"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Review: YouTube's Adaptive Streaming

Toby Roworth

Nov 18, 2013

I was going to do a post about my bedroom (finally) this week, but ran out of time, so here's a quick one about YouTube instead.
You may have noticed the spinner appearing less on YouTube videos recently. Or more likely you haven't, because it's hard to notice something's absence. This is because they've made some changes to how streaming's handled.
To explain simply, they now chunk up the videos and send you the right chuck for the right bandwidth at any given moment. This means if the connection suddenly slows down (halls...) then it'll drop the quality to a nice blocky one and if the connection speeds up (halls on a Wednesday evening) you get 1080p.
I've embedded two videos explaining this further:
This first, from the Computerphile channel (which I thoroughly recommend for simple explanations of not-so-simple computer science), is a ~10 minute video that covers the basics.

The second is from the Google Developers channel (which I also recommend for some more nerdy viewing), and is a talk from Google IO 2013, the big developer conference. This one goes right into the gritty details. It's not for the feint hearted, but is worth it if you have the time/interest.

So how does it perform in real life?

In short, pretty well - I've very rarely seen the spinner on the desktop, despite the dodgy halls internet connection. I've noticed videos go right down to 144p before, so it seems to do it's job.
Mobile doesn't tell quite such a perfect story, suggesting it still can't handle the really low bandwidth t-mobile provide me, despite them taking many monies off me every month.

Any Observations as a Designer

I still see people try to adjust the quality to maximum, instead of letting Google do the job for you. Clearly something is wrong there.
Google have a habit of releasing new features without a fanfare, letting their service continue to "Just Work". Much as I appreciate this, it runs the risk of users never benefiting from new features whilst they continue to workaround the old shortcomings.

Final Remarks

My YouTube viewing experience just keeps getting better and better, leaps and bounds ahead of the blocky little videos of yesteryear.