How To Avoid Buffering Issues When Streaming Video

Staring at the screen but nothing's going in
Getty Images, LumiNola, Collection E+, 1022048344

When watching a streaming video on your smart TV or through a media streamer, smart Blu-ray disc player, or smart TV, there's nothing more annoying than constant stopping and starting and/or showing a screen that reads "loading."

How Streaming Video and Buffering Work

To prevent the video from stopping to load, your networked component "buffers" the video. That is, it streams the video ahead of what you are watching so it plays continuously. At least, that's the idea.

When the video catches up to the point where the file has been streaming, there might be a delay. This results in the dreaded "loading" screen and a pause in the movie playback.

If the streaming video reaches the point where it has to wait until more information is available, it will pause, and you'll see a rotating arrow or spinning circle on your TV screen. Once the video stream catches up, it plays again.

This process can take just a few seconds or might last several minutes. If the video is long (movie or TV show), you might encounter several buffering sessions during your viewing time — annoying, to be sure.

Repeated buffering can result from a technical problem with the content provider or your internet service provider (ISP), but it also can occur when too many devices are using your internet connection at the same time. Most of the time, though, it's a function of your internet speed.

What Speed Means

Internet speed or in-home connection speed refers to how much data (in this case, streaming photo, music, and movie files) can be sent from its source to your player. A source may stream a Netflix movie from online, for example, and photos, music, or videos stored on a computer on your home network.

A slow connection will delay the delivery of a movie's audio and video information, in which case you will see the loading screen. A fast connection can stream movies without interruption and easily accommodate high-definition or 3D video and up to 7.1 channels of surround sound.

Vudu Internet Speed Test
Vudu

Most internet providers advertise fast internet connection speeds. Where we once had dial-up and DSL speeds measured in kilobytes per second (Kb/s), we now measure speeds in megabytes per second (Mb/s). (A megabyte is 1,000 kilobytes.) Broadband and cable internet providers offer download speeds of more than 50 Mb/s in many areas.

In addition to your service provider's internet speed, internet streaming content providers such as Netflix and Vudu have their own video-streaming speed requirements. You can test your internet speed on a variety of sites.

How Fast Is Your Home Network?

It's not only how fast the internet brings the video into your house. Once there, the information must be sent from the modem to a router.

The next consideration is how fast the router can send the video and other information to the computers, media streamers, smart TVs, and internet-enabled Blu-ray disc players connected to it. Routers designed to work with streaming video, sometimes called AV routers, can stream more data, reducing playback interruptions.

The speed of the connection from the router to a media streaming/playback device is the final variable. A router may be capable of streaming media at a high speed, but the audio and video can get to your media streamer/player only as fast as the connection can transfer it.

Connect Using an Ethernet Cable or Accessories Designed for AV

Using an Ethernet cable (Cat 5, 5e, or 6) is the most dependable way to connect your media streamer or another compatible component to the router. This type of direct physical connection will usually maintain the speed of the router's capabilities.

If you connect your network media player or component wirelessly (Wi-Fi) or by using a powerline adapter, however, speeds often drop, sometimes dramatically. Even though you might have 10 Mb/s internet speed to your router, it may not maintain that speed to your device; it may show that it is receiving less than 5 Mb/s, and you get a message that the video quality is being downgraded on your Netflix or Vudu account.

When looking for wireless and power-line adapter accessories, check the speed ratings; they indicate whether they are optimized for AV, so you can stream high-definition video and audio. Another consideration with wireless routers is how far they can transmit stable signals. Locating your media streamer/playback device, such as a smart TV, a long distance away (in another room, for example) could affect the stability of the signal received via the wireless router.

Internet Speeds Continue To Increase

Now that media has gone digital, receiving it at home is faster than ever before, Services such as Google Fiber, Verizon FIOS, and Cox Gigablast can deliver broadband speeds as high as 1Gbps. Of course, with those much higher speeds come higher monthly service costs.

Streaming and delivery systems such as HDBaseT routers, wireless dongles, and powerline adapters are continuously being improved so that they can move large amounts of high-definition video (with special attention now to 4K) to several TVs and computers at the same time, as well as play video games without hesitation (latency).

Likewise, 4K video is getting easier to stream. Combining internet speed with new video compression techniques, such as the ability to stream video data with 8K resolution, is not that far down the road — and that dreaded buffering screen just might become a thing of the past.