In just a few short years, streaming video services have come to dominate the entertainment landscape. Many of us are now eschewing live broadcasts entirely and turning to subscriptions from the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.
But for all its advantages, there’s one problem common to all streaming services: the dreaded buffering that reduces video to a stuttering, unplayable mess.
What can you do when buffering threatens to ruin a good boxset binge? In this guide, we’ll offer up a few tips explaining how to get the most from your broadband and hopefully banish buffering forever.
What is buffering?
When streaming a video, the service delivers the video data as you’re viewing it.
Buffering occurs because a video is not being delivered fast enough to keep up with the rate it’s being viewed. This will cause the video to stop playing until the stream is able to download (or buffer) enough data.
Buffering can be seen even on the fastest broadband, but if the connection is very poor this will happen constantly as you repeatedly catch up to the stream, run out of data, then have to wait for it to buffer again.
What causes buffering?
Buffering can be caused by issues at any point between a device in your home and the server providing the video. So your broadband might be too slow, or perhaps it is fast enough but you have a weak Wi-Fi signal. Or maybe there is a broadband network fault or problem at the streaming service itself.
If it’s a broadband network or streaming service error there may not be much you can do. But often it will be caused by the equipment in your home and is something that we can attempt to fix.
The tips below are focused on solving the common problems with home broadband routers and playback devices (the stuff you can actually control). But if you find there is still no improvement you may need to speak to your ISP's tech support team or check with the streaming service to see if there are any known outages.
What broadband speed do you need for streaming?
These are the minimum speeds recommended by two of the biggest streaming services:Disney+
- HD quality recommended speed: 5Mb
- Ultra HD quality recommended speed: 25Mb
- Minimum speed required: 0.5Mb
- Recommended speed: 1.5Mb
- SD quality recommended speed: 3Mb
- HD quality recommended speed: 5Mb
- Ultra HD quality recommended speed: 25Mb
A speed of 5Mb is a comfortable minimum speed. This can allow you to stream one video in HD. As a very bare minimum, 2Mb should support low quality streams without too much buffering, but it would not be the best experience. If you are going to regularly stream video and want to enjoy HD while not worrying too much about what else is going on with the broadband, fibre optic broadband is highly recommended.
How to stop buffering and improve video streaming
Test your broadband
Use our free online speed test to see how your broadband is performing. This can help indicate whether the problem is with your equipment or the broadband line.
Not sure what speed you should be getting? Your broadband provider should have given you an estimated speed when signing up, but if you can’t find any record of this just give them a call and ask.
If the broadband speed is much slower than normal there may be an issue with your broadband router, your broadband or phone line, or the ISP’s network. Contact technical support for potential solutions.
It is not unusual to see the speed fluctuate at different times of the day as demand shifts. To get a clearer picture of whether this is a temporary or ongoing problem, test the speed a different times of the day over several days. If it’s consistently below the estimated speed then pursue it with your broadband provider. If your provider has signed up to the Ofcom code of conduct for broadband speed it has a commitment to either fix the problem, give you a discount, or let you leave the contract without penalty.
It’s crucial that when testing speed you disable all other devices and unnecessary software connected to your broadband. Also, the device you’re using to test the speed should be connected to the router with a network cable; if that’s not possible then sit right next to the router so the Wi-Fi signal is as strong as possible.
Reduce the streaming video quality
The higher the video quality, the more bandwidth it will need. Adjusting the video stream quality to suit your broadband speed is very often an immediate and easy fix to buffering.
Most streaming services let you manually configure this, some by selecting a specific resolution (such as 1080p or 4K), others with slightly more opaque ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’ options. Typically, ‘low’ will mean 480p (standard definition), while high equates to 1080p (Full HD).
Some services use an automatic quality feature which dynamically adjusts the video to suit your broadband speed. So rather than experiencing buffering, you might instead notice a reduction in the video quality.
Shut down other devices and apps
Every device connected to your broadband will reduce the available bandwidth, so when you’re going to stream try switching off everything that’s not being used to ensure there’s enough capacity for the video.
Also, watch out for apps or services running in the background which might place additional strain on your connection. Shut these off or pause them until you’re done. This is not generally going to be an issue on something like a TV box, smart TV, or dedicated streaming device like an Amazon Fire Stick, but could easily be a problem if you're streaming on a computer.
Pause the stream and let it buffer
You can try to avoid an endless play/buffer/play cycle by pausing the video to let the buffer fill well ahead of where you are on the video so you don’t continually run into the end of the available stream.
Most software will indicate how much of the content has been buffered within the video player’s seek bar (or ‘scrubber’). You can see this for yourself right now by going to any video on YouTube and pausing it.
Limit bandwidth on other devices and apps
Modern broadband can be fast, but even the best connection may be overwhelmed if you throw too much at it. Certain activities (such as file downloads) may simply use up as much bandwidth as they can if not restrained, choking anything else.
If you want to keep something else running during a stream, check the software settings for a bandwidth limit to cap its usage and leave enough spare capacity for your video.
Restart your hardware and software
The classic “turn it off and on again” can solve many problems.
Begin by restarting the software. If that doesn’t work, reboot the streaming device. Finally, try power cycling your home broadband router (but this will cut off internet to your entire home, and they can take a good few minutes to reconnect).
Download the video
Some streaming services give you the option to download the video instead of streaming it. You will have to wait for the download (and it could be quite large) but once complete you’ll be able to play it without interruption.
Get the best Wi-Fi signal
Weak Wi-Fi is a common culprit of broadband problems so taking the time to set this up correctly is important.
Make sure your Wi-Fi router is in the best position possible. Ideally, you want the router to be in a central location in your home, away from appliances such as microwaves, fridges, and cordless phones.
Most routers are now dual-band, which means they can operate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks at the same time. Enable both to get the best performance from all your devices. The 2.4Ghz frequency is slower, but has a longer range and may be the only one supported by older devices. 5Ghz is used for newer Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) devices; it is much faster but has a shorter range.
If you need to extend the range of a network there are a few options. Wi-Fi boosters are a cheap way to get more range, but the boosted signal will not be as fast. A mesh network kit can provide great coverage and speed around your home but will cost more than a booster. Powerline networking transmits data over electrical circuits and can be an easy and relatively affordable way to get both wired and wireless connections in any room, depending on the configuration of your home’s circuitry.
For further information and help, read our beginner’s guide to Wi-Fi.
Use QoS to optimise for streaming
Quality of Service (QoS) is a feature found on many Wi-Fi routers which allows you to prioritise specific applications or activities. Using QoS, you can reserve a portion of your broadband bandwidth just for streaming to ensure you always meet the minimum speed requirements.
Just keep in mind that this will reduce the speed for everything else on your broadband, so you need to be mindful of the impact on shared broadband.
Check your router’s admin console or dig out the user manual to find out how to use QoS.
Use a wired connection
Wi-Fi is useful, but it’s not always the best way to stream.
If you can, use a wired network cable to bring broadband to your streaming device. This will often result in a faster and more reliable connection.
Upgrade your broadband speed
If your broadband isn’t faulty, but simply not quick enough to cope with the video, then it’s a good reason to look into an upgrade.
Most homes in the UK now have access to fibre optic broadband, and there are lots of cheap deals. Enter your postcode below to see what else you could get.
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