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Is that spinning wheel pasted over your frozen video stream ruining your James Bond marathon? “Buffering” is one of the most hated words in any cord-cutter’s vocabulary. But what is buffering and why does it happen? Let’s take a look at why buffering exists, what causes slow buffering, and how to fix buffering problems on your computer or streaming device.
To really understand buffering, we first need to remember what “streaming” means. When you stream video or music, you’re not saving a file to your computer and playing it from your hard drive. But you are downloading the file, at least in a certain sense: Your computer is receiving the data it needs to play each frame of your movie or each note of your favorite song. It uses that data to play your video or music, and then it tosses it when it doesn’t need it anymore.
It’s as if you’re playing piano as someone else brings you the sheet music one page at a time. What happens, though, if your assistant is running late? What if you reach the end of the page you’re on before your assistant comes running up with the next page? That would ruin your performance. One thing you could do to make this less likely would be to wait to start playing until your assistant has brought you a few pages of music. That way, even if your assistant falls behind by a page or two, you can keep right on playing. This is pretty much exactly what your computer is doing when it buffers!
When you are watching a video or playing a game, your computer or TV always keeps the next few seconds of video preloaded into its memory. This process is known as buffering, and that extra video that your computer preloaded is known as the buffer. Buffering is a primary reason why your video takes a second or so to load after you select your favorite TV show or movie.
The buffer exists for one important reason: to prevent lag. If you’re familiar with how the internet works, you know that there's a lot of processes going on to get that streaming video to your screen. Computers aren’t perfect, so sometimes one of those processes fails, and the video doesn’t get to your screen as quickly as it should.
If you didn’t have a buffer, those minor failures would start to cause lag (slowdown) in your video. Instead, your video continues to happen in real time because the failures are happening at the end of the buffer — so your computer has several seconds to figure out what went wrong and fix it before you even notice. That may not be a lot of time for us mere humans, but computers are really good at fixing problems in fractions of a second.
Buffering involves grabbing a few seconds of video in advance. If you are seeing a live feed, where are those extra seconds coming from? I’ll pause for a moment to let the “Dr. Who” and “Star Trek” fans exchange time-travel theories before revealing the answer.
The real reason is actually very simple: Live TV is never truly live. There’s always a delay of at least a few seconds between the live event and your video feed. There are various technical, legal, and historical reasons for this video delay — one of which is the need for buffering. Those extra few seconds of delay are all your video stream needs to prevent lag from ruining your Super Bowl party.
This is also why live TV streaming services tend to operate on a bit of a delay relative to legacy pay-TV. If you’re watching the game and call up your pal who is using an IPTV or cable TV service to watch the same event, you might find that they’re a few seconds ahead of you. (And antennas are faster still — if you watch OTA TV, you’ll be a few seconds ahead of the typical cable, satellite, or IPTV viewer!)
Sometimes the buffering process just can’t keep up. When you run out of buffer, most streaming services will pause the video until the buffering process catches up. During these pauses, they’ll toss up some kind of symbol — typically an hourglass or a spinning wheel — to indicate a buffering problem, often attaching the word “buffering” to clarify what is happening.
These buffering problems have several potential causes, so let’s look at some of the most common ones
We’ll start with the most obvious reason why your video might be having buffering problems: Streaming requires a fast, steady internet connection. Higher resolution videos require faster internet connections, so you are far more likely to have this issue with 4K video than you are with HD or SD video.
If you are frequently experiencing buffering problems, especially if it’s mostly with 4K streaming, it might be time to look into getting a faster internet plan or finding a new internet service provider. Before you take that step, though, you should look into less drastic steps to make your internet faster, especially if the problem is not constant.
Even the fastest internet connection doesn’t matter if your Wi-Fi is slowing your connection to a crawl or intermittently disconnecting. There are several steps you can take to fix Wi-Fi connection problems. If you can’t get your Wi-Fi running well enough for your video streaming needs, you can bypass these issues by running an Ethernet connection to your streaming device where possible. That obviously won’t work for your Android or iPhone though, so you’ll either have to fix your Wi-Fi or rely on your mobile network for those devices.
If you have several devices running on your network, your network might not be able to keep up. This will typically cause one of the above issues (slow internet, Wi-Fi problems). If your other devices are taking up all of your precious bandwidth, your only options might be to wait for someone to get off the network, get a faster internet plan, or stream at a lower resolution.
Your internet is blazing fast, your Wi-Fi is working perfectly, and nobody else is clogging up your network, but you are still experiencing buffering problems — what’s going on? It might be your computer or whatever other device you are using to stream. You can try shutting down some of your other apps or closing some browser tabs to free up memory. Restarting your device can also help, especially if you haven’t done so in a while.
When you are sitting down to watch the latest episode of “Ted Lasso,” the last thing you want is to wait around for an app, driver, or operating system update before opening the app. But those updates exist for a reason, and sometimes they can have important impacts on the performance of your app. If you skipped out on an important app update to get to your movie or if you are ignoring that system update notice in the corner of your screen, try letting those updates run to see if they fix your buffering problems.
Sometimes the buffering problems are caused by issues with your streaming provider instead of anything on your end. It could be that they are having server problems or maybe there are just too many people trying to stream the same Netflix series as you. This is especially common if you are trying to watch a hit movie or the latest episode of a popular series right after it goes live on the service. In these cases, your only options are to accept the slow buffering or go watch something on a different streaming service while you wait.
As a cord-cutter, you aren’t going to go back to cable TV just because your video is buffering slowly, especially now that you understand what you are dealing with. You now have the info you need to fix common buffering problems and turn a night in front of a spinning wheel icon back into the movie marathon you had originally intended. Now go find your next favorite TV show.