Chemical Engineering

So what does buffering mean?

There you are, happily watching the latest ‘Vampire Slayer’, or whatever the latest viral video is, when it screeches to a halt and the word ‘buffering’ appears. A buffer is supposed to reduce impact between two things, but ‘buffering‘ is the most annoying aspect of streaming media.

So why is it called that?

The main reason for the confusion is that buffering isn’t really what’s going on when the message is displayed…

The internet is a messy environment and does not guarantee that data will always arrive in a timely fashion or even in order. To counter this programs that play streaming media queue up a few seconds or more worth of data before starting playback.

That way it there is a problem and something doesn’t turn up as expected those few seconds of stored data will provide a breathing space while things get sorted out.

As data comes over the network it goes on the end of the queue and data at the front is decoded and played back to the user. This is the method that provides the buffer – between the distant source and the local playback software.

Buffering is a common technique in computer programming and telecommunications. It comes up anywhere when data is passed from one place to another.

But you can’t plan for everything and sometimes the queue of buffered data empties out, there’s nothing left to play so the programme has to pause and wait for more data to arrive to refill the queue.

In a way these programs get it backwards. The program is constantly buffering during normal operation and that’s what keeps everything running smoothly, it’s only when things go wrong that the message pops up. It’s waiting for more data to arrive so playback can resume.

But from the user’s point of view it is confusing: they can’t make any sense of it because it doesn’t seem to correspond to any kind of buffering that they know about.

Yet the technical sense of buffering is a lot closer to the everyday sense than most computer jargon.

The buffering of streaming media really lessens the impact of unreliable or slow networks.

We have come to despise it but without buffering there would be a lot more starts and stops whenever we watched the latest movie online – and there are already enough jerks on the internet without that.

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