing with at least three commercial interruptions.
Fandango’s acquisition of Vudu from Walmart is still a fairly touchy subject with many streamers, particularly after the shutdown of the FandangoNow service and forcing customers to merge their libraries with their Vudu account. It took months for most customers to get their full libraries back in the same resolution and audio that they had in their FandangoNow library. Some movies were only available in standard definition at Vudu despite being available in UHD or HD at FandangoNow, while some movies were simply not available at Vudu, leaving the customer to wonder if Vudu would be acquiring it at a later date or if they would be compensated for the missing title. Another issue was that FandangoNow may have had the movie with Dolby Digital+ 5.1 audio while Vudu only had the movie in stereo, or Vudu had a cropped 1.78:1 full screen edition while FandangoNow had the movie in its original aspect ratio. Many customers still have not seen their libraries fully restored (myself included) with no communication from Vudu as to when this will all be resolved, leaving a bad taste in many customers’ mouths.
Apple TV/Apple TV+
Nothing really new here for the Apple TV app on Roku and Fire TV devices. Dolby Atmos is still missing on Fire TV, and special features are still missing on both Roku and Fire TV. Also, the ability to purchase or rent or subscribe to content within the app has recently been disabled on Android TV.
After a price hike from $5.99 to $6.99 per month (with another increase rumored to be coming next year), the big news is that the service will no longer be exclusively Disney and 20th Century content, with Sony Pictures’ 2022 theatrical slate and beyond being added to the mix sometime in 2023 (with more mature content likely headed over to sister service Hulu). But perhaps the biggest news of late was the streamer’s decision to add more mature content to the service while adding more restrictive parental controls to the user profiles. The reasoning behind this was the studio’s desire to bring the mature Marvel series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, etc.) under the Marvel umbrella on Disney+, although most felt the content was better-suited for sister service Hulu. Could this mean we may see more R-rated Marvel content like Daredevil and Logan on the service? Stay tuned.
Warner Media has stepped up their game somewhat with their HBO-branded streaming service by adding 4K HDR (in both Dolby Vision and HDR10) and Dolby Atmos support on select titles. This debuted with the 30-day day and date theatrical release of Wonder Woman 1984 and continued thru the 2021 calendar year with titles like In the Heights, Dune, Godzilla vs Kong, and ending with The Matrix Resurrections this past December. They have also added other “classics” in 4K HDR and Atmos, such as the first three Matrix films and several other titles. Unfortunately, I am not all that impressed with the service’s video encodes, which often appear softer and contain compression artifacts than what you would find on Apple TV or Vudu.
Digital purchases, upgrades, and code redemptions
This is one area that seems to be getting worse rather than better. Perhaps the most frustrating is the inconsistency of how a movie is presented across various platforms. When you purchase or redeem a movie in 4K on your preferred streaming service, it should be in the best possible quality that service provides. However, that is not always the case. Looper was recently released on 4K Blu-ray with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio, but nearly every digital retailer offers the film in 4K SDR and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio at best. It’s not just catalog releases, though, as Universal’s News of the World is only available in HDR10 and Dolby Digital 5.1 across all platforms, despite being released in theatres and on disc with an excellent Dolby Atmos track. Those really are not cases for inconsistencies across digital platforms, though, and are more examples as to the benefits of physical media. My example from my previous article still stands – Lawrence of Arabia. This beautifully restored classic is still only available in Dolby Vision HDR and 5.1 audio on iTunes/Apple TV, HDR10 and 5.1 audio on Prime Video and Movies Anywhere, yet somehow Vudu has the film available with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is still not providing their movies to the Movies Anywhere app in anything better than HDR10 and Dolby Digital+ 5.1 audio, despite providing (in most instances) both Apple TV and Vudu those same titles in Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. The most frustrating parts of that is that Movies Anywhere does support both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos yet when you complain to Movies Anywhere customer support, the agents will tell you that they are at the mercy of what the studios provide and refer you to the studio. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s response regarding that issue is even more baffling and frustrating: We have forwarded your concern and unfortunately, as a studio we cannot control what versions of our titles digital platforms offer to their consumers. Our content gets sent over to the retailers and they choose what version of the movie that platform will carry. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Movies Anywhere just told me? Further evidence that this is not entirely true is when Vudu recently upgraded their HDX streaming version of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle to include a Dolby Digital+ 5.1 audio track, the video had been downgraded from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 to a cropped 1.78:1, with Vudu responding that they have since gone back to Sony to request a corrected version.
One issue I’ve seen occurring more often than before (but still somewhat rare) is a digital copy code redeeming at the wrong resolution, in other words redeeming as HD when it should have redeemed as UHD/4K. I highly recommend that if at all possible check your code prior to redeeming. With Movies Anywhere codes, it is easy to do by simply opening the Movies Anywhere code redemption page in a private or incognito browser (or simply log out of your account) and enter the code. The page will tell you what the redeemed resolution will be and whether or not the code has already been redeemed. I have had a few codes that came from UHD disc purchases show as HD (Jaws and Cruella come to mind), with many of them corrected within a few weeks after notifying both Movies Anywhere and the studio’s customer support. However, once the code is redeemed, in most situations you must then plead with the studio to get them to issue you a new and correct code, which is not a simple task (especially when the studio does not even bother to acknowledge your request). The other trend regarding codes for catalog titles has been where the studio has created a new listing for that movie that is now available in 4K, yet the codes are mapped to the previous HD version with 4K rights attached to the code. This causes the code to redeem as HD regardless, since the studio (in most cases Warner Bros.) has mapped that code to the now discontinued HD version. Recent examples of this include Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, and The Outsiders.
The most frustrating part of redeeming a code is when that code does not redeem correctly across all Movies Anywhere retail partners, especially when the retailer has the movie in UHD yet only provides you with HD. The biggest offender of this is Prime Video. I cannot tell you how many times I have redeemed a 4K/UHD code on Movies Anywhere, only to see it redeem as HD on Prime Video. Even more frustrating is that I have yet to figure out any kind of pattern as to why it occurs on some titles and not others. There is no specific studio and it can be a new release or new-to-4K catalog title. Contacting Prime Video customer service or tech support is a complete waste of time, as many of their agents have no idea what Movies Anywhere is or how it works, despite the fact that Prime Video has been a retail partner from the inception of Movies Anywhere (actually, Amazon goes back to the beginning of Disney Movies Anywhere). Escalating to Executive Customer Relations at Amazon will only get you a response several days later that it can take an extra few days for Movies Anywhere codes to be redeemed in the proper format and that customers need to be patient as the Prime Video team is still trying to fix the issue.
There are a few benefits to redeeming Movies Anywhere codes directly with Movies Anywhere rather than one of their retail partners. First of all, if there is an issue with a code not transferring to a partner retailer correctly, MA’s customer service will usually be much more helpful in trying to resolve on their end or at least work with the studio or retailer on your behalf (especially if they are getting a ton of responses from customers who are having the same issue). Secondly, if you redeem directly with a retail partner, and that retailer does not have the movie in the format/resolution the code provides rights for, you are stuck with whatever resolution the code redeemed as at that retailer. For example, let’s say you purchased a movie on 4K Blu-ray and redeemed the code on Vudu, but Vudu at the time of redemption only has the movie in HDX. That code will not only redeem as HDX on Vudu, but will then transmit back to Movies Anywhere that you redeemed that movie in HD, and then send HD to all other Movies Anywhere retail partners. However, if you redeemed on Movies Anywhere, and that code was in their system as having 4K rights, even if Movies Anywhere did not have that movie available for playback in 4K at that time, Movies Anywhere will transmit 4K rights to that film to all of their retail partners that you have connected to your account. As that movie becomes available in 4K at your connected retailers, it should upgrade to 4K shortly thereafter.
Consumer confusion over where to redeem a digital code is becoming more and more frustrating, too. I partially blame the studios (nearly all of them) for using in most cases a standard template for their code inserts where even non-Movies Anywhere code inserts look nearly identical at first glance to Movies Anywhere inserts. To add further confusion, both Universal and Warner have been distributing titles for non-Movies Anywhere studios, making the consumer read very carefully as to where they can redeem a code for movies from STX or MGM. Universal provides iTunes/Apple TV codes for their STX and MGM releases (the benefit being that they will either redeem or upgrade to 4K regardless if you purchased Blu-ray or UHD), while Warner only provides a code for their MGM releases to redeem on Vudu and thus only providing an HDX digital copy. To add insult to injury, many consumers get completely confused wanting to know why that Paramount or Lionsgate code they just redeemed on Vudu or iTunes is not in their Prime Video library. Unfortunately, there is still no word as to if or when those standout studios (Lionsgate, Paramount, STX, MGM) will join Movies Anywhere. The silver-lining to that is that now the Apple TV app as well as all of the other major streaming services (including Vudu and Prime Video) are available on nearly every major streaming platform such as Roku, Fire TV, Apple, Samsung, LG’s WebOS, and Android/Google TV.
Since my previous article, we have seen some improvements in both devices and services, yet there is still much more to improve upon, especially in the area of code redemptions. Streaming has become even more commonplace, but it is still all too easy to become overwhelmed with some of the more minute issues.
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Streaming Frustrations, Part 2