YouTube says it isn’t messing with 1080p — ‘1080p Premium’ is higher-bitrate

YouTube has confirmed that it’s experimenting with a higher-quality 1080p option for Premium subscribers after some Reddit users noticed a new “1080p Premium” option in the quality settings menu. The option is currently available to “a small group of YouTube Premium subscribers,” according to Paul Pennington, a spokesperson for the company.

“1080p Premium is an enhanced bitrate version of 1080p which provides more information per pixel that results in a higher quality viewing experience,” said Pennington, adding that “there are no changes to the existing quality offerings for 1080p (HD) resolution on YouTube.” There have been concerns that YouTube is nerfing the standard 1080p mode to make the Premium version more appealing, but the statement implies that the company hasn’t made any changes.

While 1080p describes a video’s resolution, or the number of pixels that make up the image, there are more factors that go into overall video quality. Bitrate and color depth are also important factors and can even lend to good 1080p video looking better than bad 4K footage. Bitrate is often used to describe how much data is used to transfer each second of video.

For example, a 1080p Blu-ray can give you a maximum of 40 Mbps, which provides a pretty crisp image. Meanwhile, YouTube’s standard 1080p bitrate hovers between 8 and 10 Mbps and can be noticeably blockier than Blu-rays or the original exports. It also depends on what codec the video is compressed with, as some are more efficient than others and can produce better results with less data, often with costs elsewhere — it can be pretty complicated. (Also, bitrate isn’t entirely separate from resolution; how many pixels are in a video will play some factor in how much data you need to transmit it in an acceptable quality. If you want to go deep into the concept, here’s a pretty good explainer.)

However, it’s generally accurate to say that video encoded with the same codec but at a higher bitrate will look better. That seems to be what YouTube’s doing — one Reddit user with access to the feature posted a screenshot of the company’s “Stats for Nerds” tool, which shows that the Premium 1080p option ran at around 13 Mbps versus 8 Mbps in the standard mode for the same video. However, it’s worth noting that YouTube usually uses variable bitrate encoding, meaning that the amount of data it uses will fluctuate a bit depending on what’s shown on screen.

The premium version could boost bitrate by around 50 percent

The company didn’t immediately respond to The Verge’s request for comment on what the average premium bitrate would be.

The reason YouTube doesn’t just show you the original video file at its maximum bitrate is that doing so would be expensive, both for them and potentially for you, depending on your speed and data cap. The lower a video’s bitrate, and thus the lower its quality, the less bandwidth it takes up in the journey from YouTube’s servers to your screen. The 1080p Premium test indicates that YouTube could be willing to let people access more quality as long as they pay for the service.

This isn’t the first time YouTube has experimented with putting higher-quality video behind the Premium paywall. Last year, the company ran a test that made it so some people weren’t able to access 4K playback unless they were subscribers, a move that garnered a lot of pushback from the community. However, a lot of that came down to the fact that people were losing something they previously had access to for free. If YouTube truly is keeping the quality for the regular 1080p option the same, then the experiment is just adding a perk for paying customers.

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