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Buffer underrun or buffer underflow is a state occurring when a buffer used to communicate between two devices or processes is fed with data at a lower speed than the data is being read from it. This requires the program or device reading from the buffer to pause its processing while the buffer refills. This can cause undesired and sometimes serious side effects because the data being buffered is generally not suited to stop-start access of this kind.

Buffer underruns are often the result of transitory issues involving the connection which is being buffered: either a connection between two processes, with others competing for CPU time, or a physical link, with devices competing for bandwidth. The simplest guard against such problems is to increase the size of the buffer—if an incoming data stream needs to be read at 1 bit per second, a buffer of 10 bits would allow the connection to be blocked for up to 10 seconds before failing, whereas one of 60 bits would allow a blockage of up to a minute.

In real-time applications, a large buffer size also increases the latency between input and output, which is undesirable in low-latency applications such as video conferencing. If the framebuffer of the graphics controller is not updated, the picture of the computer screen will appear to hang until the buffer receives new data. Many video player programs (e.g. MPlayer) feature the ability to drop frames if the system is overloaded, intentionally allowing a buffer underrun to keep up the tempo.

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