The Difference Between Streaming and Downloading Media

Is one method better than the other?

In today's digital world, we hear a lot about streaming and downloading movies, music, and other media. If you're confused about the difference between streaming and downloading, you're not alone. For example, is watching a YouTube video considered streaming or downloading? We'll break down the differences between these two types of internet content serving and help you get a better understanding of your digital media.

Multimedia entertainment emerging from laptop screen, representing streaming and downloading media
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What Is Streaming?

Streaming is a way to watch or listen to content without having to download it. You'll often hear the term "streaming" in relation to watching movies and listening to music on the internet.

Streaming is a fast way to access internet content. The content is delivered to your device quickly, but it isn't stored there. The streaming content could "live" in the cloud, or on someone else's computer or server. For example, if you're streaming a movie from Amazon Prime, you can enjoy it on your Roku, Smart TV, or another device, but it resides on Amazon's servers. When you're done watching, there's no copy left on your device.

What Are Some Examples of Streaming Content?

Popular sites and services that stream content include Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, Hulu, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and many more.

For example, when you select a video on YouTube, you're streaming that video from YouTube's site and servers to your own computer or media streamer. Streaming happens in real-time; the file is delivered to your computer like water flowing from a tap.

It's important to stream content only from reputable companies that are safe and legal.

What Do You Need for Streaming?

You'll need a fast internet connection for streaming, especially if there are several users in your home sharing the bandwidth. Higher-quality video, such as high-definition video with digital surround sound, requires a faster connection.

Many streaming services will let you know the recommended internet speeds for optimum viewing and listening. Netflix, for example, recommends between 1.5 MBPS and 25 Mbps, depending on your video quality.

You'll also need something to watch your streaming content on. This can be your smartphone or computer, or it might be a Smart TV or a dedicated streaming device, such as an Apple TV, Roku device, or Amazon Fire TV device. Once you have your device set up and connected to the internet, download and sign in to a streaming app, such as Netflix, and start enjoying your content.

Downsides to Streaming

Streaming technology is becoming very sophisticated, but you still may run into a few glitches. If your internet connection is spotty or drops out, your movie or song will be unstable or even unable to play.

The most common issue with streaming is buffering. A buffer is like a song or a movie's temporary memory storage, holding the content you'll see next. This makes for a smooth viewing experience. But a slow or spotty internet connection won't be able to fill that buffer quickly enough, so your media content may freeze up for a few moments while it struggles to catch up to real-time.

When you're streaming, factors such as the amount of traffic on the source website may affect the quality of your viewing experience. For example, if there are too many people watching a video at the same time and the server's connection is slow, your video may be low quality.

What Is Downloading?

Unlike streaming, when you download media, you save it to your computer, tablet, smartphone, or other device. You're taking a copy of the digital content "down" from the internet or a specific website to reside on your device. After you download a file, play it again whenever you want.

What Are Some Examples of Downloaded Content?

Downloading is easy, and there are vast libraries of content available. For example, download books from sites like Amazon, or download movies from subscription services or public domain sites. Download software to your computer, smartphone, or tablet to use at work or at home.

Download content to your phone or another mobile device to enjoy while you're on the go. This is great for long plane trips where you don't have internet access and can't stream entertainment.

What Do You Need for Downloading?

To download, you need a device with an internet connection and a source. For example, if you want to download a song from Apple Music, access it from your internet-connected device, select a song, and download it. That content is available to you offline whenever you want.

After you download a file, copy or move it to another device. With syncing, many types of files will be available on multiple devices, and you won't have to copy them. For example, download a movie from Amazon Prime Video on your computer, and then watch it on your tablet.

Downsides to Downloading

The main downside to downloading is the concern that a virus or other malware is hijacking a ride onto your device. This is particularly a concern with downloading software. Be sure to download only from trusted sites, and keep up-to-date antivirus protection on your devices.

Downloading media content like movies, music, or books is usually fast, but it can sometimes take a while to download. You'll usually have to wait until the download is complete before you can watch the media.