The main concept to understand is that the content isn't fully downloaded onto your computer or device. Think of online video streaming services such as iPlayer, YouTube and Netflix or audio streaming services such as Spotify.
When you watch a video on YouTube or play a song on Spotify, you are not downloading the entire file before you can use it, you are accessing it bit by bit on-demand.
When you stream, you only download small parts which are temporarily stored in memory.
Almost as soon as that part of the file has been watched/listened to, it's deleted and the next part is downloaded. This cycle happens continually until you get to the end.
Compare this with buying a film or music track on iTunes or Amazon. You have to download the entire file before you can use it.
Streaming isn't just about audio and video either. It's about sending any kind of data from one device to another but usually will refer to Video, Music and Pictures.
Other ways to stream
There are two main ways to stream data. The most common is as described above where you go to a particular website and watch a video or listen to a song.
But you can also stream from one device to another.
Bluetooth is becoming an ever popular way to stream music from smartphones or music players to a set of wireless speakers or directly to sound bars and AV receivers.
If you've ever displayed pictures from your smartphone on your smart TV over your Wi-Fi network, then this is another example of streaming. Your TV isn't downloading the pictures, it's streaming the files directly from your phone.
Advantages of streaming
One of the main benefits of streaming is you don't have to wait for the file to completely download before you can start using it.
Considering the size of an HD video can be a few Gigabytes, downloading a file of this size can take a very long time, in some cases several hours.
This is the main advantage of streaming as it doesn't really matter how big the file is and you can access it almost immediately (on-demand).
Disadvantages of streaming
Streaming does come with its disadvantages though.
If you wanted to watch the same video over and over again, you have to stream it over and over again.
This is bad news if your internet data plan is limited because you'll use up more data each time you stream it.
If you download a movie with a file size of 1GB, you download it once and you can use it to your heart's content, over and over.
However, if you were to stream that same file, it would use up 1GB of data every time you watched the video. Watch it 10 times, that's 10GB of data so make sure you have an unlimited data plan!
Slow or unstable internet connections can also cause problems such as poor playback, stuttering or even worse, long pauses. This can occur if either the service you're using is particularly busy (like rush hour on a busy motorway) or your own internet speed isn't fast enough to keep up with the stream.
It's also more difficult to perform trick play operations such as rewinding and fast forwarding.
You'll need a Ferrari for 4K video streaming!
Think of streaming like two cars racing around a racetrack. The audio/video file you want to stream is one car and your internet speed is the other car.
Imagine these cars represent different file sizes:
File to Stream
4K video file
Fast sports car
HD video file
Average saloon / hatchback
SD video file
*These are recommended internet speeds from Netflix's website.
Want to know how fast your broadband is? Use this internet speed checker
(Just remember to take an average over a day or two at different times)
So let's say you want to Stream a 4K video file...
- The Ferrari sets off around the track and it's your job to keep up.
- If your car can keep up then you can watch the video without any problem.
- But if your car isn't fast enough the Ferrari will eventually stop and wait for you to catch up (video pauses).
- Some services will detect if your internet connection isn't fast enough and will automatically lower the quality of the video. (So the Ferrari will change to a sports car for example).
In conclusion, if you want to stream a 4K video file then you'll need a Ferrari of an internet connection for smooth playback!
Streaming Vs. Downloading
If you ever have the choice to stream or download then it comes down to a few simple decisions.
Streaming is best if:
- You want something on-demand, right away
- You're not too fussed about necessarily having the best quality
- You're not worried about keeping or owning the file
Downloading is best if:
- You want the best possible quality
- You want to reuse or share the file over and over
- You don't mind waiting for it to download
Of course not all services will give you the choice but it's worth bearing in mind if you have the option.
Examples of online Streaming sites
There are many online video streaming sites and online music streaming sites. Some are completely free while others you need to pay a subscription for.
Best free streaming sites
- BBC iPlayer
- Probably one of the best known free online TV streaming services out there. It doesn't really get much better than iPlayer when it comes to catch-up TV and radio.
- A list about online video streaming sites wouldn't be complete without mentioning YouTube. Love it or loathe it, there's no denying YouTube's popularity and if you want to find a video for almost anything, even the most obscurest of subjects, chances are it's on YouTube.
- The second most popular video streaming site out there. A slightly more mature alternative to YouTube.
- The best music streaming site out there. Spotify offer free accounts (with ads) or paid accounts for all the music streaming you could shake a stick at.
- Deezer is the second biggest music streaming site out there.
Best subscription video streaming sites
- Now TV
- Now TV is the video streaming site you've probably never heard of. Now TV brings the best of Sky TV into your home without the need for a satellite dish or signing up to a long contract. Now TV is the our pick of the best streaming services
Check out our Now TV review
- The name Netflix is synonymous with online TV and film streaming and rightly so as they are arguably the pioneers of this market.
Check out our Netflix review
- Amazon Prime Instant Video
- Amazon Prime Instant Video is Amazon's answer to Netflix. Amazon provides access to approximately 15,000 movies and TV box sets as well as offering a healthy amount of 4K content.
Check out our Amazon Prime Instant Video review