You load up Netflix and spend a few minutes choosing the perfect movie to watch. After settling down with a tub of popcorn, you press play and get ready to enjoy yourself. The movie plays for a few seconds then stops.
And you have to wait. And wait. You’re experiencing buffering, which is one of the most annoying problems when streaming videos. This article looks at the different types of buffering and what you can do to prevent it.
Summary: Buffering is the slowly pre-loading of video content, like a Netflix movie or YouTube video. Buffering occurs for several reasons, most of which are related to your internet connection. The problem affects your video stream and forces you to wait until the streaming app can download a certain amount of data to run the stream. The more data that needs to be downloaded, the more severe the problem. Different buffering types include Wi-Fi bandwidth, slow internet, and latency.
What is Buffering?
When you’re streaming video, the application you use has to preload a certain amount of data into a reserved area of memory. This reserved area is called a buffer. Your video only starts playing once enough of the content has been downloaded into this buffer.
Buffering occurs when something prevents your app from downloading the appropriate data. Failure to download the data can lead to several problems, including failure to play the video, lagging, or decreased resolution. At its worst, buffering can prevent you from streaming videos entirely.
You don’t necessarily require buffering when streaming a video, however.
If you have a fast enough internet connection, playback is possible without the use of a buffer. But if your connection dips or gets throttled for any reason, you may experience issues. The specific causes of these issues vary. They may include issues with your devices, your internet network, or a provider.
The Buffering Types
On the surface, it may appear that there aren’t many buffering types. Buffering tends to present itself in the same way regardless of the underlying issue that’s causing it. But it’s those issues that actually represent the types of buffering you might experience.
In some cases, your internet speed may be the problem. In others, a faulty wireless connection may lead to buffering. Whatever the case may be, you end up experiencing a disruption in the video data you’re trying to stream. Let’s look at some of the different buffering types that can cause these video content issues.
Type No. 1 – A Weak WiFi Signal
Wi-Fi is an amazing technology. It enables you to play streaming video content without having a hardwired connection. Wi-Fi is convenient, easy to connect to, and ensures you don’t need to have an ethernet cable connected to every device in your house.
But it isn’t perfect.
No matter how strong your Wi-Fi signal, it will never be as strong as a hardwired connection. Currently, ethernet cables can transmit data at speeds up to 10 gigabytes per second, with Wi-Fi limited to 6.9 gigabytes. However, both of those speeds are more than enough for streaming videos, so you may not see how Wi-Fi can be the problem.
The issue here is that Wi-Fi signals can dip for several reasons.
A problem with your modem might make it difficult for your device to connect to the internet. Wi-Fi signals are also subject to electrical interference and can be partially blocked by physical structures such as floors. Distance can play a role too. If your device is a long way away from your modem, the Wi-Fi signal it receives may be too weak to stream content.
Whatever the case may be, an issue with your Wi-Fi is one of the most common types of buffering. Solutions range from hardwiring your device into your modem to removing obstructions to the Wi-Fi signal.
Type No. 2 – Too Many Devices
It’s not just a slow Wi-Fi connection that can lead to buffering. The issue can also occur if you run into bandwidth issues.
What is bandwidth?
When you set up Wi-Fi, you create a wireless network generated from your modem. Every network has a bandwidth limit, which refers to the maximum amount of data that can pass through it at any given time. For example, if you have a 100-megabit connection, your bandwidth limit is 100 megabites per second.
The problem arises if you have several devices connected to the network that are all running at once.
Say you have five devices in your house. One of them is downloading a video game, a couple are being used for general internet browsing, and two others are trying to stream video. You may find that this combination of devices performing actions brings you close to your network’s bandwidth limit. The network has to try and service all of your devices, leading to connection speeds varying.
This variation can lead to lagging or pausing of your video. Thankfully, the simple solution to this problem is to disconnect a few of the devices from the network to free up some bandwidth.
Type No. 3 – You Have Old Technology
What if you have a fast broadband connection and you’re certain that your WiFi connection isn’t causing video buffering?
That’s a common issue because your broadband speed isn’t the only thing that can trigger the buffering process. Sometimes, it’s the device itself that causes the problem.
There are plenty of examples of this type of buffering to draw from. You may have an old router that’s only capable of outputting a Wi-Fi signal at a certain speed. Even if you have a fast internet connection, the device may be physically incapable of using that connection to its maximum potential. This results in lower internet speed that can cause videos to play in a lower resolution.
The device receiving the signal could also be the culprit. Old phones, laptops, and TVs may only be able to deal with certain speeds. If you’re trying to run 4K content on an ancient laptop, you might find that your device isn’t up to the task.
Your solution here is pretty simple – get an upgrade. By investing in an upgrade, you get a router or device that’s capable of handling your broadband connection speed.
Type No. 4 – Slow Internet
This one is really simple.
Sometimes, buffering occurs because your connection isn’t fast enough to deal with whatever you’re downloading or streaming. For example, Netflix requires you to have a 25-megabit connection to stream 4K video properly. YouTube recommends a 20-megabit connection. If your internet isn’t fast enough, you’ll experience buffering because the app can’t download enough data to keep the stream running.
There are a couple of solutions to this problem. Upgrading your internet connection is the most obvious. But if that isn’t within your budget, try streaming at a lower resolution. Videos running at 720p or 1080p require far less data than 4K videos. In fact, you should be able to stream 1080p videos with a 5-10-megabit connection, which is less than half that required for 4K streaming.
Type No. 5 – VPN-Related Issues
Using a virtual private network (VPN) comes with several advantages. In addition to protecting your online identity, VPNs allow you to access video content you might otherwise not be able to watch. For example, somebody in the UK could use a VPN to create a US-based connection that allows them to watch streaming services that are only available in the United States.
However, the enhanced security that comes with using a VPN can create problems.
Estimates state that using a VPN adds between 5% and 15% to the amount of data you’d require for streaming. That’s because VPNs have to encrypt data, send it to a remote server, and decrypt it again. Those actions require data. Though the percentages may seem low, they can be enough to cause the bandwidth issues mentioned earlier.
Test this buffering type by disconnecting your VPN. Try to stream another video. If you don’t run into any issues, your VPN may be to blame for your buffering problems.
Type No. 6 – Cache Buffering
Many devices have a cache, which is a storage location reserved for temporary files. Websites often use the cache to store cookies and similar files that allow them to load faster. Software packages and apps may also use cache for similar purposes.
Many video streaming services use cache too.
If your device’s cache fills up too much, you may find that you can’t stream videos properly on that device. Fortunately, you can remedy this issue by clearing the device’s cache. Usually, this involves navigating through a settings menu until you find an option to clear the cache. If video streams well on other devices but not the one you’re using, try this solution to see if it solves the problem.
Type No. 7 – Provider Issues
Sometimes, buffering has nothing to do with your router or the devices you’re using. Problems on a provider’s end can also lead to video slowing down or stopping.
We can divide provider issues into two categories.
First, there are internet service provider (ISP) issues. Your ISP is the company that provides your broadband connection. They can experience all sorts of problems that slow or stall your internet speeds. An outage or interruption could prevent you from downloading data smoothly and congestion issues could mean you don’t achieve the speeds you’re supposed to.
Assuming the ISP isn’t to blame, look to the streaming content provider. These providers run servers and have systems in place that can go wrong. If content from one provider is buffering while videos from other providers seem fine, there may be a problem with the provider you were trying to use.
These issues can include network strain, which means too many people are requesting content from the provider at the same time. Latency can also be a problem if you’re a long way from the provider’s servers. This leads to data packet transmission taking longer, resulting in lagging and slow inputs.
A break in the streaming provider’s transmission control protocol (TCP) can also cause buffering. TCP works alongside regular internet protocols to maintain your connection to the provider’s servers. If the TCP connection breaks or gets interrupted, you may experience buffering or find your video stops playing altogether.
Unfortunately, there’s little you can do about these issues other than waiting for the provider to fix the problem. It may be worth speaking to customer services to inform them of the issue and confirm they’re working on it.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does buffering mean when streaming?
Buffering is a catch-all term that can mean several things when you’re streaming video content. It occurs if your video slows down, starts skipping, or stops completely. All of these issues are indicators that you can’t download enough data to keep up with the streaming content’s needs.
How do i stop buffering?
Start by identifying the issue causing your buffering. Sometimes, stopping buffering is a simple task that may involve removing some devices from your network or connecting your device to a router using an ethernet cable. At other times, the problem is out of your hands.
What is a video segment?
A video segment is a collection of video frames. When combined, these segments create the entire video. Many streaming services break videos down into segments. This allows one segment to play while another segment is downloaded in the background.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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