Streaming is what allows you to consume online content without having to wait for it to download. Are you listening to some tunes while you browse the internet? Or catching up on Friends reruns in another tab? That means you’re streaming right now!

Gone are the days where you had to spend hours downloading a few songs. With the rise of music platforms like Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify, and TV and movie repositories such as Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, and Disney+, streaming is more popular than ever. But how does streaming work, exactly? Are there any downsides to streaming? (Hint: yes.) Read on for all the details on how streaming works, what to watch out for, and what innovations in streaming you can expect to see soon.

How does streaming work?

Streaming affords us the ultimate convenience in media consumption: just press a button and your song, show, or movie starts immediately! But how does streaming work?

Streaming is a means to send and receive data (such as audio or video) in a continuous flow over a network. It allows playback to begin while sending the rest of the data. For example, as soon as your computer or phone receives the beginning of a movie, you’re able to start watching it. As the movie continues playing, the rest of the data gets transmitted.

As long as you have a reliable internet connection, your device is able to play the entire movie smoothly without interruption. Any time you’ve used music services like Spotify or Apple Music, video players like YouTube or Netflix, or some types of games and apps, you’ve used streaming in action.

For companies to provide content for streaming, they’ll need servers or cloud platforms for storage. Big players like Netflix have content delivery networks that keep the most popular content cached and close to where it will be streamed, in order to reduce latency and bandwidth costs.

As a consumer of streaming content, you’ll need reliable internet with sufficient speed. It’ll need to be at least 2 Mbps (megabits per second) to provide a good streaming experience (meaning no delays or reductions in quality). While you stream content, the data is delivered to the buffer, which stores the next few seconds or minutes that are coming in the song or show. If your connection is too slow, you’ll constantly see pauses while your device works on buffering. If you want to watch in HD or 4K, you should have an even faster connection of at least 5 Mbps.

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How does streaming differ from downloading?

Note that streaming and downloading are not the same. When you want to download a movie or song, the file gets saved on your hard drive. In most cases, you can only begin watching or listening once the download has completely finished. And once you have the file, it takes up space on your hard drive. If you want to use a lot of large media (such as HD movies), you would quickly fill up all of your available space. Streaming, in contrast, plays media without downloading the file, so it doesn’t eat up precious hardware space.

Which types of content can be streamed?

In today’s media landscape, there is a wide variety of content that you can stream. Music and video are the most traditional forms, but increasingly, there are new streaming options available including games, apps, and even live events.

Music and other audio

Audio streaming, including both music and podcasts, has become incredibly popular. Music streaming allows you to play tons of songs by different artists, all without having to download a single file. Services like Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora provide millions of tracks available for streaming at the touch of a button. Some, like Pandora, have you select a genre or mood, and they curate playlists for you. Others like Spotify play exactly what you select — though playlists are also a major component of the platform. Apple Music offers a mix of both options.

Podcasts can be either streamed or downloaded to listen to later, and they’re available through services like iTunes and Stitcher. You can also stream audio files you own to other devices (such directing your phone to play audio files via your Bluetooth speaker) within your home.

Video

Video was the first mass streaming hit, starting with services like YouTube. Instead of having to download large multimedia files, video streaming involves compressing the data into small packets and sending them to your device where they’re decompressed and displayed. During a streaming session, the video is constantly buffering — while you’re viewing one packet of data, the next is in the process of decompressing so you can view the whole movie or TV show without gaps.

Some of the most popular video streaming services today are YouTube (still!), Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Google Play, and the newest large-scale edition to the scene: Disney+. 

Video streaming saves you a lot of time and hassle. Instead of downloading large files, which would occupy a lot of storage space on your device, you can watch whatever you want without having to store anything.

However, you may run into a snag if you try to stream your favorite content from abroad. Many sites are location-locked, meaning they restrict certain content to certain areas. If you’re traveling and still want to access your favorite content from back home, you can still do so, but you’ll have to use a VPN (virtual private network). A VPN encrypts your connection and lets you choose where your device appears by hiding your IP address. This allows you to set your location to appear as if it’s in a different country, successfully bypassing content blocks. Have a trip coming up? Download AVG Secure VPN to encrypt your connection on the go.

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Games and apps

Game streaming, or cloud gaming, works similarly to audio and video streaming. It saves space and processing demands on your devices by offloading them to a company’s gaming server — all you have to do is connect wirelessly. When you game in this way, you’re essentially sending commands over to a more powerful computer that executes them and streams the results back to your device. Only recently have internet speeds increased enough to make this process workable in real time.

Apple now has some games that include only their core functionality in a download, and then stream new levels or other content as users need it via a process called on-demand resources. Similarly, Google Stadia is a new game streaming service that allows you to use any device that can access a browser to play video games — no discs, downloads, or consoles required.

Other services for streaming games and apps are probably coming down the pipeline sometime soon.

How does live streaming work?

Live streaming works similarly to streaming other types of content, but it’s used especially for special events like sporting events or political debates. When watching a live stream, you visit a website (such as a news site) that is hosted on a web server. That connects to a media server, which beams the content to your device using a real time protocol (RTP) and a real time streaming protocol (RTSP). This allows video files to be sent in a smaller (compressed) form, and then viewed in a higher quality (decompressed) form on your device.

As you watch, the stream temporarily stores and displays small amounts of data on your device, then discards them as you continue. So you never receive the actual file; only the parts needed to deliver your viewing experience at any given time.

Recently, social media platforms have started incorporating live streaming elements, such as Facebook Live and Instagram Live.

Why should I stream content?

Why care about internet streaming? Simply put, convenience!

Get instant playbackGet instant playback: No need to wait for content to download. Streaming allows you to start hearing or seeing what you want almost immediately.

Avoid high costs and piracyAvoid high costs and piracy: It would be expensive to buy a CD or digital download from every band you like. And downloading albums from torrent sites is illegal. Streaming gives you the best of both worlds: a small monthly fee to a streaming service replaces the need to either buy or steal all the content you want to access.

Save spaceSave space: Unlike downloading, streaming won’t store big files on your device.

Access live contentAccess live content: Want to watch important live events like political debates or big sports games, but you don’t have a TV? Live streaming gives you access through your laptop or other device.

Access content from abroadAccess content from abroad: Are you traveling abroad but still want to watch your favorite TV shows from back home? (Who likes sightseeing anyway, right?) If you have a VPN, you can stream your favorite content from your home country on the go.

Are there any downsides?

While streaming is ultra-convenient and all the rage these days, there are a few downsides to keep in mind.

Importantly, if you lack a fast, stable internet connection and/or sufficient bandwidth, you’ll find streaming quite difficult. Your media may pause or stutter while it attempts to finish buffering, which won’t make for a very nice viewing or listening experience. Further, depending on the streaming service you’re using, the quality may be inconsistent. If your internet is going in and out, you may find that a TV show starts and stops, looks blurry, or the picture and sound get out of sync. If you’re used to high-quality Blu-Rays, you’ll notice a drop in quality. 

As long as you have good internet, streaming should work well. But with so many streaming services offering their own proprietary content, you can rack up costs pretty quickly with multiple concurrent subscriptions. You may also feel concerned about data collection and the amount of personal information that can be inferred when companies know about your listening and watching preferences.

Streaming services have also come under fire from artists who claim that the platforms make it harder for them to get appropriately compensated for their work. Tidal, the music streaming platform owned by Jay-Z, is one service attempting to give artists more of their fare share of the proceeds.

What about the security risks?

Not all streaming sites are reputable. While the big names like Netflix and Spotify are secure, there are plenty of shady streaming sites out there. How can you tell if you land on an unsafe streaming website? If the site isn’t well known but somehow offers a wide range of popular movies and TV shows, it may be streaming them illegally (aka pirating). Another red flag is if the site has the most current titles, like movies that are still in theaters.

If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to search “[streaming site] + reviews” or “is [streaming site] legitimate”. You should also look out for these other telltale signs of unsafe websites. And make sure to protect yourself from malicious downloads, viruses, and other malware with a strong antivirus such as AVG AntiVirus FREE.

Stay safe and anonymous while streaming

Just because you’re not downloading files to your devices when you stream doesn’t mean there aren’t any risks. As mentioned above, it’s important to make sure that you’re using a legitimate site that has appropriately licensed its content. 

Moreover, you can use a VPN (virtual private network) to encrypt your connection to keep you private online. Some VPNs allow you to virtually change your location, which can prevent streaming services (as well as advertisers) from targeting you based on location. Whether you’re traveling and want to access shows from back home or you want to stay safe on public Wi-Fi, AVG Secure VPN will keep you secure and private.

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