Hardware: Troubleshooting Stuttering Streamed Video, Part 2

Welcome to "Stream Wars: The Stutter Strikes Back." I’ve devoted two blog posts this week to the problem of poor streaming media performance because I know how important smooth-looking video and great-sounding audio are to the networked couch potato. Streaming issues divide into two categories: Those that can be attributed to hardware, covered in Part 1, and those that are due to software, which I’ll cover here.

Check the hardware issues first. If that doesn’t do the trick, turn your attention to these software tips.

If you’re not getting consistent playback of media streamed throughout your living space, look into whether other systems on the network are hogging bandwidth. Log in to your primary router’s configuration screen and check which devices the router has assigned IP addresses. If something doesn’t look familiar, your network might have an unwanted guest! This will show up as an extra IP address and host name. For instance, if you only have one wireless computer and your router is dishing out five IP addresses to wireless clients, something is amiss.

While you’re looking at your router’s configuration screen, check for quality-of-service options. Without getting too deep into the geeky details, QoS tells your router to prioritize certain applications, or even network devices themselves, above other activities on your network. If your roommates are playing "World of Warcraft" and you’re trying to stream a 1080p video from YouTube via your set-top box, the gamers might be sucking up bandwidth you need. QoS settings can tell your router to prioritize the YouTube stream over your buddies’ MMO.

Of course, factors beyond bandwidth can affect media performance. A common practice on home networks is to use a desktop PC to stream video to a connected device in the living room. Resist the urge to change the software doing the streaming — for example, switching from Windows Media Center to Tversity, or from Tversity to Orb). Switching streaming software is unlikely to have much impact on streaming quality except in certain cases, such as attempting to stream the equivalent of an uncompressed Blu-ray movie from one device to another.

Instead, if you’re using software to transcode or convert video in real time, try hitting control-alt-delete and checking your system’s CPU use via Windows’ task manager (on a Mac, you’ll want to hit up your operating system’s activity monitor, found in utilities.) If your processor is completely maxed out while the video streams, perhaps your desktop — your streaming server — just can’t keep up with the demands placed on it.

As always, if you’re streaming files from a hardware device like a network-attached storage box, make sure you’re running the latest firmware for the device. A simple software updates might very well fix the problem.

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