Guide to Streaming


Streaming media is a way of delivering content to internet users. Streaming means viewers don’t need to download an entire video file before they can watch a movie. Streaming media allows an audience to enjoy video or audio content as it is transmitted to them

The internet has transformed the way people consume media. Streaming is now the most common content-delivery mechanism, used for delivering live video, video on demand, internet radio, and more.

This guide to streaming will explore:

  • How streaming works.
  • Different content delivery networks.
  • How to stream content.
  • What device and internet speeds are needed to stream content.
  • Advantages and disadvantages of streaming.
  • The differences between streaming and downloading media.

What Is Streaming?

Streaming is a content-delivery method that involves continuously transmitting a stream of data to a media player. A content delivery network (sometimes called a CDN — examples include Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify) uses streaming to deliver films and audio content to its users.

Streaming takes place online — once the streaming session ends or the user’s connection terminates, the user will no longer be able to access the content. This distinguishes streaming content from downloading content.

What Is On-Demand Streaming? 

On-demand streaming allows users to access pre-recorded content from a content delivery network. 

Here are some examples of content delivery networks that offer on-demand streaming:

  • Netflix is the most popular on-demand video streaming service. Netflix uses a paid subscription model, with different pricing levels available depending on the video quality and the number of devices.
  • Amazon Prime offers on-demand streaming of movies and TV shows. Users can opt to subscribe via monthly or yearly payment — or purchase individual movies and TV shows without a subscription.
  • Spotify provides on-demand music streaming. Spotify offers a free version and a paid subscription version.

What Is Live Streaming?

Live streaming involves watching or listening to content in real-time — as it is broadcast. Content delivery networks can stream live video or audio over the internet just as television networks broadcast programming over airwaves.

Here are some examples of content delivery networks offering live streaming services:

  • CNN live streams its news programming in real-time for free.
  • Twitch provides live web streams of video games.
  • ESPN live streams sports programming in real-time for a subscription.

What Is Adaptive Streaming?

Adaptive streaming automatically decreases and increases video or audio quality in response to the speed of an internet connection. Adapting quality helps to avoid buffering and ensures a smoother user experience.

Buffering is where a video or audio file temporarily stops playing in order to fetch more data from the server. Buffering can occur when a user’s internet speed is too slow or their signal is too weak. 

What Is Pseudo-Streaming?

Pseudo-streaming is a term for a type of progressive download

Check out our Guide to Internet Speed


How to Stream Media

Streaming requires an active internet connection and a device capable of presenting video and/or audio content. 

Users can access internet video and webcasts for free via platforms such as YouTube and Soundcloud. Certain on-demand services such as Netflix require a paid subscription.

What Internet Speed Is Required for Streaming?

Streaming content typically requires a faster internet connection than downloading content. 

Netflix recommends the following internet speeds for streaming video:

  • Standard Definition (SD) — 3 Mbps
  • High Definition (HD) — 5 Mbps
  • Ultra-High Definition (4k) — 25 Mbps

Spotify recommends the following internet speeds for streaming audio content:

  • Low quality — 24 Kbps (0.024 Mbps)
  • Normal quality — 96 Kbps
  • High quality — 160 Kbps
  • Very high quality — 320 Kbps

Audio streaming requires much less bandwidth than streaming video. Streaming the highest-quality audio available on Spotify requires an internet speed of only 320 Kbps. This is around 10% of the internet speed required to stream the lowest-quality video on Netflix.

What Devices Can Be Used for Streaming?

Any of the following devices can be used for streaming content:

Streaming vs. Downloading

Streaming is one of several ways to receive media via the internet. The other primary way to access media online is via download.

What’s the Difference Between Streaming and Downloading? 

Downloading transfers content to a user’s device or hard drive in the form of an entire file. 

Most web content must be downloaded onto a device before the device can access it, including websites and images on social media. Generally, a device will store this sort of content in temporary folders that are cleared periodically to preserve memory.

Downloaded media content is intended for indefinite storage and is available for repeat viewing or listening. Except in the case of progressive download, the whole file must be present on the user’s device before they can access the content.

Unlike with streaming, a user can access downloaded media offline.

Users can also sometimes share downloaded content with others. This is problematic for publishers as it can lead to copyright infringement. Some content delivery networks put safeguards in place so users cannot share downloaded content.

Advantages of downloading over streaming include:

  • Users can repeatedly access downloaded content offline.
  • Users can sometimes share downloaded content.
  • Buffering is not an issue with downloaded content, so a user can access higher-quality video even if they have a slower connection.

Disadvantages of downloading over streaming include:

  • The user must download an entire file before they can access it.
  • Downloading requires more device memory than streaming.
  • There is greater potential for copyright infringement.

What’s the Difference Between Streaming and Progressive Download?

A progressive download is a form of downloading that can be similar to streaming. The user downloads an entire file but can start watching or listening to a media file before it has finished downloading. 

YouTube used progressive download before switching to streaming in 2014.

In progressive download, the downloaded file comes with a set of “metadata.” This metadata performs several useful functions that emulate the experience of streaming media.

For example, the file’s metadata indicates the point in the download process at which playback becomes possible (e.g. when the download is 10% complete). 

With progressive download, it may also be possible to begin playback from the middle of a movie — before the download is complete. The metadata contains a set of “seek points” spaced throughout the file to enable this. This process is sometimes known as “pseudo-streaming.” 

Because it involves the transfer of an entire file, progressive download can require more device memory than streaming. If the user only wishes to watch part of a movie, progressive download can also use more data than streaming.

Advantages of progressive download over streaming include:

  • Users can repeatedly access downloaded content offline.
  • Users can sometimes share downloaded content.

Disadvantages of downloading over streaming include:

  • Progressive download can use more data than streaming. 
  • Progressive download requires more device memory than streaming.
  • Compared to adaptive streaming, progressive download is more susceptible to buffering issues.

What’s the Difference Between Streaming and Torrenting?

Downloading media from a torrent network is a very different process from streaming. When downloading a file from a torrent network, a user must download the whole file before they can watch it. 

Torrenting splits a file into small pieces. Users (peers) download these pieces in a non-linear order. Once a user has downloaded a piece of the file, it becomes available to other users on the torrent network who can download it from the users.

Downloading a file in this way allows for quicker download rates as there is less burden on any individual server. If many people are downloading a file, this typically speeds up download rates. Conversely, if few people are downloading a file, download rates can be very slow.

Torrenting is perfectly legal in itself. However, major media publishers have not adopted torrenting as a distribution method. Much of the material available on torrent sites is copyrighted and downloading it comes with some risk of malware infection.

Advantages of torrenting over streaming include:

  • Certain content may be available from torrent networks that are unavailable from mainstream streaming services.
  • Users with slower connections may be able to access higher quality content.

Disadvantages of torrenting over streaming include:

  • The user must download an entire file before they can access it.
  • Content available via torrent networks can be illegal or unsafe.
  • Most torrenting networks don’t offer legal, mainstream content.