Some Pixel phones can't play HD Netflix due to Widevine DRM bug

The latest update for Pixel phones has landed quite a few treats for owners but even more so for the latest models. According to the changelog and user reports, the Pixel 5 and the Pixel 4a 5G, both of which share the same Snapdragon 765G chipset, have received optimizations for their graphical performance. Unfortunately, it seems that some owners of those phones are now also having trouble with playing Netflix in HD quality, and, at least at the moment, the exact cause of this issue continues to elude users and developers.

The actual technical reason for the HD playback problem can actually be traced to Widevine, the DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology used by Google, Netflix, and many other companies. In order to fight piracy, only devices of a certain Widevine level are authorized to stream Netflix videos in HD. Everything else will stream in 480p SD format only.

Google Pixel phones, at least those not modded, rooted, or running custom ROMs, are naturally granted the highest Widevine L1 level. For some strange reason, however, some owners of Pixel 4, Pixel 4a, and Pixel 5 phones are now reporting they're at Widevine L3. In other words, they're stuck at 540p streaming max.

Given the recent update, the sudden downgrade from L3 to L1 has been blamed on the April 2021 patches. However, not all Pixel phones that installed the update have reported seeing the same problem. Even worse, XDA discovered that some Pixel owners were already seeing this issue going as far back as November last year.

Unfortunately, Google has so far been silent on the matter, leaving affected users at a loss over what to do. While changing Widevine levels can indeed happen through software changes, there is no workaround users can apply to raising it back up to L1, otherwise, the DRM technology would be pretty pointless.