What is the difference between streaming and downloading?

Confused about the difference between streaming and downloading? read on to find out more.

Image: Netflix

The terms streaming and downloading have both become very popular in recent years, but what exactly do they mean? Check out our handy guide to find out.

What is streaming?

Streaming refers to the act of transferring video content over the internet in real time from an outside source to a connected device like a TV or laptop.

It's become an absolutely huge trend in recent years with the explosion in popularity of platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video which allow anyone with a stable internet connection to enjoy a massive array of films and TV shows for a small monthly subscription fee.

What is downloading?

Downloading on the other hand, is when you physically save a copy of a media file onto a device. Although it might have slightly negative connotations, it's a perfectly legal activity as long as you pay for your selected content from a reputable source like Apple or Sky.

So I've got to be connected to the internet in order to stream or download content?

Streaming requires either an internet or mobile data connection at all times because you're receiving a continuous stream of data. Downloading however, actually only requires you to be hooked up to the internet for the act of transferring the file to your device.

The ability to enjoy your content offline is one of the biggest advantages downloading has over streaming. It's perfect for catching-up with your favourite shows on your morning commute or keeping your family entertained on long journeys, and now that portable devices like tablets and smartphones feature such brilliantly sharp screens it all looks just as good as it would at home on your large TV.

Some of the major streaming sites, Netflix and Amazon in particular, now allow you to download shows for offline viewing. While not every film or TV show is currently available for download, the list is constantly being added to so keep checking back to see what's changed.

How fast does my internet connection need to be?

This really depends on what kind of format you plan to stream or download in, how many other people are using your connection and what exactly they're doing on it.

In both instances, you'll need considerably more bandwidth if you'd like to enjoy a lot of content in format like HD or stunning 4K which make for very large data files than if all you're likely to watch is a few 30-minute SD TV shows a couple of times a week.

Netflix and Amazon have both released figures which tell you the level of broadband speed required to be able to enjoy their SD, HD and 4K content respectively.

For Netflix, you'll need a speed of 3Mbps per second in order to enjoy SD content but with Amazon, you'll need one of just 2Mbps. Both of the streaming giants require speeds of at least 5Mbps for HD films and TV shows and 25Mbps for that glossy 4K UHD content.

Your home broadband offers you a certain download speed and the higher it is, the quicker you'll be able to recieve content. For example, at a speed of 10Mbps a 45-minute HD TV show will take under 20 minutes to download but at 24Mbps it'll take a bit below 10. 

If there's always going to be a lot of people using your internet, if you're living with multiple flatmates or have a big family for example, you'll definitely need quicker internet than a couple or someone who lives alone as they'll all be using up your bandwidth. This will be especially true if they're all enjoying data heavy activities like gaming or HD streaming.

Where can I stream and download content from?

There's almost an endless supply of sites to stream from including one like Netflix, Amazon, Hayu and NOW TV which you have to pay a small monthly subscription fee for and free catch-up services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD and Five On Demand.

There's an equally large amount of places to download from like the iTunes and Google Play Stores along with those which come packaged in with TV bundles like the BT Store, TalkTalk Store and Sky Store.

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