Why Streaming Still Sucks

Why Streaming Still Sucks

We interrupt your movie (with our sincerest apologies) for this special message from Fandor VP of Product Albert Reinhardt.

Twenty years ago, the average computer strained to play video from a CD-ROM using an inadequate 386 processor. Nowadays, we’re trying to deliver the same amount of data to your phone, over a wireless connection, while you’re riding the subway.

Despite the prevalence of high-speed connections, the morass of streaming infrastructure and plethora of delivery platforms makes watching movies on your computer much more complicated than it might seem. This brings us to the the internal question: why, in this day of age, do we still have to deal with that infernal buffering?


Please wait: buffering…

Rotating pinwheels have become a thing of nightmares for many internet users (don’t worry, we feel your pain). Regardless of the underlying cause, in the eyes of you the viewer the end result is the same: poor streaming leads to a bad movie watching experience.

At Fandor, our engineering and customer support teams go to great lengths to minimize the occurrence of streaming disruptions and, when they do happen, investigate the root cause in order to address them properly.

If you’ve ever tried to watch a video on the internet and have experienced buffering, there are a number of factors that could be the source of the problem:

  1. Connection speed
  2. Network traffic
  3. Hardware

Let’s look at them one by one.

Connection Speed

Most people have a DSL or cable connection that should be sufficient for streaming movies. For example, your connection may support a download speed of 12MBps (megabytes per second) at its most efficient. In practice, you need roughly 1.5MB to ensure “good” streaming quality, but your actual, “practical,” streaming speed might be significantly less than what your network is capable of when it’s firing on all cylinders. Here are a few issues that could be slowing down your connection speed:

Local network – Do you have teenagers (or a husband) who play World of Warcraft? Are you streaming Pandora on a computer in another room? If you have a lot of activity on your home network it can cause congestion with your movie playback. If you’d like to stream a movie, it’s best to stop other activity occurring over your network.

Last mile – If you’re on a cable connection, the connection speed highs can be very high (12-25 MBps) when conditions are perfect. But when everyone is streaming the last season of Breaking Bad on Saturday night, the pipe to the neighborhood backs up and everybody loses. There isn’t a great solution to this recurring problem. However, DSL is always an alternative; although it usually doesn’t have as high a top end speed as cable, it does have fewer issues with congestion.

Fluctuating bandwidth – If you have good top end bandwidth but it fluctuates then your streaming quality can oscillate up and down while you’re watching a movie. In this case, we suggest you lower the bandwidth of your Flash player by clicking on the HD button in the player toolbar and selecting a slower stream (bit-rate) to avoid buffering (see below).

HD Button

Network Traffic

Senator Ted Stevens was right: the guts of the Internet is a series of tubes that gets clogged because we fill it up (with movies!)

Senator Ted Stevens

It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. Duh.

There are a few ways to characterize the issues that occur because of network traffic. When your data travels through multiple internet providers to get to you, the further you are from a server the more there is that can go wrong. Data can get lost in transit or latency causes problems with playback. At Fandor, we try to get good coverage no matter where you live, but the biggest data centers are on the east or west coast so customers located there are served quickest.

Occasionally, an Internet service provider like Comcast is overburdened in a location and has to rent bandwidth from another provider. This can cause your movie to makes 20 ‘hops’ before it gets to you instead of 3. In my personal experience, I saw a file go back and forth between Seattle and San Francisco a couple time before coming back to my TV (this ruined date night).

Display Hardware

It’s possible that your computer or streaming platform could have trouble keeping up with your internet connection. This could be because the server is sending too large a file or you have other programs running in the background that interfere with drawing the frames to the screen, which can lead to jerky playback. Additional complications may arise depending on what operating system and internet browser you use. Then, there are the different programs and devices you use to actually stream the film, each with their own idiosyncrasies. Let’s take a closer look at these.

Flash – Yes, it’s the de-facto industry standard, but it’s also unfortunately plagued by performance issues related to frame dropping. In addition to requiring a lot of processor power, there have been intermittent issues that have cropped up in the last year related to sound sync while watching movies with Flash on a variety of internet browsers.

Silverlight – Microsoft’s answer to Flash. It does an OK job with playback, with some caveats; it’s not installed by default (Flash usually is) and it isn’t as widely adopted as a result.

HTML5 – It works on phones, tablets and you can embed it. BUT, there is no baked in rights management system, which helps protect content from being illegally distributed. At Fandor, we need to protect our filmmaker’s content from piracy, so this isn’t an option for us at this time.

Other platforms – iOS, Andorid, Roku, Sony, Vizio, Panasonic and Chromecast. The list of TV’s, set top boxes and mobile devices is pretty long (and still growing). Most of these devices use HLS and MPEG-DASH to stream content, both of which are optimized for delivering the highest quality picture based on the available connection and adjusting playback as needed. So, you can get HD quality streaming on your tablet and phone and, if the stars are aligned, you can even cast/airplay it to your TV. There can be bandwidth issues when trying to play films on a 3G connection, but on wi-fi it it generally works well.

What are we left with?

What are we left with?

While most people can watch movies over the internet without any problems, occasionally some people will have less than pleasant experiences. Assisting members who encounter streaming issues while watching movies on Fandor is something we are intent upon. If you ever encounter persistent buffering, or starting or stopping of your movie, we encourage you to contact our customer support team (support@fandor.com) who can help troubleshoot your streaming issues. Additionally, our engineering teams are committed to building tools to better monitor streaming performance and are hard at work setting up more servers located nearer to you.

11 thoughts on “Why Streaming Still Sucks

  1. I found this because I was trying to find what bit rates you stream things at. I think you have Bytes and Bits confused.

  2. What a nonsense article, stop acting like it’s a local issue….it’s an internet issue….the whole concept of the internet is fucked up.

  3. I am a network specialist and understand home networking very well. I have had issues with Fandor buffering with every film over 15 minutes. I have streaming services such as Hulu (Criterion collection), Mubi (easy 30 day selection), Amazon Prime, Netflix and Fandor. Out of all of these services Fandor is the only one that buffers constantly. I have never seen Hulu buffer, Netflix only when I am binge watch series and even this is rare, Prime never during a film but Fandor is constant. It is a wast of time explaining this to their support team cause they try very hard to place the blame on your hardware or setup (there is nothing more frustrating that that). This is utterly ridiculous when I have so many other streaming services and none have any of the problems their service does. I even stream Google Play music while using the other services with no issues. With Fandor, I can stop all network traffic and still every film buffers. The only ones that don’t are the films under 15 or 10 minutes in length. I am strongly considering cancelling the service and just sticking with Mubi and Hulu for my serious film needs.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for reaching out! So sorry to hear that you have been continuing to suffer the dreaded buffer. It sounds as though you have tried reaching out to our Support staff, but I urge you to call us at 415-368-0330 (Support desk hours are 1-9PM PST).

  4. I’m testing a trial week. I can’t watch many movies because they go into buffering that never ends. I’m using chromecast.

  5. Actually, MUBI is now also a CPU-hog. With a good 13Mb/s connection I could always watch MUBI in HD, until recently. But then they went and changed something so now even SD staggers and jerks along unwatchably, with 100% CPU on my PC. Netflix, YouTube and BBC iPlayer continue to work perfectly in HD, with reasonable CPU levels. MUBI blames my connection and says I only get ‘less than 10Mb/s – which is a lie because I checked with my ISP, BT, and I’ve got a solid 13Mb/s.But with MUBI it seems that unless you have a brand-new PC with massive amounts of computing power,and a perfect fibre-optics Broadband connection, they just aren’t interested in serving you. Odd that a niche-market arthouse film streaming service doesn’t want your money unless your equipment is all of an absolute gold-plated Rolls-Royce standard! Oddly, they still seem happy to cater for postcard-sized screens on cellphones. Obviously as far as they are concerned my excellent and well-performing PC – I’ve tested it – is just obsolete!! Oh, yes – and they just put up the cost of a subscription to their miserable service. People are not made of money, and they don’t want to constantly have to fiddle about with their computers just to keep things working the way they did before some geek decided to change everything. I think many will begin to find that these digital gadgets are becoming increasingly less useful, and more of a time-wasting annoyance,if developers don’t start to address that section of the market that really isn’t interested in the technology, but simply wants to enjoy a consistent and reliable service! A constant itch to change things isn’t progress – it eventually becomes just a nuisance.

  6. I am trying to use Fandor in a film school setting and it is maddening. Either the picture and audio drift out of sync after 20 minutes, or buffering kills the film after about an hour. Today, in front of a full class, the film Half of a Yellow Sun stopped over and over again. Each time, it would finally start playing again, but it acted like a loop. It would play for 10 or 15 seconds, then go black, then start back at the same spot, play for the same 10 or 15 seconds and go black, Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Needless to say, the focus of the class is lost and I look like an idiot, having recommended Fandor to them. Being able to buffer the entire movie in advance would help, or some way to download the entire film into the browser. But this current system is worthless. I am back to DVDs, I guess..

      • I did exchange emails with Tech support. At first they blamed it on the lack of Flash in my Safari browser. They told me to use Chrome. I asked why would the film play at all if I didn’t have flash? They said they had recently switched to HTML5. What? So if HTML5 is working, why does it matter if I have flash or not?

        They never answered that.

        They also never addressed the situation where audio falls out of sync with the picture.

        I think the bigger issue is the streaming method Fandor employs. There is little or nothing downloaded and stored. Netflix and other streaming services do this, it’s called progressive streaming. For some reason (tech said it was due to your licensing deals), Fandor uses “direct streaming” which “feeds your network content during playback and does not send more data while the film is not being played.”

        Whatever. Basically, the bigger issue is the crappy, crowded wireless in the school where I teach. Since Fandor uses Direct Streaming, any small blip in the wireless apparently stalls the picture. Until I get a classroom with a direct, hard-wired internet connection, I have to stay away from using Fandor in the classroom.

        Also, unlike Netflix, Fandor doesn’t seem to switch the download speed to accommodate the network availability while the movie is playing. So when one chooses AUTO for a download speed, it stays at one speed. The tech told me to switch to a lower speed if there were problems. I really don’t want to screen movies in class while manually adjusting download speeds.

        It’s a bummer, because Fandor has such a great inventory of films. It is literally a university film program on line. But the technology is not ready for prime time in front of a class.

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