How to Troubleshoot Streaming Media, Part 1: Hardware Issues

Nothing ruins movie night like seeing a stuttering mess when you stream the action flick du jour across your home network, but the fact is that streaming video is a technology-intensive activity. Sometimes you run into a hitch, and when you do, you need to know how to fix it.

Lots of devices can stream media over a home network, including network-attached storage, desktop or laptop PCs, and set-top boxes that pull content directly from the Internet. I can’t tell you precisely how to troubleshoot them all, but I can offer a few tips and techniques to try out when the pivotal action sequence in "The Bourne Supremacy" looks more like a slow-moving flipbook.

First, check your network connections and hardware. How fast is the source you’re streaming from? How fast is the protocol that’s transmitting it? If you’re trying to stream a 1080p movie you found on YouTube over a DSL Internet line, the slow connection speed is going to pose problems. Your ISP is the bottleneck. Either dial back the video quality or sign up for a speedier Internet connection.

Now, if you’re running into problems streaming movies over your internal network, maybe your network is the bottleneck. The quality of your network connection can adversely affect streaming performance, especially if you’re trying to stream over a wireless connection. Wireless-G just isn’t fast enough for higher-resolution content like 1080p video. You can probably get by with 720p video depending on the media’s compression scheme and, ultimately, the bitrate. In other words, the theoretical maximum data rate of every piece of equipment in your network determines just how much data can flow over the airwaves and eventually make it to your television or flat-screen display.

If you want to ensure perfect streaming, go wired. A fast Ethernet connection can stream a 1080p-quality file without difficulty, and gigabit Ethernet is even better. With a wired connection, your network’s performance won’t be subject to issues arising from thick walls, radio interference, and other conditions that can degrade wireless signals. Powerline networking is also a great solution if you want to tap into the speeds of a wired connection without actually slinging new cables around your house.

And remember — just because you’ve set up your network using, say, a Wireless-N or Gigabit Ethernet doesn’t mean your streaming devices can take full advantage of those protocols. If your Xbox 360 sports fast Ethernet or you’re using a wireless-G Ethernet bridge to hook up a set-top box, the network’s speed will be limited to the slowest connection in the chain. Check device specs carefully and see if the problem lies there.

Tomorrow we’ll look at software issues in Troubleshooting Stuttering Streamed Video, Part 2.

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