You’ve settled down for a solid evening’s binge session – there’s a new season of Stranger Things on Netflix and you’ve been hanging out to watch it all day. You start up the first episode… and then five minutes in, the picture and sound freeze and you see that tell-tale spinning circle. Buffering. Eventually, the show starts again – but drops down to a blurry, barely-watchable low resolution – before freezing up again before the characters even have time to get a few lines out.
The first thought is to blame the NBN or your Internet provider. And while there have been many cases of providers not supplying enough capacity at peak evening hours to cope with the influx of people streaming (one provider we spoke to said Netflix alone makes up around 70% of peak-hour traffic) that’s a problem you can’t do much about other than voting with your feet and switching to a provider that does the right thing (check the “typical evening speeds” now quoted alongside plans when you’re shopping around).
But while it’s convenient to pass the blame off onto the network at large, there’s actually quite a few things on your end that can affect your ability to stream smoothly, interruption-free and in high quality. Before you pick up the phone to complain, look over these tips for making sure you’re set up for flawless streaming – or to work around those pesky evening slowdowns!
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Check Your Wi-Fi
This might not seem obvious, but while you’re able to use your home wi-fi effortlessly when browsing websites or playing music on Spotify, that wi-fi connection might not be solid enough to support the much higher data demands of streaming video. There are a few factors that come into play here – but the most common ones are signal strength and interference.
The further away a wi-fi device gets from the modem-router that’s sending and receiving the signal, the slower that connection gets – and anything in the way (like walls, appliances, or even the stuff in the ceiling if you’re one of those people that keeps their modem upstairs) is going to have an effect on the connection. In addition, many streaming devices and TVs have built-in wi-fi antennas that aren’t the greatest at dealing with weak signals.
So what can you do? Well, for starters, try to get your modem/router into a position in the home where it’s as close as possible to your streaming devices, and make sure it’s fairly high up in the room (on top of a bookshelf is a good, inconspicuous location). If there’s only one NBN or phone point in your home, you’re a little limited with what you can do, but if you’re lucky enough to have more than one to choose from, pick the one as close to your living space as possible.
If you’re near a lot of other peoples’ wi-fi access points – a common problem in apartment buildings – switch your modem/router to use 5GHz wi-fi if it supports it. 5GHz doesn’t travel as far (or as well through walls and obstacles) but that works in its favour – it’s far less susceptible to interference from other people (and the fact that most people don’t use it helps!)
For streaming devices that plug into the wall, it’s well worth hooking them up using an Ethernet cable and removing wi-fi from the equation altogether. Ethernet gives the device a rock-solid, full-speed connection to your modem down a TV-antenna-sized cable that can run for up to 100 metres without problems – and the cables are cheap as chips at any computer store or your local Officeworks. The downside is that you have to run a cable to what may be an inconveniently located modem, but because cable length isn’t really an issue, you can run it inconspicuously along walls, behind furniture, wherever you like.
If you’re streaming 4K Ultra HD stuff from Netflix, Stan or Amazon, we’d recommend going for Ethernet as a priority – the much higher streaming data rates that 4K needs can be handled by wi-fi, but an Ethernet connection guarantees your device is going to get the speed it needs – broadband speed permitting, of course.
If you’re really getting frustrated by the buffering monster – and you don’t mind watching on a screen that isn’t your TV – then some streaming services have you covered. Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime Video (as well as YouTube, if you’re a YouTube Premium subscriber) allow you to download a huge selection of shows and movies in advance, then play them back without worrying about buffering at all. You can do this on iOS and Android mobile phones and tablets, with Netflix allowing downloads on their Windows 10 app as well (plug the laptop into an HDMI port on the TV and you’re good to go!)
For services like iTunes and Google Play, you also have the option to download before playing on mobile devices – and for Apple TV users, you have another couple of options. Either turn off the “quick start” setting so videos get the buffer nice and full before starting playback, or download the movie or show using iTunes on your computer, then play that file back over your home network using the Home Sharing feature.
Downloading is obviously a must-do for those who want to watch shows or movies on the go, too – you can download a high-quality version then play it back wherever you are, without using any precious mobile data at all.
For Foxtel users, meanwhile, streaming on an iQ3 is now supported – but the option is still there to download before playing, which you can turn to if you’re finding streaming to be too unreliable.
Reduce the Quality
Okay, it sounds counter-productive – but if you’re having major buffering issues and want to get that show watched, try dialling the streaming quality down a notch. For Netflix, you can set the target quality in your account settings on their website, which then applies to everything you stream. For Stan, on most devices, you can click on the little “cog” icon in the corner and set a target streaming quality level. Amazon Prime Video keeps these settings automatic, but it very conservative with auto-bumping to a higher setting, and you shouldn’t experience buffering at all.
Why set the quality manually when these services try to auto-scale to your connection anyway? It’s simply to stop them from trying to scale the quality up during the stream, which can be the main cause of buffering issues as the stream constantly shifts between quality levels based on your connection speed.
Finally – Watch Your Home Network
There’s one other common cause of streaming issues – and that’s other people or devices using your home network at the same time. If someone’s downloading a 50GB game on the PS4 or torrenting the latest episode of something, the actual streaming speed your device can access might be far more limited than it should. Before you complain to your ISP, make sure you’re not inadvertently slowing yourself down on your own local network!
Thanks to advances in streaming tech and the methods of compressing all that video and audio, the download speeds needed to stream even HD stuff seamlessly have massively reduced – but follow the above tips and you’re going to have a much better streaming experience regardless.
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Last audited 23 February 2021