Thoughts on Buffering a Stream
My brother got me an Apple TV for Christmas - wonderful gift. I’d had it on my Amazon Wishlist for awhile, as one of those things I wanted but hadn’t really been able to justify buying for myself. So I was delighted to find it wrapped up under the tree.
Overall, I’m a big fan of the device. But there is one issue that, because we use it so much and thus experience the problem so often, is really frustrating. That problem is the Netflix app.
Overall, the Netflix app (player, implementation, whatever - I’m not sure what the nomenclature for Netflix on the Apple TV is supposed to be) is great. The interface is leaps and bounds better than the old streaming interface we were used on our TiVo. Through the Apple TV, we can actually browse for new content, and add to our Queue, rather than simply watching the items already in the Queue, which is sadly the extent of TiVo’s Netflix support. The app offers recommendations, lists new releases to streaming, etc. It’s a joy to use.
Here comes the “butâ€¦”
The problem is the way it actually plays content. I have never once - not once - streamed content from Netflix on the Apple TV and not had the audio completely cut out at least once during the stream. The video never falters, but without fail there is always at least one point, if not more, where the audio simply stops and doesn’t pick back up until 10-15 seconds later. Pausing, rewinding a bit, and playing over that spot fixes the problem (at least momentarily), but let’s be honest, that’s not a “fix” - that’s a workaround.
I have no idea what causes this issue. Some people suggest that it’s network congestion. Some people suggest that it’s slowness in our wireless network. That may be true, but then the bigger issue would seem to be the way the Apple TV handles buffering of the Netflix stream.
The way I see it, the following are possible ways for the UI of a stream buffer point to work:
- Video and Audio stop (screen goes blank with some sort of buffer message)
- Video and Audio pause (screen remains a video still with some sort of buffer message overlayed)
The TiVo Netflix experience is a #1 solution - the video goes black and a “buffering” message comes up. This is a very jarring way to indicate that the stream has run out of buffer. I think #2, where the video appears to pause and stays on a still of the last frame seen, is a better way to handle a buffer. It feels less like the stream has been lost.
If people are right and the audio issues with Netflix streams on the Apple TV are due to network lag (and thus stream buffering) then I would expect the Apple TV to deal with the issue using either #1 or #2. But it appears that the Apple TV keeps playing video while pausing the audio. This is almost certainly a bug because it makes no sense for the UI of stream buffering on the Apple TV to be a loss of audio without a loss of video.
If this is purposeful, then it’s just absolutely awful. The audio in a streaming video shouldn’t be considered a second-class citizen that’s expendable at the expense of keeping the visual part of the stream seamless.
I’m assuming Apple is responsible for the code of the Netflix app on the Apple TV, rather than Netflix, but whoever is responsible needs to fix this problem. If the stream needs to pause for a buffer, by all means do an elegant pause (#2) and indicate that buffering is happening. That would be far more pleasing and acceptable from a user standpoint than the sudden loss of audio while video keeps on going.