If you’ve ever attempted to watch Netflix or other paid video streaming services on certain devices, you may have noticed that even if your plan supports streaming videos in high definition, the video quality doesn’t go over 480p. This is not necessarily an issue with your Internet speed or a bug within the Netflix app. Instead, it could totally be the fault of your device itself.
This is because Netflix and other services such as Amazon Prime Video are protected by digital rights management, or DRM services, and on Android require the most secure level of Google’s Widevine DRM solution (Widevine Level 1) in order to deliver HD (720p+) video content to Android devices. Lack of support for Widevine L1 can, and will, result in HD video not being played properly on your Android device, regardless of how powerful your device is or what its screen resolution is.
Today, we’re going to take a look at what Widevine is and how can you check if your device lacks the Widevine L1 that is required for HD playback in Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
An Introduction to Widevine
Widevine is one of the oldest and most widely used DRM solutions available out there, and one of the most effective when it comes to protecting digital content. It is multiplatform and multiformat, and it’s available on nearly 4 billion devices around the globe, which include desktop PCs and devices, mobile devices running Android or iOS, televisions, Blu-Ray players, set-top boxes and gaming consoles. Widevine was developed by Widevine Technologies, a company which was founded all the way back in 1999, and acquired by Google for $160 million back in December 2010.
Netflix’s content, which spawns a plethora of TV series, movies, documentaries, and even original series like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Stranger Things, is protected with DRM and encryption measures in order to avoid piracy and recordings to be distributed freely by users. For this purpose, they use multiple DRM solutions, including Google’s Widevine DRM, since it’s the DRM measure of choice for a good part of their supported platforms. Widevine is also used by other paid streaming services, like Amazon Prime Video.
Different Levels, Different Security Tiers
While every Android device out there supports some form of Widevine, not every phone supports the same level. There are a few different levels: there’s Level 3, the rock bottom security tier used for protecting SD (480p and lower) video and standard quality media, and then we have Level 1, which is the one used for delivering high-quality media, like HD/FHD/QHD/4K video. Level 1 requires hardware-backed DRM measures to process protected content. In order for a device to display HD video from a Widevine-backed service, said device must support L1: L3 will only display SD video regardless of your subscription or device capabilities.
And this brings us to another point: not every flagship device out there supports L1, and are therefore not able to output HD video from Netflix. Some cases of flagship phones not supporting Widevine L1 despite having the hardware capability include any OnePlus phone and the ZTE Axon 7/M which are backed by Widevine L3 instead of L1. Other flagships like the Google Pixel 2 XL do feature full support for Widevine L1.
It’s unclear why OnePlus and ZTE opted for skipping the certification process for Widevine L1, especially since Google does not require any licensing fees to be certified. With certification out of the way, it is a software issue which can be easily solved after all, however. A OnePlus spokesperson has told The Verge that an update was soon going to be rolled out with Widevine L1 (and thus Netflix HD) support.
Getting HD Netflix to Work
You should be in the clear if you have a popular flagship like the Samsung Galaxy S8, the Galaxy Note8, the LG G6, the LG V30, and more. However, if your device, whatever the brand, is not outputting HD video on Netflix or other apps, you might as well go over to the Play Store and download DRM Info to check if Widevine is the culprit.
If DRM Info displays “L1” under the Security Level of Google Widevine DRM, then your device is capable of displaying HD video on Netflix and other apps. If it’s still not displaying HD video despite having full Widevine L1 support, then it could be a matter of Netflix having to whitelist your device on their end in order to enable full-resolution video playback.
Unfortunately that means manually patching the Netflix app to get it running. XDA Senior Member chenxiaolong has put together a guide to get HD Netflix working on these devices, and XDA Junior Member GuillaumeBarberousse made an Ubuntu script for automatically patching the Netflix APK.
If on the other hand, DRM Info displays “L3”, then you’re out of luck as your device does not currently support Widevine L1. The above tutorials won’t work for you either since they’re for devices which support Widevine L1 yet don’t have Netflix HD support for whatever reason. So, it’s a matter of reporting said issue to your OEM, who should see if something can be done about it. For OnePlus owners, a fix is on the way, at least sometime in the near future.
It’s not really clear why OEMs are not going through the certification process for Widevine L1 from the start. It could come down to them not having the time to certify their devices for Widevine L1, or simply not wanting to. Almost every 2017 flagship device is hardware-capable of supporting Widevine L1, and so we hope the adoption of it becomes increasingly more common with next year’s phones.
Rojenx is a leading concept artist who work appears in games and publications
Check out his personal gallery here