What does streaming mean?
Streaming means sending and receiving packets of data in a continuous flow over a network. It allows content playback to begin while the rest of the data is still in transit. Online streaming is commonly used for audio, video, and games.
For example, as soon as your computer or phone receives the data corresponding to the beginning of a movie, you can start watching it. As the movie continues playing, the rest of the data gets transmitted to your device.
As long as you have a reliable internet connection, your device can 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, apps like Twitch, or certain types of games, you’ve seen streaming in action.
How does streaming work?
For streaming to work, content like a song gets broken down into smaller pieces or data packets. These packets get sent to your browser, where its audio player interprets the data as audio. Your browser will begin to play the song as soon as it’s received enough packets.
An audio or video player will build up the upcoming data packets into its buffer. When your internet connection is too slow, your player can get stuck buffering. You may have to wait for several seconds or even minutes before enough content has built up in the buffer for playback to resume.
For companies to provide content for streaming, they 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. This reduces latency and bandwidth costs and makes it easier for you to watch TV online.
As a consumer of streaming content, you need a reliable internet connection with sufficient speed. It’ll need to be at least 2 Mbps (megabits per second) to provide a good streaming experience with no delays or reductions in quality. 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.
Streaming lets you watch shows online without having to download large files beforehand.
How does streaming differ from downloading?
Streaming and downloading are different. When you download a movie or song, the file gets saved on your hard drive. In most cases, you can begin watching or listening only once the download has finished. Streaming, by contrast, plays media without downloading a file.
The benefits of downloading are that you won’t have any buffering issues, and you can have your favorite content saved in a convenient place. But, once you download a file, it takes up space on your hard drive. If you want to download a lot of large media files (such as HD movies), you would quickly fill up all of your available space.
While streaming can sometimes be difficult if you have a slow internet connection, it means content never takes up space. And with the plethora of streaming options available — music services like Spotify and Apple Music; video players like YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max; social streaming platforms like Twitch; and many games and apps — streaming has become easier than ever.
Which types of content can be streamed?
In today’s media landscape, there’s a wide variety of content that you can stream: audio and video are the most traditional forms, including music, podcasts, TV shows, and movies. 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 lets you play tons of songs by different artists, all without having to download a single file.
Services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music provide millions of tracks available for streaming at the touch of a button. On some, like Pandora, you can select a genre or mood, and they’ll 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 as directing your phone to play audio files via your Bluetooth speaker) within your home.
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 packet is decompressing so you can view the whole movie or TV show without interruption.
Some of the most popular video streaming services today are YouTube (still!), Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Google Play, and 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 have problems 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 sends your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel.
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.
Games and apps
Game streaming, or cloud gaming, works similarly to audio and video streaming. Game streaming saves space and processing demands on your device by offloading them to a company’s gaming server — all you have to do is connect wirelessly.
When you game stream, 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 they 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 in development. And depending on your needs, there may be some benefits to gaming with a VPN, whether you’re playing GTA 5 or any other game.
What is live streaming and how does it work?
Live streaming works similarly to streaming other types of content, but live streaming is used for special events like sporting events or political debates. As you watch, the stream temporarily stores and displays small amounts of data on your device, then discards them as you continue.
When watching a live stream, you visit a website (such as a news or sports site) that’s hosted on a web server. That web server 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). Those protocols allow video files to be sent in a smaller (compressed) form, and then viewed in a higher quality (decompressed) form on your device.
Like any type of streaming, when you watch a live stream, you never receive an actual file — you get only the parts needed to deliver your live 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, streaming content is super convenient!
Get instant playback: No need to wait for content to download. Streaming lets you start watching or listening to what you want almost immediately.
Avoid 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 space: Unlike downloading, streaming won’t store big files on your device. You’ll get access to tons of music and movies without filling up your hard drive.
Access 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 abroad: Are you traveling abroad but still want to watch your favorite TV shows from back home? One of the benefits of a VPN is that you can change your IP address to stream your favorite content from your home country on the go.
How to improve your streaming experience
Struggling to stream your favorite content? Here are some ways you can improve streaming on your computer, phone, or other device:
Boost your Wi-Fi: You need a fast enough internet connection to properly stream. Try boosting your home Wi-Fi signal strength to improve streaming speed.
Reduce buffering: Internet speed may not be the only factor causing buffering. See our tips to reduce buffering while streaming.
Unblock streaming options: Are you travelling abroad and find that your normal streaming options are blocked from your current location? Use a VPN to unblock the websites you want to stream from.
Prevent ISP throttling: Your ISP (internet service provider) can limit your internet speed if they notice you’re using a lot of bandwidth. Use a VPN to help prevent ISP throttling and stream as much as you want.
Protect yourself if streaming on public Wi-Fi: While catching up on shows might seem like a great way to spend your airport layover, there are a lot of risks to using public Wi-Fi. Use a VPN to protect your usernames and passwords while on public Wi-Fi.
Clean up your devices: Your computer may struggle to stream if it’s bogged down with junk files and other digital leftovers. Try cleaning up your PC or speeding up your Mac for better all around performance.
Make sure you have enough memory: Without sufficient RAM, your computer may struggle to stream if you’re using a bunch of other apps at the same time. In rare cases, you may even need to upgrade your RAM for better streaming performance.
Optimize your PC for gaming: Whether you want to stream games or play games online, it’s always a good idea to boost your gaming rig for optimal gameplay.
Are there any downsides to streaming?
While streaming is very convenient and popular these days, there are a few downsides to keep in mind.
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.
Also, 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 online tracking, data collection, and the amount of personal information you leak that can be picked up by companies interested in knowing 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 a fairer share of the proceeds.
Are there security risks of streaming?
There are some security risks with streaming, especially when using streaming sites that aren’t 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). If the site has the most current titles, like movies that are still in theaters, they’re likely pirated.
Another red flag is if tons of ads bombard your device as soon as you visit the streaming site. These ads can be laced with malicious software, which can infect your device as soon as they get displayed. Try using an ad blocker to prevent these ads from loading.
If you’re not sure if a site is legitimate, 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 virus scanner and malware removal tool.
Stay safe and anonymous while streaming
Just because you’re not downloading files to your device 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 licensed its content appropriately.
Moreover, you can use a VPN (virtual private network) to encrypt your connection to keep you private online. VPNs let you easily change your (virtual) location, which can prevent streaming services and advertisers from targeting you based on your location.
Using a VPN while streaming lets you access content not be available in your physical location.
Whether you’re traveling abroad and want to access shows from back home or just want to stay safe on public Wi-Fi, AVG Secure VPN will keep your online activities secure and private.