Streaming is a process that allows you to watch TV via devices that are connected to the internet, such as smart TVs, laptops, smartphones, and gaming consoles. You can screen both pre-recorded content, such as movies and TV shows, and live events, including sports matches and awards shows.
Before you can stream TV, you’ll normally need to sign up to a subscription service, which will provide you with access to its content for a monthly fee.
Although there are dozens of streaming services available, providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, and Sling TV are among the biggest. Following the surge of popularity in streaming during the mid-2010s, many of the best TV shows and documentaries are now shown exclusively on these services. Some shows will also be released through other mediums such as DVD after they have premiered on a streaming service.
Unlike scheduled programming, on-demand streaming doesn’t require you to watch at a certain time of day, which makes it a more convenient option for many viewers. And, unlike network or cable television, much of the content available through streaming services is ad-free.
In addition to TV shows and movies, you can use streaming to watch—or listen to—music videos, podcasts, and webcasts.
How does TV streaming work?
Streaming works by transmitting video and audio data through a computer network or internet connection, which your device will then playback in real time.
As with any files sent over the internet, the audio and video files transmitted for TV streaming are separated into packets of data, which each contain a portion of the file. Once your device receives the information in these files, it will render this data as the images and sounds that appear on your screen.
Because streaming operates on a continuous basis, you can begin watching a piece of content while the remainder is still in the process of being transmitted. The rest of the file will be sent as you watch, which means you shouldn’t experience any interruption to your viewing.
Although many people tend to confuse streaming and downloading TV, there are several key differences between the two. Unlike streaming, downloading requires you to receive an entire file before you can begin playing it back, which often makes streaming a quicker and more efficient process. And, unlike downloaded files, any content you stream won’t be saved locally on your device.
What do I need to use TV streaming?
To get started with streaming TV, you’ll normally need a stable internet connection, access to a streaming service, and a device with online capability.
If you’re planning to watch on a TV, you’ll need a smart TV or streaming device. Almost all TVs sold today are smart TVs, which means they are capable of connecting to the internet and have apps for streaming services already installed.
A streaming device is a piece of equipment that will connect to your home theater system or TV and allow you to view content through a streaming service. Popular streaming devices include Amazon Fire TV Sticks and Roku Streaming Sticks.
Before you start streaming TV, you should check your internet speed to ensure your connection can process the data required for streaming quickly enough. In general, you’ll need speeds of at least 3MBPS to stream standard definition videos and at least 5MBPS for high-definition content. If you’re planning on watching 4K Ultra HD content (which is at an extremely high resolution), you may need up to 25MBPS.
You should also check your data allowance before you begin watching TV online as streaming can eat up a good chunk of your permitted usage. According to Netflix, streaming one hour of standard definition video uses approximately 1GB of data and streaming at high definition can use up to 3GB, while Ultra HD can consume up to 7GB.
How to choose the right TV streaming service for your needs?
With so many excellent streaming services available, finding the right one will ultimately be a personal decision. However, there are certain key factors you might want to consider.
When you’re choosing a subscription service, your main priority is likely to be finding a provider that offers the shows, or at least the genres of TV, that interest you. Likewise, you should search for a provider that offers your preferred networks and channels if you’d prefer to stream live TV content. You can find more information about which services are best for which types of viewing in the chart above.
Although there are several free streaming services available, these tend to offer extremely limited content, which means they may not be suitable for more dedicated viewers. For many people, ease of use is another key consideration when choosing a streaming service.
If you’re not particularly tech-savvy, you don’t want to waste time searching through the service’s directory to find your desired show or broadcast. Although the more established services have plenty of experience in creating user-friendly viewing experiences, you may find some of the interfaces on newer streaming services less easy to navigate.
If you’re a fan of watching TV on the go, you may prefer a streaming service with a reliable mobile app that will allow you to easily stream content on your phone regardless of your location.
You should also consider whether you’ll need a provider that offers concurrent streaming. As the name suggests, this feature will allow you—and other members of your household—to watch more than one piece of content through a single account at any given time.
If you and your family have different tastes in TV, the freedom to watch multiple streams could prove essential for family harmony. Although every service is different, some providers allow you to watch up to 4 streams concurrently.
As with any of the utilities or services in your home, cost is likely to be a key factor when you’re choosing a streaming service. As well as seeking a service with a reasonable monthly fee, you should check whether the provider offers any free trials or if you could save money by opting for a budget plan. In many cases, streaming services will charge a lower monthly fee for packages that offer only standard-definition videos or do not allow you to stream on multiple devices.
Do I need a new TV to use TV streaming?
Although you may not need a brand new model to watch TV online, your device will need to meet certain requirements for streaming to work. As a rule, you’ll need a TV that is considered smart, which means it can connect to the internet and, in all likelihood, will already have streaming apps built in at the time of purchase.
Can I watch live TV through TV streaming?
Yes, live streaming allows you to watch events such as sports games, awards shows, or political broadcasts over the internet as they happen. See the chart above for more information on which services offer live viewing.
Will I be able to record shows to watch later?
If you’re streaming through an on-demand service, you’ll likely have no need to record shows for later viewing as all available content can be accessed through your main interface at any time. With live broadcasts, you can record these transmissions via a digital video recorder (DVR). Although some smart TVs will already have a built-in DVR, you may need to purchase a separate DVR to record your stream.