Video buffering and playback problems

Within the past few weeks, any attempt to use my laptop to watch streaming media generates buffering problems. This was never an issue previously. I have checked the download speed of my broadband supplier (Virgin) and it is showing 2.7Mbps, as opposed to the advertised “up to 10”. I have no idea whether this performance has recently dipped.
Is the buffering problem likely to derive from the download speed or could it be something more sinister which has attached itself to the laptop? I regularly run Spybot Search and Destroy, and no obvious issues have shown up.

BBC iPlayer

David Collins
The internet comes with no guarantees about performance, and a vast number of things can delay a streaming video. There can be problems with the hosting site, with any of the dozen or more hops that the data take on the way to your internet service provider (ISP), and with the “traffic shaping” system your ISP probably employs. When the stream reaches your house, there can be further problems with your broadband router, the connection to your computer, and the software and/or hardware of your PC. This can include problems with graphics drivers, anti-virus software (especially shields and live scanners, which you can turn off), firewalls and browser plug-ins. The buffer acts as a temporary store to smooth out any variations in the video stream. However, when the system breaks down, it’s hard to find the cause.

It’s always a good idea to start with some PC hygiene, but Spybot Search & Destroy is not up to the job. Instead, download and run two free programs, CCleaner from Piriform, to clear your PC’s caches and cookies, and then Malwarebytes Anti-Malware using the Quick Scan. You can also check which version of Adobe Flash is installed in each browser (look for the Version information box on Adobe’s site), and if you think Flash might be the problem, go through Adobe’s troubleshooter.

When you’ve finished, reboot your PC and run either the Windows Task Manager or Sysinternals‘ Process Explorer. The System Idle Process (which indicates that your PC is not doing anything) should be somewhere around 98%. Check also that you have some free memory and at least a gigabyte of free disk space. Windows works well when it has enough resources, but if it runs out of them – for example, if a runaway program is stealing 100% of the processor – then the performance plummets.

The next problem is trying to find out if the buffering is being caused by your PC or your ISP. It’s easier to do this if you can compare two laptops and two ISPs. For example, try a different laptop with your Virgin connection. If videos play properly, then it’s probably a problem with your PC. Take your laptop to a Wi-Fi hotspot or a friend’s house and watch a streaming video via a different broadband supplier. If videos play correctly on your laptop when you’re away from home, the problem could well be your router, or your ISP.

Reboot your router by disconnecting the power cable, waiting for 30 seconds, then plugging it in again. If that doesn’t solve the problem, can you try a neighbour‘s Virgin connection or a different router? If you’re using a Wi-Fi connection, try connecting your laptop to your router using a good quality Ethernet cable, or vice versa. (Cables work better than Wi-Fi, but there are plenty of bad cables around.) Is somebody else crippling your connection by running BitTorrent over your network?

Your measured speed of 2.7Mbps is certainly enough to watch YouTube, Vimeo and similar videos without repeated pauses for buffering: YouTube’s help page on Buffering and playback problems only specifies at least 500+Kbps for the best viewing experience. Most streaming services work well with 1Mbps, though you may need up to 3Mbps for high quality movie playback and about 5Mbps for HD TV.

Even if your connection is fast enough, your ISP probably gives some types of data preferential treatment. Virgin should explain its traffic shaping policies if you ask. For example, I would expect Skype audio and video and perhaps BBC iPlayer streams to get preferential treatment over web surfing and file downloading. I would expect peer-to-peer traffic such as BitTorrent to be shaped to a low performance level. However, I would not be shocked to see streaming video performance slugged during the peak evening hours. The internet is a shared resource, and its capacity is limited.

One way to find out if your ISP is doing odd things is to use a proxy connection, preferably an encrypted one, so that your ISP can’t see what you’re doing. Unfortunately, most of the free anonymous proxy services won’t handle video streams or file downloads because of the vast amount of expensive bandwidth they consume. However, both Speedproxy and Unblock YouTube will play YouTube videos. Sites like this appeal mainly to users whose employers or teachers have blocked access to YouTube, but if they play videos without stuttering, then the problem is with Virgin.

If all else fails, you can often watch videos by downloading and playing them instead of streaming them. With YouTube, for example, you can pause the playback until the download line (the pale red one) reaches the end of the video. After that, the video is playing from a file in Temporary Internet Files. Alternatively you can download the video file in your preferred resolution using a site such as KeepVid or YouTube My Way. (I switched from KeepVid to YTMW after uninstalling Java.) For BBC content, you can install BBC iPlayer Desktop.