NVIDIA GPUs will soon be able to decode Netflix 4K streams, but there’s a catch

For those of you with the right hardware and a proper fibre internet connection, you’ve been able to stream media content at 4K for a while. Youtube and Amazon Prime have been able to stream 4K content to most consumer’s HTPCs for the past year, while Netflix has only begun to spin things up for customers using HTPCs and their personal computers. In the past year, Netflix has partnered up with Intel to allow decoding 4K HEVC video on the built-in GPU, and it’s also managed to get 4K video working on a few set-top box devices and consoles like the Xbox One S. Up to now, streaming 4K content on Netflix required some very specific things to be in place first, and it wasn’t very stable to begin with.

Today, NVIDIA’s graphics cards from the Pascal family join the pool of capable hardware, but there are several caveats to the whole arrangement that I wonder if most people will take the time to set this all up in the first place. Spoiler alert – there’s a lot of DRM involved here!

In a blog post detailing the situation regarding Netflix 4K streaming, NVIDIA listed the hardware and software requirements needed to get this to work. There are many hoops to jump through on this one, and the only time that we’ll see this becoming a simple process will only start with the next update to Windows 10 coming this year, codenamed “Redstone 3”. By that time, the drivers and software ecosystem will be more mature, and it’ll be simpler to set up software-wise. When it comes to hardware, it’s getting a little simpler with this update, but it’s still rather expensive all told.

To refresh your memory on how this all works, I urge everyone to skim through an old column I wrote titled “When is DRM not DRM? When it’s Cinavia“. To allow streaming of protected media to work, you need an approved player, and approved display with the correct scaler, an approved connection medium to hook everything up, and the right software to play back and decode the media. If you have one of these missing, then nothing works and you’re stuck with, at best, 720p playback. It’s not ideal, and it’s what the industry has been plagued with for more than two decades. As usual, there’s a relevant XKCD comic about this.

So, what do you need to make 4K Netflix work on your PC or HTPC when you have a brand new NVIDIA GeForce 1000 series graphics card?

  • Windows 10 version 1703 or later
  • A Microsoft account signed up to the Windows Insider Program
  • NVIDIA GeForce driver version 381.74, distributed exclusively and solely through the Windows Insider Program
  • A GeForce GTX 1050 3GB or better
  • One or more HCDP 2.2 compatible displays connected through HDMI 2.0 or Displayport 1.2a
  • Microsoft Edge browser or the Windows Store Netflix app
  • A network connection capable of 25Mbps speeds (so, 40Mb VDSL or 25 Mb fibre)

Mix all these things into your PC, recite the witch’s poem from Macbeth, and you’ll have a PC that can stream Netflix movies and series in 4K, supposedly. This is possible because NVIDIA has included the DRM components for Microsoft’s PlayReady 3.0 DRM in their driver, as well as hardware logic that needs to be implemented on the GPU itself, currently present in the Pascal family.

PlayReady has been in Windows since 2008 as a feature for Silverlight video playback, but in the past it was mostly software-based, with hardware-level decryption support coming into play in the last decade. If you cast your mind back to 2007, Netflix’s service was originally based on Silverlight, so their relationship with Microsoft is a decade old at this point. SL2000 was the previous version of PlayReady supported in Windows 8.1 and Windows 7, and to enable 1080p Netflix playback users had to use Internet Explorer 11. In Windows 10, PlayReady 3.0 allowed 1080p playback on Internet Explorer 11, the Edge browser, as well as the Netflix app, and you only needed a HDCP 1.4 compliant display for things to work.

This made 1080p content far more accessible to a wide audience, but it did have drawbacks. Older displays which did not support HDCP, or displays that used VGA connections, were limited to 720p no matter what, and browsers that did not implement support for PlayReady 3.0 were likewise limited to 720p. That restriction currently applies to Chrome, Firefox, Opera Next, and Vivaldi.

A few months ago, Intel announced that it was partnering up with Microsoft and Netflix to allow 4K playback on all devices with Kaby Lake processors with integrated graphics, but not only was it extremely limited in terms of hardware reach at the time, Kaby Lake also has several issues hardware-wise when setting this up. Some motherboards had HDMI 2.o ports on the rear I/O, but because Kaby Lake’s integrated GPU does not have a HDMI 2.0 port, the HDMI solutions some board vendors came up with were not HDCP 2.2 compliant (and this applied to laptops as well). Even with the hardware gods of the PC Master Race smiling down on you, the software support and the drivers were still finicky and prone to handshake failures, and it wasn’t perfect.

Things are looking up for the HTPC market finally with this development, but there’s still more hoops to jump through.

If you use two monitors on your PC, or have your 4K display in the lounge connected up using a long cable, you need to check what level of HDCP support your displays have. Most 4K monitors out on the market have HDCP 2.2 support, as will any display that features HDR support, or has a HDMI 2.0 port, so that’s not a problem. However, if you leave your older displays enabled while playing 4K Netflix content, you’ll be limited to a 1080p stream only. If you disable those displays (right-click on the desktop > Display settings > make your selection under “Multiple displays” to only use your HDCP 2.2 compliant monitor), then you’ll be back at a full 4K stream. If you somehow go crazy and decide to update all your monitors to support HDCP 2.2, you’ll be in the clear with all of them active.

This additional hassle will probably result in hijinks ensuing for notebook manufacturers. Typically, the display scaler in notebooks is replaced by the GPU which does all the scaling itself, and in most cases this is done through Intel’s integrated graphics chip. However, some displays are not HDCP 2.2 compliant, so even if you have a UHD 4K capable panel, you might still not be able to watch a 4K Netflix stream. Better yet, if you have HDMI ports on the notebook that are compatible with the HDMI 2.0 standard, but are only HDCP 1.4 compliant, it won’t matter which display you hook up to it – you’ll be stuck with a 1080p stream.

In the blog post, NVIDIA also explains that systems with graphics cards in SLI will also not be able to play back 4K content even if everything else is set up properly. Users will need to disable SLI in order for this to work. Oh, and you also need the top-tier Netflix subscription, which enables 4K playback and four simultaneous streams for $11.99 (approx. R160) per month.

Honestly, with all of the extra risk users have to take with using beta software and drivers that are in an alpha state, maybe it’s a better idea to just buy an Xbox One S and be done with it? They’re only R5,000 a pop.

Source: NVIDIA Customer Help forum