When streaming video stutters and stops

Fred langa By Fred Langa

Watching streaming video on your PC is great — until poor computer performance or a slow network turns it into an unwatchable mess.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Frequent pauses, video breakup, stutters, and hangs can often be eliminated with some simple fixes.

Unplugging streaming video bottlenecks

Reader Charles ran into a problem that we all encounter from time to time.
  • “When I attempt to play streaming news or television videos, my computer pauses every few seconds. This is continuous through the end of the video. How can I go about correcting this problem?”
I’ll answer in a sec, Charles, but first … buffering … buffering … buffering …

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OK, I’ll be serious. There are usually two reasons for erratic video playback: simple system overload or Internet connection problems — sometimes both.

When a PC is juggling too many things at once, it may no longer support the high demands of video playback. Your video then pauses, stutters, breaks up, or drops to a lower resolution.

That fix is simple: shut down all unneeded apps while you’re watching streaming videos. Especially avoid any software that makes heavy use of the PC’s Internet connection, CPU, or hard drive.

If you can, reduce the size of the video window — or temporarily switch your PC to a lower resolution. With fewer pixels to manage on the screen, your PC and its video player app may have less trouble keeping up.

Make sure your PC is set to High performance or Presentation mode in the Windows Power Options control panel. Most, but not all, PCs allow some level of performance management. For more information on using Windows power management, see:
  • XP: Microsoft’s article, “Configure Windows XP power management”
  • Vista: DotNetCurry.com’s page, “Changing power options in Windows Vista”
  • Win7: SevenForum.com’s text, “How to change the power plan settings in Windows 7″
  • Vista and Win7: Microsoft’s power plan FAQ
Your Internet connection can also cause poor streaming video performance. When a playback app eats bytes faster than the Internet can deliver them, the app pauses to let the local video cache — the buffer — refill.

Sometimes, software is at the root of poor Internet performance. For example, XP’s default networking parameters were set more than 10 years ago (when XP was being designed). These default settings are out of date for many high-speed setups today.

The solution is to tune XP’s Internet settings. The free SpeedGuide TCP Optimizer software (download page) can help you determine the best Internet settings for your particular setup.

Similarly, DSLreports.com’s site offers free tools for testing and tweaking DSL and other broadband connection settings on XP systems.

Some Web sites offer similar tune-ups for Win7′s and Vista’s networking. Don’t bother! Win7 and Vista dynamically alter their networking settings by monitoring local conditions and speeds. (See the Microsoft Technet article on Win7′s “Next generation TCP/IP architecture.”) It’s unlikely that you can tune Win7′s or Vista’s Internet settings any better than they tune themselves.

If the problem’s none of the above, then you’re probably maxing out your connection’s fundamental download speed. No software fix can help with that — you need to upgrade to a faster ISP service.

Your LAN hardware may also need an upgrade. Wi-Fi connections fall back to slower data rates when the signal strength is low. Upgrading old 802.11b Wi-Fi hardware to newer, faster, and higher-power equipment (at a minimum, at least 802.11g) can improve video streaming.

Let’s hope one of the simpler fixes works for you!

Looking for directory trees in Win7′s Explorer

Barbara was using a Win7 Library and got lost in the stacks, so to speak.
  • “I was reading Fred’s column, “Tips on working within Windows 7′s Libraries,” in the March 25, 2010, issue and read the following:

    “‘Win7′s Libraries are a powerful organizing tool, but they’re not always the best option for accessing your files. For some kinds of file management, the old way — using Windows Explorer and working within the files’ true folder — is still the best way.’

    “I have Win7 Libraries and want to use Windows Explorer with the directory tree. I have hunted and searched but cannot find it. How do I get to it?”
Think of a Win7 Library as a place on your hard drive, not as a separate app. You use the same tool — Windows Explorer — to navigate and view the contents of all folders, whether they’re in a Library or not.

In other words, if you’re viewing a Library, you’re already in Windows Explorer.

To view regular, non-Library folders and files in Windows Explorer, navigate a little further down Windows Explorer’s left-hand pane and right-click Computer. Next, select Expand from the context menu. (See Figure 1.)

win7 explorer's folder tree
Figure 1. Right-clicking “Computer” in Win7′s Windows Explorer and then clicking “Expand” opens a familiar folder tree.

Alternatively, you can click on the small triangle to the left of the word Computer to open the folder tree. That, and right-clicking Expand, does exactly the same thing. (See Figure 2.)

The left pane will then show you the next level(s) of the folder hierarchy, and you can navigate your hard drive in the normal way.

normal navigation
Figure 2. Once the folder tree is open, you can navigate it in the familiar manner.

Your copy of Windows Explorer may look different from the above, depending on how it’s been set up and used. Here’s how you can modify its appearance to be exactly what you want:

In Explorer’s Organize menu, you can change the Layout and Folder and search options settings, as shown in Figure 3. For a detailed explanation of these options, see my March 11 item, “What to do when Win7 won’t show file extensions.”

Explorer's organize button
Figure 3. Use Explorer’s Organize button to reveal or hide various options until you’re seeing things the way you want.

The appearance of Explorer’s right-hand pane can be further modified with the Change your view and More options buttons near the upper-right corner of the window. (See Figure 4.)

the change your view/more options button
Figure 4. You can change the way folders and files appear in Explorer’s right-hand pane with the “Change your view” and “More options” buttons.

Yes, it’s a learning curve. But once you’ve used the Win7 Explorer for a little while, it will seem as familiar to you as XP’s is now!

Enlarging Outlook 2007′s fonts, permanently

Jonathan Baars is trying to make a colleague’s e-mails easier to read.
  • “With the advent of new large flat screens and their declining prices, I encouraged a friend and co-worker to upgrade her monitor. However, my co-worker’s eyes are not as strong as they once were, and no matter what we’ve done, we can’t seem to find a solution to increase the size of the text in inbound e-mails when she opens them. We can modify the size of the text in the message list, when composing messages, and replying/forwarding, but not when we are opening and reading an inbound message.

    “I know that you can hold and scroll your mouse to zoom in, and the zoom is definitely an option, but it’s only useful on a per-e-mail basis. Each new inbound e-mail requires another zoom.

    “Is there a way to permanently change the settings in Outlook 2007 to make inbound message text easier to read?”
Here’s a quote from a Microsoft Office Online article:

  • “Using the [mouse] scroll wheel is the only way you can change the text size, although more options are being considered for a future version of Outlook.”
So, in a word: No.

But other e-mail clients let you do what Outlook can’t. For example, Mozilla’s free Thunderbird (download page) lets you set default fonts and sizes for inbound and outbound e-mail. Thunderbird (or a similar third-party e-mail client) might be all your colleague needs.

MS Calculator won’t remember window position

Bill Scheerer is frustrated with XP’s Calculator applet.
  • “In your ‘Make apps remember window size and location’ column [March 25], you referred to setting the location of a window when it opens. The techniques did not work with my XP calculator.

    “The built-in Calculator always opens in the upper-left quadrant of the monitor. I would much prefer the Calculator to open in the lower right of the monitor. Is there a way of doing this?”
XP’s Calculator is one of those poorly coded apps that I mentioned in the March 25 item. Its remember window position function simply doesn’t work. Never has. Never will.

Vista’s version retained this limitation, even while having an updated look and feel. D’oh!

But it’s fixed in Win7 — Calculator finally remembers its size and location! So when you eventually move to Win7 or beyond, your calc problem will go away.

Meanwhile, any of several free, third-party, replacement calculators should do the trick. Moffsoft.com’s FreeCalc (info page) is a great one to try. A quick Web search will show you dozens of other calc alternatives, too.

Have more info on this subject? Post your tip in the WS Columns forum.

Fred Langa is a senior editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He was formerly editor of Byte Magazine (1987–91), editorial director of CMP Media (1991–97), and editor of the LangaList e-mail newsletter from its origin in 1997 until its merger with Windows Secrets in November 2006.
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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.