Streaming video in low-bandwidth situations

March 9, 2011

This is the kind of post that I’ve looked for out on the web and have not had good luck finding. Perhaps others are looking for something like it.

As we live in a rural area, our internet options are very limited. Luckily, we are able to get 1 Mb DSL from Frontier. I don’t think that’s going to be changing any time in the near future, I doubt many ISP’s are dying to run fiber to my neighborhood.

1 Mb DSL means downloading things at, best case, about 130 K/sec. Yep, that’s kilobytes per second. So when Apple releases software updates that are over a gig in size, I download them overnight. Or drive to town and use a relative’s or a coffeeshop’s bandwidth.

Being that my wife and I enjoy movies and TV just as much as anyone else, and we have a fairly plugged in lifestyle, we’ve tried several different kinds of video streaming. As Netflix subscribers for years, we’re not new to streaming video. What interests me most is the different streaming service’s performance for us, in what must be an edge-case scenario.

All testing is anecdotal and performed on a 2010 Mac Mini w/ 2 GB of RAM, hooked up to a 720p plasma TV.

The rankings:
1) Far and away, Hulu works the best for our low-bandwidth situation. Buffering times are minimal, and during a 45-minute show, the video very rarely stops for any kind of buffering. Time of day doesn’t seem to affect the video. I would guess no more than 1 in 10 shows ever stops to buffer, and then never has a hard time going again. Hulu’s buffer icon is very helpful as well to know how long to wait when paused if the need re-buffer comes up. What’s most interesting about this to me is that previous to the fall of 2010, Hulu did not work that well here. We had sort of given up. Hulu must have done some kind of optimization over the summer of 2010, as we tried it on a lark last fall and things have been working smoothly ever since. I want to subscribe to Hulu Plus to just support them but there doesn’t seem to be much that Plus has that is interesting. Best of all, Hulu seems to have the clearest video quality.

2) Amazon Prime Instant Videos. The testing with Amazon videos is minimal, as we’ve only watched 3 videos so far since they introduced free videos for Amazon Prime members (you pay $80/yr for free 2 day shipping on anything from Amazon, and now get videos. I don’t really see the connection, but the free shipping is great for my business.) All 3 episodes had a couple brief interruptions for buffering but it was tolerable. Buffering time to get back up to speed was minor. Video quality was good.

3) Netflix. Despite having the most videos to choose from, Netflix performs the worst of the movie/TV streaming services here. Not only is the initial loading of a video measured in several minutes instead of seconds (First the “determining your connection speed” status bar, then the “buffering” status bar), but often no more than a few moments into a video the screen will drop to a red Netflix logo with a “Your internet connection has slowed….” message, which will often take several minutes to rebuffer. On top of that, video quality is poor, even on the iPad, which with a smaller screen you think the compression artifacts would be less noticeable. Netflix loading speed often seems to depend on the time of day as well; evenings seem to be worse than daytime.

4) Youtube. Youtube just gets honorable mention for terrible load times, even though Youtube videos are the shortest of the services listed here and less affected by our lousy internet speed. Even videos that are 1 or 2 minutes long can take much longer than that to load.

UPDATE: Having now watched nearly 3 seasons of Doctor Who on Amazon Prime videos, it is a strong second place. Rarely does the video drop out or buffer, and the quality on Amazon seems to have distinct levels. When we’re lucky we get quality 2, which is very nice, as good or better than Hulu, but often it is on the lowest quality video, which can be rather pixelated but still watchable.

2 Responses to “Streaming video in low-bandwidth situations”

  1. bluejpro Says:

    Hi Aaron
    I love your post — I’m a suburban web designer and dream of supporting a country horse farm from the home office.

    And of course that requires a very-much plugged in lifestyle.

    It’s a real challenge to post videos on customer websites and have them not play back choppy in low bandwith situations. One customer has a bandwidth of only 175 kb/sec. And he is experiencing choppy playback on a video I put on his website for him.

    I’ll keep working on it – thanks for sharing your experience, and for being patient enough about it to make some very helpful comparisons.

  2. M Says:

    I got the same problem! I’m outside the U.S and internet here isn’t really good, so I use VPN to watch netflix. However, the VPN slows down my internet connection and I only get to watch Netflix in poor quality. I though about letting it to buffer as I found away on how to make netflix play high resolution or HD instead of your connection speed ( click ctrl+alt+shift+s when playing the video, make sure the ‘silver light’ thing appears before clicking) unfortunately, netflix do not allow long time buffering 😦 I wanted to let it buffer and then use Audials (screen recorder) to record netflix and watch it whenever i want 😀 but i got stuck with BUFFERING!!!!!!!!

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