How to Get Smoother Streaming and a Better Picture on Netflix, Disney Plus and More
If your Netflix... pauses... right... before... an important... scene, or the picture quality looks like VHS, these steps can improve your streaming life.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
Does your Netflix pause and stutter? Does your Disney+ take forever to load? Is the picture quality on your Amazon Prime Video so bad it's hard to tell the elves from the orcs? These issues with streaming video are quite common, and are generally caused by your home's internet. If you have lots of people streaming on different devices, having Zoom meetings, and gaming online, it can make the problem worse.
If you've cut the cord you might not have to go back to cable/satellite. Instead, try these simple fixes. They'll help you make sure your devices have the fastest possible internet connection, and many don't cost a thing. Getting faster internet to your smart TV or streaming device will mean fewer issues and better image quality.
This is certainly the most obvious, but when was the last time you asked your provider how fast its offerings are now? If it's been a few years, it likely has new services (maybe even fiber) that could greatly increase your download speeds.
You need at least 15Mbps download speeds for 4K streaming, but really, you want a lot more than that. It's also possible there are new providers or services from other companies in your area. When I moved into my house, the phone company had the best option: a pretty fast DSL that was way better than the local cable provider. Now, said cable company has six times the speed at 60% of the price. I was able to save money and increase my internet speed quite dramatically.
This is definitely the first place to start. If you stay with the same provider, usually it'll be able to flip the proverbial switch without sending a tech to visit your home. Afterward you'll have faster internet. If you switch providers, from cable to fiber, for example, the new provider will probably have to send someone to your house to install it.
The Wi-Fi router that you get for free from your internet provider is likely terrible. I upgraded my router the day before my new internet service was installed and I got a 20% boost in speed just from that. Many providers even charge for their basic routers, so if your provider allows it, you could save some money long-term by buying a good one outright and reducing your bill a bit each month.
You'll also likely get better range and better signal throughout your home with an upgraded router. So if you've always had a bad connection in the back of the house, say, a better router might help with that.
A new or different router might also give you the option to connect via the 5GHz range ("normal" Wi-Fi is 2.4GHz). 5GHz is generally faster and has less chance of interference from other devices. However, it doesn't go through walls as well. Our favorite all-around budget option is the TP-Link Archer AX21.
If your house is particularly large, or the walls seem to be lined with lead, it's worth considering a mesh Wi-Fi system. These use multiple devices spread around your home instead of one single device. CNET's favorite mesh system is TP-Link Deco W7200.
Though convenient, Wi-Fi can be quite slow on some networks, especially if multiple people are streaming at once. Wired internet, aka Ethernet, is a lot faster and doesn't have issues with walls, interference or distance (well, not in a house, anyway). Though running wires can be annoying, it provides the most reliable connection, and can be worth doing on your main TV at least.
If you want to use a wire, check your device. Most streamers lack the Ethernet port required for a wired connection, but cheap $15 USB adapters are available for the Chromecast with Google TV and Amazon's Fire TV sticks. Most Roku devices don't work with Ethernnet, unfortunately. The exceptions are the Roku Ultra, which has a built-in Ethernet port, and the Roku Express 4K, Roku Express 4K Plus, Streambar and Smart Soundbar Pro, which all work with an optional Ethernet adapter.
Streamers with Ethernet built in, no adapter required, are generally more expensive, but they could be worthwhile if you want a simpler hookup or prefer Roku's system. Our favorite streamers with built-in Ethernet are the Roku Ultra and the Apple TV 4K.
Simply changing the location of your Wi-Fi router could help a lot. If it's on or near the ground, or in a closet or at the far end of your house, you could be limiting the signal and speed without even realizing it. Wi-Fi can go through walls, but being high up and with fewer walls between the router and streamer will make a difference. If the router has antennas, positioning them correctly can also help (one vertical and one horizontal).
The same is true on the other end. If you've got the streamer in a cabinet, that's not helping either. In a perfect world, the streamer would have a direct line of sight with the router. This isn't necessary, of course, but everything you place between the two of them decreases the signal and potentially lowers the speed.
An alternate version of this would be to get a Wi-Fi booster, or run Ethernet to a second Wi-Fi router (or the mesh option listed above). If your house is long or large, there are lots of options beyond the scope of this guide.
Limit the number of people on your Wi-Fi
Think of your internet connection as a pipe full of water. There's only so much water to go around. If you're trying to stream in the living room, but the rest of the family is also trying to stream in other rooms, there might not be enough "water" to go around. Everyone will have issues.
Who gets priority in that case, I'll leave up to you. No way I'm touching that one.
That said, moving some devices to wired instead of wireless might help that aspect of your overall home network performance. You might also try downloading your favorite shows and movies to devices such as phones and tablets to watch around the house when a balky internet connection precludes streaming.
Test your streaming speed results
An internet speed tester like Speedtest or Netflix's Fast.com can give you an idea what you're dealing with now. If you use the Android or iOS version, make sure to place the phone or tablet near the streaming device to get the most accurate result. With each change you make, test again and see how it affected the signal.
Many streaming problems can be solved with these steps I've described. The key is getting the device the fastest internet possible, by any means necessary.