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Banish the buffer screen with these tips for silky-smooth streaming video

Ted Kritsonis contributed to this article

Streaming video can be a frustrating experience. Anyone who’s queued up a movie on Netflix only to have it sputter and stutter along knows what we’re talking about. Just the sight of that buffering screen (or terrible picture quality) is enough to make you want to pull your hair out or, worse, ditch your subscriptions entirely. It’s easy to put a big old target on the back of Netflix, Amazon or even your Internet provider. But often, the real problem is that your Internet service and home network isn’t set up to properly handle the huge amount of data flowing into your home.

One of the keys to stress-free streaming is making sure your home’s network infrastructure is up to the task. Here’s how to make sure your home’s network is never the bottleneck in your streaming video pipeline.

Pick your plan 

You can spend a small fortune buying the hottest networking equipment on the market, but it won’t make a lick of difference if the Internet connection that feeds your home is inadequate. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do to make your broadband Internet service provider’s (ISP) connection reliably fast, but what you can do is make sure you’re subscribed to the plan that promises the right speed and data allowance for your needs.

Data caps

When we talk about data allowance, we’re referring to data caps or download limits that ISPs impose on their customers. Each ISP has its own plans and policies, but for the sake of illustration let’s say your Internet plan allows you to use up to 200GB of data per month with no restrictions on the time of day you use it. That’s a lot of flexible data, and for many folks it is plenty sufficient for a month’s worth of streaming content, cruising Facebook, and so on. But if you like to watch a lot of streaming HD video, you may find you need more.

A good way to get a read on your data needs is to visit your account page at your ISP’s website.

A good way to get a read on your data needs is to visit your account page at your ISP’s website. Most offer a data meter with historical information that shows how much data you’ve been gobbling up for the past few months. If you’re just getting started with Netflix and you’re already pushing the limit, it’s time to look at another plan.

To put things in perspective, consider what Netflix says about how much data its movies and TV shows can take up. The company claims that one hour of its HD programming eats up about 3GB of data — Ultra HD content bumps that up to about 7 GB per hour.

Some ISPs have moved to lifting caps as a rule, but offer savings to customers who opt into accepting one. These plans are usually offered to those who pay for slower connections (15Mbps or lower) and don’t use a lot of data anyway. Those plans aren’t ideal for anyone that relies on a lot of streaming HD content.

That brings up the next important question: How much bandwidth do you need?

Internet bandwidth

First, let’s address a common misconception: Mbps, the metric used to measure bandwidth, stands for Megabits per second, not megabytes per second (MBps). When it comes to data rates, 1byte = 8bits. With that in mind, you can start doing a bunch of math to try to determine what kind of bandwidth you need. But if you’re not the math-y type, there’s an easier way to estimate.

Netflix recommends 5 Mbps of bandwidth for an HD stream and 25 Mbps for those lucky ones streaming in Ultra HD (these quotes are higher than the actual requirements – that’s just Netflix playing it safe). That might lead you to think that a 15 Mbps plan would be plenty, but you’d be forgetting about all the other devices (and people) in your home that use up your bandwidth. Every smartphone, computer, smart TV, smart Blu-ray player, cable box, satellite box, Roku or Apple TV connected to your network may be sending and receiving data at any given moment. Added together, all of your devices can put quite a chokehold on your bandwidth.


Then you’ve got to consider the others in the house that may want to be streaming video at the same time you are. The more active streamers on a network, the more bandwidth you are going to need. For example: In this writer’s household, a 50 Mbps plan serves three simultaneous Netflix HD streams (and all the other Internet activity) fairly reliably.

Keep this in mind, though: Just because you’re paying for 50 Mbps doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get all the time. Your neighbors probably like to stream content around the same times you do, and if you’re all sharing the same neighborhood Internet pipe, it may clog up from time to time. For example, you may get really close to the promised speed at 3 a.m. when overall traffic is down, but probably not at 8 p.m., when residential usage is likely at its peak.

The gear

Once you’ve got the Internet service coming into your home locked down, you need to make sure it doesn’t take a nosedive the second it comes through the wall. To do this, you need high-quality networking gear. Good news: You don’t have to spend a mountain of cash to get it.

The modems that ISPs supply generally aren’t bad. Just make sure the model they’re offering you supports DOCSIS 3.0 — the latest protocol for cable modems — for the best possible speeds. If you want to buy your own, potentially saving you up to $80 a month, ask your ISP for a list of approved modems. Here’s Comcast’s list, and Time Warner’s.

Just because you’re paying for 50Mbps doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get all the time.

Those modem/Wi-Fi router combo units, though? They’re not so great. These combo units might be limited to two-thirds the speed and range of a similar wireless router from the likes of Linksys, Netgear or D-Link. Those manufacturers have rightly identified that some consumers want as fat a pipe as they can get, and have used language like “Media” or “HD” to market their top router models.

The takeaway here: Use a separate modem and high-performance Wi-Fi router. And while you’re at it, you might want to consider stepping up the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac. There aren’t many devices that can take advantage of its increased throughput (up to 1.3Gbps), but we’ll see more coming later this year and going forward. And besides, faster speeds aren’t all this new standard brings to the table.

Wireless 8021.1ac works exclusively on the 5.0GHz band, which isn’t as cluttered as the more common 2.4GHz band that some appliances, cordless phones and other wireless gizmos use or disrupt (try downloading something with your phone while standing next to a running microwave and see what happens). These routers can handle up to eight antennas, while 802.11n routers can’t go beyond four. And then there’s “beamforming,” a technology within 802.11ac that recognizes the location devices are connecting from and routes more of the signal in that direction.

Here are some solid router suggestions:

  • Linksys’ WRT1900AC is an ode to a bygone era in routers with its hulking blue-and-black design, but it’s also among the most powerful models on the market today.
  • Netgear’s upcoming Nighthawk X6 R8000 is another speedy router that resembles a stealth bomber.

You’ll note these models don’t come cheap, averaging over $200, but they are ideal for heavy video streamers thanks to high performance and intuitive interfaces that let you customize and prioritize how your bandwidth is used.

Wire it up! 

While most streaming video devices support 802.11n Wi-Fi right now, nearly all of them also support a wired Ethernet connection that is both more reliable and uninhibited by Wi-Fi’s bandwidth limitations. Ideally, you could plug your devices directly into your router or an Ethernet switch, but if your devices aren’t right next to your router and you don’t have Ethernet cable strung throughout the home, you might think going wireless is the only real option.

Use a separate modem and high-performance Wi-Fi router

It’s not. Powerline adapters, which come in pairs, are excellent networking tools that can route an Internet connection through a home’s power lines as a way to bridge devices and routers in separate rooms. For example: plug one adapter into a power outlet near the router upstairs and connect them with an Ethernet cable. Then plug in the other adapter into an outlet near the streaming device in another room and connect them via Ethernet. You now have a wired connection, even though the two are nowhere near each other.

The same is possible with Wi-Fi extenders that pull in a wireless signal and connect to nearby devices via Ethernet for the added boost. Powerline adapters have the edge because there is no latency in the connection, whereas extenders could be affected by signal or range limitations (this is less of a problem with 802.11ac).

Cost vs. benefit

Upgrading your home network to accommodate all the streaming you’d like to do is going to incur some upfront costs. An upgrade in service from your ISP, a new dependable router (and modem, if necessary) and possibly a powerline adapter or Wi-Fi range extender will incur expenditures, but the investment should pay off in the long term.

As more and more content moves to the web, you’ll be in a strong position to stream it. And the more you know about your data consumption and network capabilities, the better you can manage your monthly costs. At some point, you might not even need your cable or satellite subscription any more.