In the past few years, video has exploded. There are amazing statistics about the number of hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute. And that’s just YouTube! Streaming video services have similarly multiplied, adding to the quantity of online video.
It’s frustrating, to say the least, to have a video play a little, pause, play a little more, then pause, then play a little more, then pause, then play a little more.
I’ll cover a few reasons and workarounds for this.
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The #1 cause: your internet connection
By far, the single biggest reason for videos that pause periodically while playing is the speed of your internet connection.
Or rather, the lack of speed.
Videos require a lot of data, and that data has to be transferred fast enough across your internet connection for the video to play smoothly.
If a video requires, say, three megabits per second (just an example), and your internet connection is only 1.5 megabits per second, you are going to experience stops and starts. The video player can’t get the data fast enough for the video to play without interruption.
In that same vein, if some other program on your computer is simultaneously downloading something from the internet, then the available download speed left over for your playback will be reduced. You may have the required three megabits per second1 connection, but if another program is using some of it, your effective speed might be cut in half and your video, once again, begins to stutter.
In addition, if someone else in your home is also watching online video or downloading lots of data on a different device, then the bandwidth available to your machine is reduced, and pausing once again happens.
The #2 cause: your computer’s too busy
Depending on your computer’s hardware configuration and any software you have running at the same time, it might just be too busy to keep up with the work of displaying video.
Fortunately, you can peek into the inner workings of your computer using programs like Process Explorer, see exactly what is doing what while you play back video, and identify any resource-hogging culprits.
There’s also a small chance that your video card is not up to the task. This isn’t nearly the issue it once was, but it’s something to consider on older computers.
Solution #1: pause
Most video-player progress bars show three stages of video playback:
- Video seen shows how much of the video you’ve seen2 so far, and ends at the playback position indicator.
- Video downloaded but not yet seen shows the amount of the video that’s been downloaded into a buffer somewhere on your computer, but that you haven’t seen yet. In this example, it appears as a gray bar.
- Not yet downloaded is the amount of video that has yet to make it from the video server to your computer.
If you never see the “video downloaded but not yet seen” gray bar during normal streaming playback, it’s likely that the download can’t keep up with playback, or can only just barely keep up.
My most common recommendation when faced with this is to start it playing, click on pause, and wait a while.
Most video players have either a separate Pause button, or change the Play button to a Pause button, as in the YouTube example above.
Pressing Play begins the streaming of the video. When you pause it, you give the download a head start, letting it fill the buffer with video ready to be played back.
Unfortunately, YouTube seems to impose limits as to how far ahead it will buffer. It’ll buffer a certain amount and then stop before it’s done, apparently waiting for playback to catch up. Other services may behave similarly, or not.
Solution #2: reduce the demand
Many players provide video in multiple formats, including different sizes of video and different qualities. The players choose a default based on a quick analysis of your internet connection. Some update their guess based on ongoing performance.
Sometimes, however, they guess wrong, and you’ll need to make an explicit choice.
On YouTube, you can click on the gear icon to select a different resolution.
The maximum resolution available is typically selected by whoever uploaded the video, and results in the largest and clearest picture. It also requires the fastest internet connection in order to play smoothly.
By selecting a lower resolution, the image will typically be smaller and perhaps a little less clear, but it will also place less of a demand on the speed of your internet connection, and thus may play back without pausing.
What if you have a slow internet connection, but still want high quality? That calls for a different approach.
Solution #3: download
Streaming and downloading a video are very similar. Oh, there are differences in protocols and software and whatnot, but the fundamental difference is simply this:
- Streaming plays the video on your screen to watch immediately
- Downloading3 writes a copy of the video to your computer’s hard disk to watch whenever you like
The technical differences, while complex behind the scenes, are conceptually simple. Unfortunately, the legalities are anything but.
The problem is, when you download a video, you are creating a copy of that video. That may be illegal or against the video site’s terms of service. I’m not going to weigh in on that other than to point out the possibility.
Some sites offer a direct-download link. It’s by far the simplest approach. Click on the download link (or right-click and Save As…) and then, after the download completes, you’ll get a video file on your machine that you can play using your favorite media player.
Other sites (most notably YouTube) and almost all streaming services do not provide this ability.
However, if you search for “youtube downloader,” you’ll find many. The problem, of course, is that it’s unclear which to trust. In my brief research for this article, I checked out a few and found many to be discontinued, not working, or loaded with PUPs.
One final note about downloading video. If the download takes longer than the video would play — for example, it takes 15 minutes to download a video that only plays for three minutes — then it’s an internet connection speed issue. If you were able to download that same file in three minutes or less on a faster connection, you’d theoretically also be able to stream it directly without the starts and stops.
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Footnotes & References
1: I’m NOT, NOT, NOT saying that all online video requires three megabits per second. This is simply an example of a video that requires a higher data rate than you might have available.
2: Assuming, of course, that you haven’t skipped ahead; in which case, this simply indicates the amount of the video prior to the current position, whether you’ve seen it or not.
3: I know it gets confusing on top of confusing because even in this article, I’ve used the term “downloading” while describing the ins and outs of streaming a video. Essentially, any transfer of data from the internet to your computer can be considered a download, and that’s most often how the term is used. When we talk about media like video or audio, we make this specific distinction between streaming and downloading based on what happens to the data transferred: displayed or saved to disk, respectively.