youtube vimeo

Youtube does a good job of automatically changing the resolution based on the current viewing size:

  • Initial - 360p
  • Expand - 480p
  • Fullscreen - 720p or 1080p depending on your monitor size

If Youtube already does a good job of automatically choosing the resolution, why does it give the users controls for changing the resolution independent of the actual viewing size? Vimeo, and many other video sites, also have resolution controls. What are the use cases for a user explicitly choosing a resolution?

  • Downscaling - Why would a user choose 720p when the video area is only 360p? A 720p video downscaled to 360p would look nearly the same as a 360p video. Downscaling is just a waste of bandwidth, both on the user's side and the video server's side.
  • Poor download speed - Why allow the user to choose a resolution which his Internet connection cannot sustain? If I'm in some public coffee shop sharing an Internet service with a dozen other people and I try to watch a 1080p film, it's going to freeze and buffer every 5 seconds. The software should automatically dial the resolution for me based on connection speed. Why should I be concerned about technical stuff like bitrate, resolution, and buffering?

When designing a video site, shouldn't we remove these resolution controls to simplify the interface? This is assuming we have the progamming logic to correctly choose the resolution for the user.

  • 1
    Poor download speed: clients could remedy that by larger buffers. That's something the server can't detect. Depending on the context I may opt for waiting longer for a better quality - especially with shorter clips.
    – Inca
    Sep 4, 2011 at 19:29
  • No time for a real answer, but check out Youtube's new layout, I think they handle it pretty much perfectly: youtube.com/cosmicpanda
    – Phil
    Sep 5, 2011 at 12:13
  • Speaking as an occasional user of Youtube. It can't reliably detect my connection speed, it certainly can't tell what other members of my family may be about to do. I detest compression noise in video. Regardless of the size of the video window I will up the resolution if I notice any compression artifacts. (Generally my connection is fast enough to handle 1080p) If I just want to watch the clip quickly then I sometimes reduce the resolution and put up with the poor quality. I think the question is why remove the controls? Users that don't understand just ignore the button anyway.
    – pipTheGeek
    Sep 5, 2011 at 12:14
  • I can definitely tell a difference between 720p scaled and 360p original size (or whatever). If nothing else, the audio quality is different. I frequently "watch" YouTube videos in a background tab only for the audio.
    – quietmint
    Aug 2, 2013 at 22:57

4 Answers 4


I am happy with the Youtube solution. Internet in Australia/NZ for example is much slower than in USA, Europe or Asia, and quite often you don't have a internet flatrate, but either pay per MB or get a Quota of x GB/month before they throttle you to dialup speed - so i usually choose the 240 resolution, even if my bandwidth would allow me 360 without (much...) buffering.

I always hate it if some software tries to outsmart me because it thinks it knows what's best for me and wont allow me manual adjustments.


We have very big gap between user with 512Kb/s and 50Mb/s download speed. Interface should be different for them. Auto switch resolutions for user with high download speed. Ask user with medium download speed before changing. And do nothing for user with low speed.

Why would a user choose 720p when the video area is only 360p?

Because sometimes he wants to watch video later on fullscreen and he doesn't have enough download speed to watch it without delays. Also, clicking on YouTube fullscreen button stops video and starts loading new resolution, which sometimes connection of users can't handle or buffering time is too long.

All these 360p, 720p... are sometimes too hard to understand by end user and should be replaced by something like "HD". Vimeo is a good example here.

I've added an example for user with medium download speed (of course this window can be optimized).

enter image description here

  • "Super HD"? 720p is subHD ;) Anyway, I think Youtube will have tested the effectiveness of labels like 720p and clearly found them to achieve the right goals if they've had it labeled that way for so long.
    – Rahul
    Sep 5, 2011 at 11:04

It's the eternal trade-off between providing so little control that it frustrates the advanced users (Apple), or so much control that inexperienced users can easily ruin their own experience (Linux).

Also, you always have the edge cases - e.g. where someone is on a low bandwidth but it's important for them to see the video in HD and they don't mind waiting a bit until it buffers. Also, connection speed changes all the time, based on whether I have other concurrent downloads. So for the same user, on the same computer, watching the same video, you're going to offer 360p one minute, and 720p the next (once the other downloads finished)?

I hope that the real explanation is just based on research. They can easily track how many people really use these functions, and what their connection speeds are. They might see in the data that people play around with them even when the bandwidth doesn't require it.

There's also the marketing angle. If your competitors offer a specific functionality, you might want to boast having it too, even if it's not really required or makes the interface more cumbersome. Only a small percentage of people will be aware of the technical downsides, but everyone will see that Vimeo supports multiple resolutions, and Youtube doesn't.

  • While your point is valid Apple and Linux tend to be poor examples as both are infinitely simple and infinitely complex depending on where one is looking and how they're setting up the UI. Perhaps a better example would be deciding where that default line between 'few options' and 'many options' lies. +1 for the edge cases as well.
    – DA01
    Sep 5, 2011 at 17:51
  1. Almost certainly displaying the resolution is a functional requirement. (Because users will say that they want to know what quality they are seeing.) Display without control would frustrate power users, who are most likely to publicly complain. Thus, the designers are forced to add control to the display, thus leading to the present situation.

    The "apple solution" would be to neither display nor allow control of the resolution, and provide a buried command-line override for those who must have it :-)

  2. Higher resolution requires higher bandwidth = substantially more cost to the provider. This one of the main operations costs on internet video. Thus, it is logical to provide a lower bandwidth feed to a user who wants or is satisfied by that.

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