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Streaming services explained

Streaming services explained

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Last updated: 20 August 2021

Streaming is fast becoming the most popular way to consume content, with dozens of sites offering thousands of TV shows, films and other media at the click of a button. But how does it all work?

What is streaming?

Streaming is fast becoming the most popular way to consume content, with dozens of sites offering thousands of TV shows, films and other media at the click of a button. But how does it all work?

Is streaming the same as downloading?

Not quite. When you download something, it’s then available to watch offline. That means you can catch up on the latest episode of your favourite show whilst on the tube, or listen to your playlists wherever you are.Of course, you need an internet connection to download it in the first place, but once that’s done the content is stored on your device, which you can access anytime.

Streaming, by contrast, means the content is stored on a server, rather than on your device. Content therefore doesn’t take up precious storage space, but does however require a solid internet connection to run properly.

It’s worth noting that many streaming services allow you to download content directly through their platform for you to enjoy later.

Streaming services in the UK

While there are dozens of streaming platforms to choose from, with seemingly more popping up every week, these are amongst the top services available in the UK.

Netflix

Probably the best known streaming service in the world, Netflix has a huge library of content that is constantly updated. In fact, their library is so vast that we think you’ll struggle to get through it all in a lifetime.

Not only does Netflix offer a good selection of favourite shows from the past, including Friends, South Park, and Fawlty Towers, it has a host of original content that makes headlines round the world. Netflix Originals that have gone on to boast a huge following include Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, The Crown, and Tiger King. There are also 1,000s of movies to watch across all genres.

You’ll need to purchase a monthly subscription to view content, which varies in cost depending on how many devices you want to have access from. You can watch in a web browser or by downloading the app; if you have a smart TV, it’ll likely come with Netflix already installed.

 There are three subscription tiers:

  • The Basic Plan costing £5.99 per month – you can stream in SD on one device at a time.
  • The Standard Plan costing £8.99 per month – you can stream in HD and watch on two screens at a time.
  • The Premium Plan costing £11.99 per month – you can stream in UHD and watch on four screens at a time.

Pros

  • Huge library of content
  • Top quality original shows and movies
  • Content can be downloaded to watch offline

Cons

  • Expensive for multiple users
  • Trial period no longer available

Amazon Prime Video

Amazon’s on-demand service is giving Netflix a run for its money, with more original content being pumped out every month to add to its growing collection of shows and films. It has a particularly strong library of US shows, but also has a few additional channels such as BFI Player.

Amazon has recently delved into the sports market too, acquiring exclusive rights to 20 live Premier League games per season, as well as as a number of tennis competitions including the US Open.

If you’re already an Amazon Prime member, then on top of your handy next-day delivery you’ll by default have access to Amazon Prime Video content.

A Prime membership costs £79 a year upfront or £7.99 per month – that’s for the whole shebang. But if you only want Prime Video, new customers can get a subscription for £5.99 per month.

Pros

  • Top quality original content
  • Movie rentals available
  • Live sports available including selected Premier League games
  • Available in 4K

Cons

  • Library not as extensive as Netflix
  • Interface and app could be improved

Disney+

A relative newcomer to the streaming scene but fast gaining popularity, Disney+ was launched in the UK in March 2020. It is, of course, the place to watch every classic Disney movie, while it also has exclusive rights to the Star Wars franchise and Marvel films.

As well as feature length films, there’s also a wide range of TV shows to choose from, including the award-winning The Mandalorian, the entire 31 seasons of The Simpsons, and an extensive collection of National Geographic documentaries.

To get Disney+, you can either get a monthly subscription at £5.99 or month, or go for a years’ membership at £59.99. While opting to pay for the year may save you a few quid overall, we suggest you start with a monthly membership to see if the service is of any value to you before committing to a whole year.

Pros

  • Exclusive access to Disney films, Star Wars and The Simpsons
  • Cheaper than Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
  • Compatible on all platforms

Cons

  • Limited library of content compared to rivals

BritBox

Another streaming service to enter the market in recent years is BritBox, which launched as a joint project from both the BBC and ITV the end of 2019. BritBox is often billed as the ‘UK’s answer to Netflix’, and is dedicated to showing TV shows from this side of the pond.

It’s growing collection of British TV content includes fan favourites such as Downton Abbey, Love Island, and the recently revived satirical comedy Spitting Image.

However, although there’s some top-quality content to be found on BritBox, it’s essentially a combination of BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, and All 4, with everything in one place. And as these streaming services are free, paying £5.99 a month for a BritBox subscription doesn’t yet seem like a worthy investment.

That being said, your favourite TV shows are likely to stay on BritBox long-term, as opposed to just a month on some of the free services, and it will only build up its library of content over time.

Pros

  • Best selection of original British content
  • Cheaper than competitors

Cons

  • Selection of BBC and ITV shows is not comprehensive
  • No original content
  • No option to download content to watch offline

Apple TV+

Tech giant Apple launched its own streaming service at the end of 2019, with the intention of rivalling market-leaders Netflix and Amazon Prime. Its content doesn’t quite meet the standards of its rivals yet, especially in terms of quantity, but it does boast some great, exclusive Apple Original films and TV series on its library.

At just £4.99 a month, Apple TV+ is currently cheaper than it’s main competitors, although you can even beat this by signing up to their free trials. In the past, Apple has also allowed non-subscribers to watch some of its shows for free, something we hope to see a return of in the near future.

Pros

  • Cheaper than Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
  • Content available to download

Cons

  • Volume of content lags far behind competitors
  • Not compatible on Android devices

NOW

NOW, formally known as NOW TV, is owned by Sky, and is the place to go for non-Sky customers wishing to watch any Sky Sports or Sky Cinema channels. It’s a pay-as-you-go subscription service and you can choose a pass to suit your entertainment requirements. For example, you can get:

  • NOW Entertainment Membership for £9.99 a month.
  • NOW Cinema Membership (Sky Cinema) for £11.99 per month.
  • NOW Sports Membership (Sky Sports) for £33.99 a month.
  • NOW Kids Membership for £3.99 per month.
  • NOW hayu Membership for £4.99 per month, if you need your reality TV fix!

With a rolling monthly contract, you can cancel your subscription at any time, and for a few extra quid a month you can watch it across multiple devices simultaneously. You also don’t have to be a NOW Broadband customer or even have a TV - all NOW memberships are available as standalone products and can be viewed on any compatible device.

Pros

  • Cheaper alternative to Sky
  • Rolling contracts allow for flexibility
  • Compatible with most devices

Cons

  • Entertainment channels and box sets are limited compared to rivals
  • Expensive if you want all membership passes

Sky Q/Sky Go

Sky Q is more than just a streaming service, also acting as a set-top box and WiFi router. Sky Q is currently only available to Sky broadband or TV customers, although non-Sky customers can also stream Sky content via the Sky Go app, which can be watched on any compatible device.

Sky has a vast range of over 1,000 movies and box sets to choose from, and tends to get access to American shows from the likes of HBO (i.e. Game of Thrones, Chernobyl) before anyone else. 

Sky Q comes as standard for Sky broadband and TV customers, so will cost them nothing extra on top of their subscription, and Sky Go can also be added to your tablet or mobile free of charge if you’re a Sky customer. However, if you’re not, then Sky Go will cost you £15 a month, which compared to other streaming services, definitely isn’t cheap.

Pros

  • Good collection of exclusive content
  • Available in ultra-HD

Cons

  • Expensive for non-Sky customers

BBC iPlayer

One of the longest running streaming services in the UK, with BBC iPlayer you’ll get all the latest BBC content as well as access to BBC3, which is now solely online. But more than that, iPlayer also has a revolving film selection as well as new and classic shows. It’s also got a range of US programmes alongside child-friendly content options.

As a publicly funded service, it’s available to everyone in the UK and is completely free to use, provided you have a valid TV licence. However, there’s often an expiry date on programmes, so make sure you watch your favourite shows before they are removed!

Pros

  • Completely free to use with a TV licence
  • Easy to use interface

Cons

  • Certain shows are only available for a limited time
  • Library of content not as extensive as others

ITV Hub

ITV’s catch-up TV service, known as ITV Hub, gives you free access to every show broadcast on all the main ITV channels, as well as a number of box sets to watch on demand. Like BBC iPlayer, you can also watch live TV via the ITV Hub, either through your smart TV, or on any connected device such as a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone.

However, just like on the telly, you're shows will be interrupted by advert breaks every 15 minutes or so when watching ITV Hub without a subscription. Luckily, you can get rid of the ads by getting ITV Hub+ for just £3.99 a month, which also allows you to download your favourite shows to your device so you can watch them offline.

Pros

  • Free to use
  • Available on all platforms

Cons

  • Costs £3.99 a month to remove adverts

All 4

With All 4, Channel 4’s on demand service, you’ll have access to all Channel 4 content as well as some top-quality movies from Film 4. It also showcases a host of US shows from the Adult Swim network. There are adverts, though you can pay £3.99 per month to remove them. You can stream on demand, download certain shows, and watch live TV.

Pros

  • Great selection of catch-up TV
  • Good selection of Film 4 movies

Cons

  • Costs £3.99 to remove adverts

YouTube

Though it may still have associations of home-video blunders, there are actually a heap of films and TV shows on YouTube which you can watch completely for free, particularly older releases. However, it can be a bit of a job wading through to find one of good enough quality, but many broadcasters have their own YouTube channels; we recommend heading there for legitimate content.

You can also stream most of the newer blockbuster films on YouTube, although you have to pay for each film separately (either rent or buy), which could cost you up to £10 a go.

You’ll also find almost every song and its music video ever released on YouTube, so it makes a good alternative to music streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music.

The best part about YouTube is that it’s completely free (apart from the movie rental/purchases). It does come with pesky adverts, although these can easily be avoided by installing an ad-blocker if watching on your laptop or tablet.

Pros

  • Free to use (with adverts)
  • Most movies available to rent or buy
  • Massive selection of music and videos

Cons

  • Ads can get annoying
  • Most free movies are low-quality

What broadband speed do you need for streaming?

Basic broadband deals tend to have average speeds of around 11 Mbps. A standard ADSL connection will more than suffice for HD streaming if your speeds are over 5Mbps. With speeds lower than this, you may need to stream in SD.

When there are several users streaming simultaneously, you may find your connection is too slow or your quality is reduced in order to compensate. If this sounds like your household, it’s worth looking at fibre optic broadband in order to avoid the annoyance of buffering. 

For 4K Ultra HD streaming you’ll need a faster connection with consistent speeds of over 15 Mbps.

Can I stream if I have a data allowance?

Almost all broadband deals now come with unlimited data allowance, so you can stream to your heart’s content. However, some of the cheapest packages instead offer capped usage in return for their low prices.

Streaming one hour of TV in HD could use as much as 3GB of data, which may well be a considerable portion of your monthly allowance. As such, capped usage deals are only ever suitable for those who use the internet for intermittent browsing.

If you want to switch to unlimited data though, there is no end of packages available. Use our search tool to compare broadband deals in your area, so you can start binging all your favourite shows and albums worry-free. 

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Michael Quinn

Author: Michael Quinn

Michael is a dedicated author helping usave to write guides, blogs and news for the last four years. When not writing articles, you can usually find him at wine tasting events or having a political debate on the night tube.

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