Buffering is a core part of how streaming works, but slow buffering can be frustrating for viewers. There are many potential causes of slow buffering, but fortunately, there are also several ways to improve its speed.
Buffering is the practice of pre-loading segments of data when streaming video content. Streaming — the continuous transmission of audio or video files from a server to a client — is the process that makes watching videos online possible. Buffering helps make streaming run more smoothly because videos can start playing before the entire video is loaded. Thanks to the buffering process, pre-loaded content will also continue to stream even when a connection is briefly interrupted.
Buffering is a core component of the streaming process. However, many viewers do not realize this and are only aware of the buffering process when it happens slowly or interrupts streaming. This is why viewers may use the word "buffering" to describe delays in content loading.
Buffering can be compared to a grocery store's inventory and shelving process. Stores maintain inventory so they can easily restock shelves and avoid inconveniencing customers. Grocery store customers generally go about their shopping without thinking about the stocking process unless an item they want is unavailable. In the same way, video players pre-load video segments to avoid disrupting the viewing experience.
All streaming video is divided into small segments or video frames that are a few seconds in length. This way, the entire video file does not need to be transmitted from the server to the client at once, and streaming can begin with only part of the video loaded. As the video begins playing, the rest of the segments are loaded and play once they are ready.
Buffering can happen slowly for many reasons. Generally, these issues are either on the user side or the network side, the latter meaning the Internet service provider (ISP) or streaming platform.
There are many different ways to improve buffering speed. However, the recommended approach will depend on the issue’s primary cause.
Users are not able to fix an ISP's or streaming provider's outage or service interruption, but it is worth tracking their service status for diagnosing whether or not the problem is on their side. Most ISP and streaming providers maintain a service update webpage or social media account with regular status updates.
Streaming providers play a critical role in ensuring that buffering does not happen slowly. For example, streaming providers can optimize their video content by selecting the proper encoding format for their needs. Video encoding involves compressing and converting video content into a form that is compatible with various platforms. The compression process reduces file size, facilitating smooth playback.
Streaming providers should also use a video content delivery network (CDN) solution like Cloudflare Stream. A CDN is a group of servers that copy and store (or cache) content to deliver it to end users. Video CDNs are designed to support video content. Using a video CDN reduces latency and speeds up the buffering process so that viewers can stream content without interruption.