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Last updated: 11 January 2022
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?
Essentially, streaming is the term used for the technology that delivers video or audio content to your device without you having to download it.
In the past, to watch a video or listen to an audio file, the user had to first download the file before using it. With streaming, your device connects directly with the data source, which then sends data to your device continuously and in sequential order, allowing you to watch or listen to media immediately without having to download the whole file first.
It is because internet speeds have improved so much in recent years that this is now possible to do; when internet speeds were slower it wasn’t always possible to stream high quality videos because people’s internet connections couldn’t keep up. Now this isn’t such an issue, and access to 4K video content is now the norm for video streaming services.
What are the advantages of streaming?
- Instant playback – Depending on how fast your internet connection is, you should be able to access content immediately without having to wait for it to download first.
- Uses less space – As you aren’t downloading and storing files on your hard drive / memory, you won’t need to manage your storage regularly with streaming services. When streaming content, your device should delete the data after you use it.
- Simple to use – Streaming services are straightforward and simple to use. Unlike some download services, getting a movie or song going on a streaming platform is as simple as clicking play.
- Lower barrier to entry - With streaming services all you usually need is a device with a screen and an audio output. You don't need a particularly power device to run a stream as most of the processing is done externally.
- An alternative to cable/satelite services - For some, getting tv bundled in with their broadband is important, but want a more flexible service. Streaming video services are a viable alternative for those who want to access the latest movies and TV shows, but don't want to commit to long term TV contracts.
What are the requirements for streaming content?
The main requirement is a relatively fast internet connection. Your device needs to be able to consistently access the data source to play your streamed content without having to buffer constantly.
The minimum requirements for each streaming service differs, but on most connection speeds in the UK you will be fine.
We always recommend a user opts for superfast fibre broadband, but even if you are only able to access ADSL or a 4G connection, you should meet the minimum requirements needed to stream (you might not be able to do much else at the same time online though!).
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, at a minimum. For more details on this, see our page on the best broadband for 4k streaming.
What media can I stream?
Streaming video is one of the most popular ways to consume media today. According to the Global Internet Phenomena Report by Sandvine, video now accounts for over 48% of traffic in 2021.
Video streaming has improved considerably over recent years; almost all streaming services in the UK offer 4K HDR streaming now, offering HD content at the very least.
Some services offer up to 8K streams (YouTube for instance), despite not many people having access to such high resolution displays yet!
There are plenty of different video streaming services to choose from as a result. Netflix is the most popular streaming service, but there are many others available in the UK including:
There are too many to count, and they all have their benefits. For more information on these different services, see our page on choosing a streaming service.
Streaming music was probably most people’s first streaming experience. Because audio files are usually much smaller than video files, they are simpler for slower internet connections to manage efficiently.
Most audio streaming services use compressed audio files for streaming. Whilst this technically means that the audio you stream online won’t sound as good as a CD or record copy of the same track, opting for higher bitrate streams (e.g. 192 to 320 Kbps) will provide a similar level of quality to a CD, so much so that most people won’t be able to tell the difference.
If you are looking for an audio streaming service, there are plenty to choose from:
- Apple Music
- Amazon Music
If you want to find out more about these different services, see our page on finding the best music streaming services.
A relative newcomer to the streaming scene, video games can now be streamed to certain devices if you have the internet connection able to handle it.
Because there is so much going on in video games at one time, much more than with video or audio alone, you will need a very fast internet connection to be able to play streamed games properly.
If you do have access to superfast internet speeds, streaming video games is a great way to play without having to deal with downloading a whole game, some of which can be over 100GB in size these days.
It can also be much cheaper to stream games; as you are streaming to a device from a remote server, there is no need for high spec PCs or consoles to deal with processing the game and graphics. This is all done by a server somewhere else in the world, so all you need is a screen to stream content to.
Some video game streaming services include:
- Xbox Game Pass
- PlayStation Now
- Google Stadia
Can I stream if I have a data allowance?
Almost all home broadband deals now come with unlimited data allowance, so you should be able to stream to your heart’s content.
Most mobile phone contracts in the UK do come with a data allowance though.
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 (if you have one). So if you are streaming to your mobile phone, make sure you keep an eye on your data allowance!