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TV streaming 101

TV streaming 101

You know about Netflix, Amazon Prime, Chromecast and Roku. But what exactly is TV streaming?

You’ve probably heard a lot about video streaming and streaming TV, which is growing in popularity and shows no signs of slowing down.

If anything, streaming is only going to become more and more popular as providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime continue to expand their offerings and as we move further and further away from traditional telly broadcasting times.

Learn more about what streaming is and how you can stream video to your TV.

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What is streaming TV?

“Streaming” is really just a catch-all term for any videos you watch through the internet that aren’t downloaded. Streaming videos don’t have any files to download; they just consist of continuous streams of data to your device.

Therefore, when you stream a TV programme or YouTube video, you’re watching the video in ‘real time’ — meaning viewing the video at the same time the file data is being delivered to your device — rather than downloading an entire file.

This streamed data isn’t stored on your device, or at least not the entire file. Parts of the file are delivered to your device to create a ‘buffer’ to allow for a continuous video stream without interruption. Once the parts of a file have been viewed, they’re typically discarded from your device so they don’t eat up storage space.

The benefits of streaming are two-fold: Consumers can watch heaps of films, TV series or other videos quickly and without filling up their devices with video files, and broadcasters can put more content online since it’s harder to pirate streamed video.

How can I stream TV?

Watch Netflix on tablet

If you have a Netflix subscription or watch catch-up TV, you’re already doing it!

To stream TV, you just need high-speed internet, a generous data allowance and a streaming device.

In all likelihood, your internet connection is fast enough to stream video. Typically for videos in standard definition, you only need a speed of around 1.5Mbps, although 5Mbps is ideal. If you’re unsure of your internet connection, check out our speedtest to see if yours is fast enough.

If you’re streaming to a device with a mobile connection, make sure you’re on Wi-Fi or that you have enough data in your plan. Streaming can really eat into data allowances if you’re not careful. According to Netflix’s figures, one hour of streaming standard definition video uses up around 1GB and one hour of HD video uses roughly 3GB of data.

Even if you’re on Wi-Fi, your home broadband may have a usage cap. If you stream a lot of videos, you might want to consider switching to an unlimited broadband plan.

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Streaming devices

Stream on Google's Chromecast

Nowadays, pretty much any device that connects to the internet is capable of streaming videos, although most services have some restrictions in place on the number or type of devices you can use to stream content.

You can stream video on your TV using any of the following:

  • Laptops
  • Tablets
  • Smart TVs
  • Blu-ray players
  • Certain smartphones
  • Certain set-top boxes
  • Certain games consoles

Depending on your set-top box and TV, the easiest way to stream video to your TV is typically a dedicated streaming device like a Roku, Fire Stick, Apple TV, Chromecast or NOW TV box. Although you still have to pay for some individual services, streaming devices are quick and easy to plug into your TV.

You can use multiple devices on your TV as long as you have enough HDMI ports or other inputs — which is good since, again, some of these devices don’t allow you to stream certain services. Before deciding which streaming service or device is right for you, it’s important to understand the various restrictions in place.

Chromecast, for example, won’t let you stream Amazon Prime. If you have the NOW TV app on your iPad, you can’t connect it to your TV and watch it on the larger screen.

For a full rundown on what streaming devices support what services, check out our guide to turning your TV into a smart TV.

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On-demand streaming

Once upon a time, broadcasters aired a TV programme and if you weren’t home, you just had to miss it. Fortunately, things have come a long way since then, and now, we can typically watch what we want to when we want to and, thanks to the growing reach of smart devices and mobile connections, wherever we want to.

Whether you’re after the first series or most recent episode, chances are you can stream it on-demand.

Catch-up services

BBC iPlayer logo

Catch-up TV streaming lets you watch currently-airing series from the past seven to 30 days, depending upon rights and restrictions.

Most of the major Freeview broadcasters in the UK — including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 — have free catch-up TV you can stream online, either through their website or apps, which are usually available on set-top boxes, too.

Alternatively, many providers offer streaming through their own apps, including Sky, Virgin and BT.

Our dedicated guide to watching catch-up TV will have all the information you need to catch up on your favourite series.

Streaming content providers

Watch Amazon Prime series

Streaming services typically have a much more extensive back catalogue of content, including boxsets. For most of these, however, you’ll have to pay a fee.

The most popular streaming content providers are:

You can read up on each service and decide which one’s right for you by checking out their dedicated pages.

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Live streaming

Stream sports on tablet

Streaming live TV isn’t as ubiquitous as on-demand TV — for now. It’s steadily growing in popularity, but options are still more limited than streaming catch-up TV.

So far, only BBC, ITV and Channel 4 allow you to livestream TV. Some streaming services — like TVPlayer, NOW TV and Amazon Prime, if you subscribe to channels — let you livestream TV, too.

Otherwise, your provider might let you stream live TV through their apps. Currently, Virgin, Sky, BT and NOW TV’s apps let you stream certain channels live.

Premium channels are a bit easier to stream live. Both Sky Sports and BT Sport have dedicated apps so you can always watch your favourite matches no matter where you are.

To find out more about how to stream live TV, read our guide to how to watch live TV online.

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