Some iPlayer Performance Tips

Yesterday, Amy posted this on Facebook:

Amy Dutronc wishes that iPlayer worked properly. It’s like listening to the radio and watching a really boring slideshow.

It soon turned out that lots of other people were having the same problem. They all have good Internet connections, so that wasn’t the issue- actually, even when bandwidth is low, iPlayer has some amazing built-in logic for detecting this and respondng accordingly. The issue is that some of the high-quality video now available on iPlayer requires lot of decoding power, and some computers – especially older ones and Apple Macs – aren’t up to the job. (NB. I believe there are improvements in the pipeline which will help iPlayer to improve playback even on slow machines – but if you’re still unable to get decent quality playback, the tips below may help).

The first thing to check is that you have the most up-to-date version of the Flash Player plugin. Adobe have done a lot to improve video performance (and performance in general) in recent releases. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can install the beta version of Flash Player 10.1 which has even more performance improvements. This will especially benefit Mac users, as the new “Gala” preview release is the first one featuring hardware video decoding for Macs. NB if you do install the Gala preview, you will sometimes see a white square in the corner of your video – so you may want to wait instead for the public release.

If, despite having the latest Flash Player, video still runs jerkily, here are some tips. Try them in the order shown below until you reach a level of quality which your computer can play back without stuttering.

  • Don’t play the HD version of programmes. Obviously, HD is amazing; if your machine will play it then you should definitely choose the HD option. But if your machine is a bit old, or does not have a good video card, then HD can slow it down to a crawl. On each HD programme page is a link underneath the video saying “Also in normal quality”. Click that link for a version less likely to hammer your machine.
  • Play the smaller version of the video. On “normal” programme pages, the video has an icon in the top right-hand corner showing two arrows (Update: on the new beta version of iPlayer, the size-toggle icon has moved. It is at the bottom of the media player, in between the volume and fullscreen buttons.). If you click on this, it will toggle between a big and a small version of the video. If you have problems playing the big version, click on the arrow to shrink the window down. The two actually use different video files (encoded at 1500kbps and 800kbps) – you can tell which version of the video is playing by right-clicking in the video window: a menu will pop up, and the second line will say something like “1500kbps | h264 | AK 3.5 (1) | 832×468“. The first part of that line tells you the bitrate.
  • Play the low-bandwidth version. If your machine is so clunky that it struggles even with the 800kbps video, then there is one more option: the low bandwidth version. Normally you would only see this version if your Internet connection is very poor – but you can force iPlayer to play it by clicking on the “Use lower bandwidth version” hidden near the bottom of the page. Once you’ve done this, right-clicking on the video will tell you that you’re looking at a 480kbps version. If you want to swap back up to the higher-quality version, the link at the bottom of the page will now read “Use normal version” – just click it.
  • Hopefully by following one or more of these suggestions, you’ll be able to find the best performance level for your computer.

    Disclaimer: this is not an official post from the BBC: although I worked on iPlayer and am familiar with most of the technologies used in the Embedded Media Player, I am no longer affiliated with the BBC in any way. Also, iPlayer technology can and does change rapidly: I cannot guarantee that all of the above information will still apply.