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Why did last night’s ‘Game of Thrones’ look so bad? Here comes the science! – TechCrunch

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Last night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” was a wild ride and inarguably one of an epic show’s more epic moments — if you could see it through the dark and the blotchy video. It turns out even one of the most expensive and meticulously produced shows in history can fall prey to the scourge of low quality streaming and bad TV settings.

The good news is this episode is going to look amazing on Blu-ray or potentially in future, better streams and downloads. The bad news is that millions of people already had to see it in a way its creators surely lament. You deserve to know why this was the case. I’ll be simplifying a bit here because this topic is immensely complex, but here’s what you should know.

(By the way, I can’t entirely avoid spoilers, but I’ll try to stay away from anything significant in words or images.)

It was clear from the opening shots in last night’s episode, “The Longest Night,” that this was going to be a dark one. The army of the dead faces off against the allied living forces in the darkness, made darker by a bespoke storm brought in by, shall we say, a Mr. N.K., to further demoralize the good guys.

If you squint you can just make out the largest army ever assembled

Thematically and cinematographically, setting this chaotic, sprawling battle at night is a powerful creative choice and a valid one, and I don’t question the showrunners, director, and so on for it. But technically speaking, setting this battle at night, and in fog, is just about the absolute worst case scenario for the medium this show is native to: streaming home video. Here’s why.

Compression factor

Video has to be compressed in order to be sent efficiently over the internet, and although we’ve made enormous strides in video compression and the bandwidth available to most homes, there are still fundamental limits.

The master video that HBO put together from the actual footage, FX, and color work that goes into making a piece of modern media would be huge: hundreds of gigabytes if not terabytes. That’s because the master has to include all the information on every pixel in every frame, no exceptions.

Imagine if you tried to “stream” a terabyte-sized TV episode. You’d have to be able to download upwards of 200 megabytes per second for the full 80 minutes of this one. Few people in the world have that kind of connection — it would basically never stop buffering. Even 20 megabytes per second is asking too much by a long shot. 2 is doable — slightly under the 25 megabit speed (that’s bits… divide by 8 to get bytes) we use to define broadband download speeds.

So how do you turn a large file into a small one? Compression — we’ve been doing it for a long time, and video, though different from other types of data in some ways, is still just a bunch of zeroes and ones. In fact it’s especially susceptible to strong compression because of how one video frame is usually very similar to the last and the next one. There are all kinds of shortcuts you can take that reduce the file size immensely without noticeably impacting the quality of the video. These compression and decompression techniques fit into a system called a “codec.”

But there are exceptions to that, and one of them has to do with how compression handles color and brightness. Basically, when the image is very dark, it can’t display color very well.

The color of winter

Think about it like this: There are only so many ways to describe colors in a few words. If you have one word you can say red, or maybe ochre or vermilion depending on your interlocutor’s vocabulary. But if you have two words you can say dark red, darker red, reddish black, and so on. The codec has a limited vocabulary as well, though its “words” are the numbers of bits it can use to describe a pixel.

This lets it succinctly describe a huge array of colors with very little data by saying, this pixel has this bit value of color, this much brightness, and so on. (I didn’t originally want to get into this, but this is what people are talking about when they say bit depth, or even “highest quality pixels.”)

But this also means that there are only so many gradations of color and brightness it can show. Going from a very dark grey to a slightly lighter grey, it might be able to pick 5 intermediate shades. That’s perfectly fine if it’s just on the hem of a dress in the corner of the image. But what if the whole image is limited to that small selection of shades?

Then you get what we see last night. See how Jon (I think) is made up almost entirely of only a handful of different colors (brightnesses of a similar color, really) in with big obvious borders between them?

This issue is called “banding,” and it’s hard not to notice once you see how it works. Images on video can be incredibly detailed, but places where there are subtle changes in color — often a clear sky or some other large but mild gradient — will render in large stripes as the codec goes from “darkest dark blue” to “darker dark blue” to “dark blue,” with no “medium darker dark blue” in between.

Check out this image.

Above is a smooth gradient encoded with high color depth. Below that is the same gradient encoded with lossy JPEG encoding — different from what HBO used, obviously, but you get the idea.

Banding has plagued streaming video forever, and it’s hard to avoid even in major productions — it’s just a side effect of representing color digitally. It’s especially distracting because obviously our eyes don’t have that limitation. A high-definition screen may actually show more detail than your eyes can discern from couch distance, but color issues? Our visual systems flag them like crazy. You can minimize it in various ways, but it’s always going to be there, until the point when we have as many shades of grey as we have pixels on the screen.

So back to last night’s episode. Practically the entire show took place at night, which removes about 3/4 of the codec’s brightness-color combos right there. It also wasn’t a particularly colorful episode, a directorial or photographic choice that highlighted things like flames and blood, but further limited the ability to digitally represent what was on screen.

It wouldn’t be too bad if the background was black and people were lit well so they popped out, though. The last straw was the introduction of the cloud, fog, or blizzard, whatever you want to call it. This kept the brightness of the background just high enough that the codec had to represent it with one of its handful of dark greys, and the subtle movements of fog and smoke came out as blotchy messes (often called “compression artifacts” as well) as the compression desperately tried to pick what shade was best for a group of pixels.

Just brightening it doesn’t fix things, either — because the detail is already crushed into a narrow range of values, you just get a bandy image that never gets completely black, making it look washed out, as you see here:

(Anyway, the darkness is a stylistic choice. You may not agree with it, but that’s how it’s supposed to look and messing with it beyond making the darkest details visible could be counterproductive.)

Now, it should be said that compression doesn’t have to be this bad. For one thing, the more data it is allowed to use, the more gradations it can describe, and the less severe the banding. It’s also possible (though I’m not sure where it’s actually done) to repurpose the rest of the codec’s “vocabulary” to describe a scene where its other color options are limited. That way the full bandwidth can be used to describe a nearly monochromatic scene even though strictly speaking it should be only using a fraction of it.

But neither of these are likely an option for HBO: Increasing the bandwidth of the stream is costly, since this is being sent out to tens of millions of people — a bitrate increase big enough to change the quality would also massively swell their data costs. When you’re distributing to that many people, that also introduces the risk of hated buffering or errors in playback, which are obviously a big no-no. It’s even possible that HBO lowered the bitrate because of network limitations — “Game of Thrones” really is stretching the limits of digital distribution in some ways.

And using an exotic codec might not be possible because only commonly used commercial ones are really capable of being applied at scale. Kind of like how we try to use standard parts for cars and computers.

This episode almost certainly looked fantastic in the mastering room and FX studios, where they not only had carefully calibrated monitors with which to view it but also were working with brighter footage (it would be darkened to taste by the colorist later) and less or no compression. They might not even have seen the “final” version that fans “enjoyed.”

We’ll see the better copy eventually, but in the meantime the choice of darkness, fog, and furious action meant the episode was going to be a muddy, glitchy mess on home TVs.

And while we’re on the topic…

You mean my TV isn’t the problem?

Couple watching TV on their couch.

Well… to be honest, it might be that too. What I can tell you is that simply having a “better” TV by specs, such as 4K or a higher refresh rate or whatever, would make almost no difference in this case. Even built-in de-noising and de-banding algorithms would be hard pressed to make sense of “The Long Night.” And one of the best new display technologies, OLED, might even make it look worse! Its “true blacks” are much darker than an LCD’s backlit blacks, so the jump to the darkest grey could appear more jarring.

That said, it’s certainly possible that your TV is also set up poorly. Those of us sensitive to this kind of thing spend forever fiddling with settings and getting everything just right for exactly this kind of situation. There are dozens of us! And this is our hour.

Usually “calibration” is actually a pretty simple process of making sure your TV isn’t on the absolute worst settings, which unfortunately many are out of the box. Here’s a very basic three-point guide to “calibrating” your TV:

  1. Turn off anything with a special name in the “picture” or “video” menu, like “TrueMotion,” “Dynamic motion,” “Cinema mode,” any stuff like that. Most of these make things look worse, and so-called “smart” features are often anything but. Especially anything that “smooths” motion — turn those off first and never ever turn them on again. Note: Don’t mess with brightness, gamma, color space, pretty much anything with a number you can change.
  2. Figure out light and color by putting on a good, well-shot movie the way you normally do. While it’s playing, click through any color presets your TV has. These are often things like “natural,” “game,” “cinema,” “calibrated,” and so on, and take effect right away. Some may make the image look too green, or too dark, or whatever. Play around with it and whichever makes it look best, just use that one. You can always change it again later – I myself switch between a lighter and darker scheme depending on time of day and content.
  3. Don’t worry about HDR, dynamic lighting, and all that stuff for now. There’s a lot of hype about these technologies and they are still in their infancy. Few will work out of the box and the gains may or may not be worth it. The truth is a well shot movie from the ’60s or ’70s can look just as good today as a “high dynamic range” show shot on the latest 8K digital cinema rig. Just focus on making sure the image isn’t being actively interfered with by your TV and you’ll be fine.

Unfortunately none of these things will make “The Long Night” look any better until HBO releases a new version of it. Those ugly bands and artifacts are baked right in. But if you have to blame anyone, blame the streaming infrastructure that wasn’t prepared for a show taking risks in its presentation, risks I would characterize as bold and well executed, unlike the writing in the show lately. Oops, sorry, couldn’t help myself.

If you really want to experience this show the way it was intended, the fanciest TV in the world wouldn’t have helped last night, though when the Blu-ray comes out you’ll be in for a treat. But here’s hoping the next big battle takes place in broad daylight.



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The 6 Best Apple Black Friday Deals 2021

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Apple doesn’t typically like to associate itself with the madness of Black Friday, but if you know where to look, you can pick up some helpful discounts on many of the company’s hottest devices. This year, Apple itself is dipping a toe in the deal pool itself by offering Apple Gift Cards with select devices on its own online store. If you go that route, note that Apple says it’ll send the credit to your email address within 24 hours from the time your purchase ships or is available for pickup.

Below are the most worthwhile Apple deals we’re seeing as of this writing.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Our Black Friday Coverage

Apple's AirPods Pro.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Pro.

Apple AirPods Pro for $170 ($205) at Amazon

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Pro from Apple

We’ve recommended the AirPods Pro a number of times in past buying guides. While the noise-canceling earphones briefly fell as low as $159 earlier this week, this is still one of our favorite audio deals for Black Friday and roughly $20-30 off the Pro’s usual street price. Either way, the Pro’s noise cancelation and sound pass-through modes are effective at drowning out or letting in the ambiance of your surroundings, and their balanced sound is among the best in the segment.

If you prefer the open-back feel of the eartip-less AirPods, meanwhile, Apple is selling the second- and new third-gen models of those with a $25 digital gift card.

It’s also worth noting that the Studio Buds from Apple subsidiary Beats are on sale for a new low of $100, which is roughly $40 off their street price. This lightweight true wireless pairs shares many (but not all) of the same benefits you’d get from a pair of full-on AirPods, and they work more handily with Android devices, though their noise cancellation isn’t as strong. We gave them mostly positive marks in our review earlier this year.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

The Apple Watch SE is the best low-cost alternative to the Series 7.

Apple

Apple Watch SE for $219 ($279) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

or receive a $50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple Watch SE from Apple

The Apple Watch Series 7 tops our list as the best smartwatch you can buy, but the Apple Watch SE is the next best option. Neither of these is the best fitness tracker available, but they both offer more than 50 different activity-tracking modes, ranging from dancing to e-biking and everything in between. The real draw here is watchOS’s wide app compatibility, which brings most, if not all, popular smartwatch apps right to your wrist. Though it lacks the always-on display and more advanced health features (electrocardiogram (ECG) support, blood oxygen monitoring) of the Series 7, the Apple Watch SE’s GPS, optional LTE, and music storage still makes it a device you can confidently use to leave your phone at home.

This deal brings the best price we’ve seen for the SE outright, while Apple’s gift card deal brings effectively the same discount. Sadly, we’ve yet to see any major deals on the Series 7 as of this writing.

Apple

AirPods Max for $440 ($550) at Amazon

or receive a $75 Apple Gift Card with purchase of AirPods Max from Apple

This is the $10 off the lowest price we’ve clocked for the impressive Apple AirPods Max. They briefly fell as low as $429 earlier this week, but this is still a good $50 or so off their normal street price and more than $100 off their MSRP.

Either way, the Max’s best-in-class noise cancelation, full-bodied sound, swanky design, and intuitive controls make them a joy to use. Just note that, like all AirPods, they’re best used with an iPhone or MacBook. Their lack of a dedicated power button can sometimes be annoying as well. We gave a fuller breakdown of the AirPods Max in our best headphone deals roundup.

Samuel Axon

MacBook Air (2020) for $850 ($1000) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of MacBook or Mac Mini

We may get an updated model next year, but the 2020 MacBook Air is perennially lauded for its speedy M1 chip, fantastic battery life, light weight, and thin profile. This deal covers the entry-level configuration with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, so it’s not a workhorse, but it should be alright for more general usage, which is where the Air excels anyway.

Student discounts can often take $100 off, but this deal dips even further to net an extra $50 in your pocket. We’ve only seen this config drop lower a couple of times in the past. If Amazon and Best Buy run out of stock, Apple’s $100 Gift Card offer is nice, though only $20-30 lower than the notebook’s typical going rate on Amazon.

The Apple iPad Pro.
Enlarge / The Apple iPad Pro.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch 128 GB for $999 ($1100) at Amazon, Best Buy

or receive a $100 Apple Gift Card with purchase of iPad Pro 11-inch or 12.9-inch

The iPad Pro is billed as a laptop replacement by Apple, and although iPadOS’ limitations still make that claim a stretch, the Pro’s speed and storage capacities aren’t too far off from a MacBook. Discounts get $50 deeper for any storage over 256 GB (512 GB, 1 TB, 2 TB). Still, the iPad Pro is a luxurious tablet and great complementary devices for work, school, art, or leisure. Some Apple accessories, like Apple Pencils and iPad keyboard covers, are also being offered with up to $50 Apple Gift Cards.

The new Apple TV 4K.
Enlarge / The new Apple TV 4K.

Apple

$50 Apple Gift Card with purchase of Apple TV 4K ($180) or Apple TV HD ($150) from Apple

The Apple TV is far from the best value on the 4K streaming device market, but if money is no object, it supports almost every major streaming service, works with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR content, and has a relatively easy-to-navigate user interface that doesn’t stuff you with as many ads as cheaper streamers. A redesigned remote control has made things much easier, too. Most notably, if you’re in the Apple ecosystem, it’ll fit right in, as it’ll let you easily mirror content from your Mac, iPad, or iPhone to the TV.

The Apple TV is still expensive compared to the latest Google Chromecast—our favorite affordable streaming stick, which is currently on sale for $40—but if you know you’ll use Apple’s $50 gift card, this deal will effectively represent the best price we’ve tracked. Outright discounts on the newest streamer have been rare otherwise.


Our Black Friday Coverage

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9 Best Black Friday Headphones Deals 2021: Top ANC Picks from Sony, Bose & More

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Enlarge / A handful of the wireless noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested in recent months.

Jeff Dunn

Black Friday has started its attack run, which means it’s a good time to be in the market for a new pair of headphones. More specifically, a good set of noise-canceling headphones always seems to be in high demand during the gift-getting season. But if you’re not sure which to buy, let us help you grab a good deal.

I’ve reviewed many wireless noise-canceling pairs for Ars over the past few years, from in-ears to over-ears, and some of the better options I’ve used happen to be on sale during the Black Friday barrage. Below are a handful of these top discounted recommendations, including picks from Sony, Apple, Bose, and more.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Sony's WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Sony’s WH-1000XM4 noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

The Best for Most: Sony WH-1000XM4 for $248 ($330) at Amazon, Target, Best Buy

I’ve recommended them in multiple guides and deal posts since they launched last year, but to my ears, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are still the most well-rounded pair of wireless headphones for most people. This deal has been active for much of the past month, but it matches the lowest price we’ve tracked.

For noise cancelation (ANC), the XM4 do better than most pairs I’ve tested at blocking out lower- and mid-frequency noises like the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine, and they’re unusually effective at reducing higher-pitched sounds like nearby voices. The latter makes them particularly convenient for the office (or home offices with especially chatty housemates). Note that the ANC turns off whenever you take a call, though.

The headphones themselves are comfortable and well-padded, and they don’t clamp down too hard on larger heads (such as my own). They have a professional, if not particularly showy, aesthetic and a durable design that’s flexible and can fold up for easier storage. A useful carrying case comes in the box.

They have a few genuinely useful perks, too. An optional “speak-to-chat” mode in the app can automatically pause your music whenever you start speaking to someone, and a “quick attention” feature momentarily lets you hear ambient noise when you put your hand over an earcup, which can be useful for catching quick announcements. The ambient sound mode performs well, and the headphones can connect to two devices simultaneously.

They aren’t perfect: their sound profile out of the box goes a bit heavier on the bass than some might prefer (though Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool to customize this to be more neutral); their microphone quality is just OK for calls; and they don’t allow you to adjust the strength of their active noise cancelation (ANC)—a feature found on other high-end pairs like Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

I prefer physical control buttons to touch controls, but swiping and tapping on the XM4’s earcups to adjust volume, accept calls, and skip tracks is more reliable than not. Battery life is excellent at more than 30 hours per charge—the specific length will vary depending on how loud you play your music—and the headphones recharge over USB-C. It’s also possible to use them passively through an included cable, though you won’t be able to take calls in that mode.

Apple's AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.

Jeff Dunn

A Pricier Upgrade: Apple AirPods Max for $429 ($490) at Amazon

If money is no object, and you’re an iPhone user, the AirPods Max might be a better buy than the WH-1000XM4. They sound better than any other wireless headphones I’ve used to date, even without a customizable EQ tool. There’s a slight bass boost—a trait I personally enjoy—but the sound signature is exceptionally clear, accurate, and detailed. (To be clear, the audio quality of any wireless headphones still can’t match the best wired pairs.)

To my ears, the AirPods Max also do a better job canceling low- and mid-frequency noise than any other headphones I’ve worn. Voices and high-pitched sounds still come through a bit clearer than they would on the Sony XM4, but most everything else is markedly reduced. The ambient sound (or “transparency”) mode is superb as well, making outside noises sound crisp and relatively natural alongside your music.

The headphones have an attractive design and an aluminum finish that’s cool to the touch. They’re heavier, and thus a little less comfortable, than the Sony or Bose pairs in this roundup, but they feel premium. The multi-function “Digital Crown” dial, similar to what you’d see on an Apple Watch, makes controlling volume and playback a breeze. The included mics work well for phone calls, and battery life is decent at a little more than 20 hours per charge. Apple also offers a battery replacement service for $79.

There are a few strange design choices. Oddly, there’s no power button. Instead, you have to put the headphones into an included “case” to activate a low-power mode. I put “case” in scare quotes because it’s barely protective, acting more as an earcup cover than anything else. Apple doesn’t include a 3.5mm cable in the box, either, and even if you pay for an adapter, you won’t be able to listen to music if your battery dies. The Max also can’t connect to multiple devices at once, nor can they fold up. Like all AirPods, they’re best used with other Apple devices. They aren’t as convenient to pair with Android or Windows, and they lack certain settings controls on those platforms.

The AirPods Max are also really expensive, with an MSRP of $549. This Black Friday deal brings them down to the best price we’ve seen, but even then, they’re not cheap, which is why we think the XM4 are close enough in quality to be a much better value. But if you’re an iPhone user, and want the best audio quality and active noise cancelation possible, the AirPods Max should make for a swanky gift.

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Qualcomm exclusivity deal might be keeping Windows from running on other ARM chips

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Microsoft has created versions of Windows 10 and Windows 11 that run on ARM chips, but to date, the company has not been interested in selling Windows on ARM licenses to anyone other than PC builders. The ARM versions of Windows can run on things like the Raspberry Pi or in virtualization apps running on Apple Silicon Macs, but Microsoft doesn’t officially support doing it, and the company has never elaborated as to why.

One possible explanation comes from a report on XDA Developers, which claims that an exclusivity deal with Qualcomm keeps Microsoft from making the ARM versions of Windows more generally available. According to “people familiar with it,” that exclusivity deal is currently “holding back other chip vendors from competing in the space.” The Qualcomm deal is also said to be ending “soon,” though the report isn’t more specific about how soon “soon” is.

This allegation comes a few weeks after Rick Tsai, CEO of ARM chipmaker MediaTek, said on a company earnings call that MediaTek “certainly intend[s]” to run Windows on its chips. Qualcomm, MediaTek, Rockchip, and others are all shipping ARM chips for Chromebooks, in addition to the chips they all provide for Android devices.

Whether this Qualcomm deal exists or not, it is a fact that Microsoft announced the availability of Windows on ARM with Qualcomm’s cooperation back in 2016, and since the first modern ARM Windows systems shipped back in late 2017, they’ve been powered exclusively by Qualcomm chips. This includes the Surface Pro X’s Microsoft SQ1 and SQ2, which are Microsoft-branded but were “developed in partnership with Qualcomm.” An exclusivity deal could be mutually beneficial at first—Qualcomm gets all the design wins for Windows on ARM systems for a few years, and Microsoft gets another chance to build an ecosystem for an ARM version of Windows after a few false starts. But over time, it could also limit the variety of Windows-on-ARM systems or hold back performance through lack of competition.

If Microsoft allows Windows to run on other ARM processors, it could open the door to a virtualized version of Windows on Apple Silicon Macs. The performance penalty for running x86 apps in the ARM versions of Windows would be much less noticeable on Apple systems, because the M1-series chips so thoroughly outstrip the performance of anything Qualcomm has to offer right now.

And that’s what Windows on ARM needs to really succeed—hardware that can do for Windows PCs what the M1 chips have done for Macs. It was a smart bet for Microsoft to build a version of Windows that could run on ARM chips without giving up the app compatibility that keeps so many people tethered to Windows in the first place. But until we can get hardware that can match or beat Intel’s and AMD’s CPU performance while improving on their energy efficiency, the operating system will remain a technical curiosity. The end of this exclusivity deal with Qualcomm, assuming it exists, opens the door for more chipmakers to try to deliver that speed and efficiency.

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