How to stream video smoothly: optimise wireless network for streaming HDTV
In this modern world of streaming, the dreaded ‘buffering’ symbol is something we are all too familiar with. Even more frustrating than the buffering, is not knowing what’s causing it. You’ve invested in the kit and you pay your broadband provider a considerable chunk of your salary every month, so what gives? In this tutorial, we show you how to optimise your wireless network to stream HD video smoothly. See also: How to connect laptop to a TV.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of wireless streaming you’re likely to be undertaking. The first is from a cloud service such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer. The second is local streaming; for example, you might have all of your Blu-rays ripped to a computer and you are streaming them to your television via something like AirPlay or Plex. Take a look at our streaming comparison: Chromecast vs Roku Streaming Stick vs Amazon Fire TV Stick
Both methods require a well-optimised network, but if you are streaming locally, you needn’t be too concerned about broadband speeds because you’re not connecting to the outside world. If you fall into this camp of streamers, jump straight on to the ‘Optimising your wireless network’ section of this guide.
How to stream video smoothly: broadband diagnostics
Just because you are paying for high-speed internet, don’t automatically assume that this is what your ISP is providing you with. Before you worry about your internal network, make sure you have some hard data on your broadband speeds.
Speedtest.net is one of the better-known speed checkers available but if you are after a more comprehensive test, you have a couple of options. Thinkbroadband uses six different HTTP streams, two more than Speedtest.net. The test checks to see if all six threads are working, and restarts if a thread fails.
If you really want to get an accurate measure of your broadband performance, sign up to get a SamKnows Whitebox. This is the company behind Ofcom’s official speed results and by becoming a volunteer for the national survey, you get a nifty little device to monitor your connection over a prolonged period. Download, upload and ping stats are all available via a web-based dashboard.
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to recommended download speeds (check with your content provider) but as a guide, you are looking for a sustained 2-3Mbits/sec for SD streaming and 5-20Mbits/sec for HD and beyond.
Remember, this is purely an assessment of your broadband speeds, not your local network – so be sure to conduct tests using an Ethernet cable as opposed to Wi-Fi. If you are repeatedly getting lower speeds than the minimum guaranteed by your ISP, it is time to get on the phone to them.
How to stream video smoothly: optimising your wireless network
Wi-Fi is not as infallible as we’d like to believe. Assuming that your download speeds are adequate, your wireless network is likely to be the culprit.
Before you get stuck into tweaking your settings, it’s a good idea to get some baseline data on how your wireless network is performing. LAN Speed Test (Lite) is a free tool, which allows you to measure transfer speeds (throughput) by chucking a file from one computer to another over the network. To use it, you will need two machines connected over Wi-Fi. Simply install the software on one machine, point to a folder on the other and click ‘Start Test’.
How to stream video smoothly: getting on the right channel
Almost all 802.11 wireless routers use the 2.4Ghz or the 5Ghz frequency bands – or a combination of both. In the UK, the 2.4Ghz band is subdivided into 13 channels. Each of these channels is 20MHz wide but only 5Mhz apart so there is significant overlap between them. Wireless is an inherently anti-social technology and so overlapping means interference from devices occupying the other channels.
The only channels that don’t overlap are 1, 6 and 11; so to get the cleanest signal possible, you ideally want to be on any one of these three magic channels. The problem arises when your neighbours are also residing on one of the three channels. If that’s the case, the simple rule is that you want to get your traffic as far away as possible from all the other competing devices in the vicinity.
One of the simplest tools for Wi-Fi analysis is inSSIDer, available to download from MetaGeek for both Windows and OS X. This easy to use application analyses all the wireless networks in your area and presents all the information in a straightforward graph. It even makes channel recommendations based on competing networks.
Once you’ve figured out which channel you should be on, changing it is a straightforward operation on most routers. Look under wireless settings in the admin panel. This article assumes that you know how to access your router’s admin panel, but if you don’t, it’s as easy as punching a number into your web browser; just check the user manual.
These days, many routers have smart functionality built in, which attempts to choose the best channel for you. In practice, these routers often make poor decisions and so it’s worth doing your own network analysis.
Once you’ve selected your new channel, retest using LAN Speed Test and check your streaming performance.
How to stream video smoothly: dead spots
If you think you have wireless dead spots in your house, it may be worth conducting your own wireless site survey. NetSpot for Mac and Heatmapper for Windows are free tools that allow you map the wireless signal throughout your home.
If you discover weak areas, first try repositioning your router’s antennas. If that doesn’t do the trick, it may be worth considering Powerline adapters or wireless repeaters to bolster your network.
How to stream video smoothly: Dual-band routers
The 2.4Ghz band is infamously known as the ‘junk band’. Everything from Bluetooth and cordless phones to CCTV and microwaves have been lumped into the band for decades, causing massive amounts of interference. Thankfully, the 5Ghz band has come to the rescue, which not only is much less congested, but also occupies a wider frequency range. This means that there are anywhere from eight to 23 non-overlapping channels. A dual-band router offers both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands.
However, there are a couple of things to consider before running out and buying a shiny new dual-band router. Generally speaking, lower frequencies travel further, meaning that the 5Ghz band won’t have the same range as the 2.4Ghz band. This problem is mitigated with new antenna technologies, but if your router is a fair distance from your streaming device, you may find you get better performance from the 2.4Ghz band.
Also, not all 802.11n devices support dual band. For example, the Apple TV 2 and 3, the Roku 3 and Amazon’s Fire TV all connect to the 5GHz band but Google’s Chromecast does not. Be sure to check the specifications of your streaming device.
How to stream video smoothly: A quick note on 802.11ac
The new 802.11ac standard promises to be a game changer for high-def wireless streaming. 802.11ac can achieve theoretical speeds of 1.3 Gbps compared to a maximum of 450 Mbps on 802.11n. While there are a few 802.11ac media bridges, most of the current media streaming devices do not support the standard and so this article won’t focus on it.
How to stream video smoothly: media prioritisation
Many midrange and high-end routers let you to manage your bandwidth through a method called Quality of Service (QoS). QoS essentially allows you to prioritise certain types of traffic over other activity on the network. How to implement QoS varies from router to router, but if you’re lucky, it can be as straightforward as logging into the admin panel, and prioritising traffic streams based on the IP address, application, port, or Media Access Control (MAC) address. MAC addresses are generally a good way to go because they won’t change.
How to stream video smoothly: conclusion
If after adjusting your channels and prioritising your web traffic, you’re still struggling to stream your content, don’t despair; there are plenty of other things you can try. Depending on the device you are using to stream your content, have a look through the settings to see if there is anything that can be tweaked. Below are the support pages for some of the top streaming devices and services. Happy streaming!