- Streaming powers some of the most popular apps in the world, including YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, and more.
- When you stream a movie or song, the data is sent to you as it’s playing, meaning that you don’t have to wait for the entire file to download first.
- Although streaming is great for saving on storage space, it requires an active and fast internet connection, and uses a great deal of data.
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If you’ve used the internet for any period of time, there’s a very good chance you’ve streamed something. Whether it be through YouTube, Spotify, Netflix, or a hundred other apps, streaming makes up some of the internet’s most popular apps.
But with how widespread streaming is, it’s easy to take it for granted. For example: What even is streaming, actually?
Here’s everything you need to know about streaming, including how it works, its pros and cons, and what you’ll need to stream effectively.
Streaming lets you watch movies and listen to music faster
You’re probably familiar with the concept of downloading a file, in which you find and save an image, video, or program to your device from the internet. In most cases, you’ll need to wait until that file is completely downloaded and processed before you can open it.
Streaming, on the other hand, lets you interact with the file as its downloading. This means that you won’t have to wait very long at all to start watching your movie or show.
Another difference is that while downloading a file stores it on your device, most streaming media is temporary â€” once you close the streaming app you’ve been using, all the data is cleared from your computer. Even if you don’t have much space to keep files, you won’t have to worry about streaming.
The advantages and disadvantages of streaming
Streaming is an immediate and continuous method of accessing content from the internet. It’s become the predominant way for people to experience music and videos, with video streaming service Netflix responsible for more than 37% of all internet traffic during peak usage hours, for example.
And for good reason. Here are the main advantages of streaming:
- Streaming is immediate â€” streaming content starts to play more or less instantly, regardless of how large the audio or video file is. There’s no need to wait for it to download in its entirety.
- Streaming doesn’t require storage space. You don’t need a large hard drive to hold content you want to watch or listen to, unlike the way you need to download apps and have sufficient space to store them.
- Most streaming apps let you choose what you want to watch or listen to freely, meaning that you don’t have to abide by a cable or radio schedule.
On the other hand, streaming has some limitations:
- You need an active internet connection. You can only stream if you’re connected to the internet, so you can’t use streaming services without cellular data, Wi-Fi, or an Ethernet connection.
- Streaming is a real-time activity; if you want to watch the same movie again later, for instance, you’ll need to have an internet connection every time you play it. A downloaded file, in contrast, only needs to be downloaded once for indefinite playback.
- You might be limited by your internet connection speed. Your connection must be fast (and reliable) enough or streaming playback will fail, with audio or video playback that starts, stops, stutters, and buffers.
Buffering is when the video or song you’re streaming stops for an extended period, so it can download more data. If you’ve got a slow internet connection, you’ll probably experience a lot of buffering.
How much internet speed is needed for streaming
While streaming can be affected by a slow or unreliable connection, almost any internet service that qualifies as “broadband” is enough to stream most content. Specifically:
- Audio: To stream audio content like music and podcasts, your speed should be no less than 1.5 Megabits per second, or Mbps.
- HD video: To stream high-definition video, you should have at least 3Mbps.
- 4K video: To stream 4K UHD video, you should have 25Mbps.
- Gaming: There are some relatively new cloud-based gaming services that let you stream games without downloading, installing, or storing games on your computer. Broadband requirements vary dramatically depending on the screen resolution and game complexity, but in general you need at least 10Mbps for games in HD and 35Mbps for games in 4K.
If you don’t know how fast your internet is, try taking a speed test.
Factors that slow down streaming
Streaming, despite being so commonly used, is a somewhat fragile process and a number of factors can interfere with it.
As mentioned, your broadband speed is perhaps the most common issue with streaming â€” you need enough speed to prevent stuttering and streaming failure. Likewise, you need a reliable connection, and that means Wi-Fi glitches and dead spots can cause streaming playback issues. You need to make sure your Wi-Fi is reliable, or use a wired Ethernet connection if possible.
Your device also needs to have enough processor speed and memory to stream video. This generally isn’t an issue for modern phones, tablets and computers, but an old PC can have trouble “keeping up” with HD or 4K streaming video.
And of course, streaming issues can be caused on the network’s side as well; if your internet provider or the company that runs the streaming app is having issues, you’ll probably have issues too.