Uploading and Downloading Online: The Basics

You've probably heard the terms "upload" and "download" many times, but what do these terms actually mean? What does it mean to upload a file to another site, or download something from the web? What is the difference between a download and an upload? These are basic terms that everyone who is learning how to use a computer and navigate online should learn about and understand. 

In this article, we'll go over what uploading and downloading means, as well as common peripheral terms and information that will help you have a firmer grasp of these common online processes. 

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What Does It Mean to Upload Something?

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In the context of the web, to upload something means to send data from an individual user's computer to another computer, network, website, mobile device, or some other remotely connected networked location.

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What Does It Mean to Download Something?

boy downloading on tablet

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To download something on the web means to transfer data from a website or network, saving that information on your computer, tablet, or mobile device.

All sorts of information can be downloaded on the web: booksmoviessoftware, etc. For example, you can download movies to your smartphone or mobile device to watch while you're on the go. If you can download software or applications to increase your computing capabilities (like finance applications to track your money or social media apps to connect with friends).

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What Does It Mean to Ping Something?

downloading from web

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ping is a term used to refer to a tool that checks to see if a website is down or not. In the context of Web search, pinging a website basically means that you're endeavoring to determine whether a specific Web site is having issues; it could also help narrow down connectivity problems when you're attempting to upload or download something.

There are many sites that offer free ping utilities. One of the best ping sites is Down for Everyone, or Just Me? It's a simple, yet ingenious site that invites users to type in the name of the site they're having troubles with in order to ping it and see if there is actually a problem.

Examples: "I couldn't get to Google, so I sent out a ping to see if it was down."

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How Fast Can I Upload or Download Something on the Web?

Laptop Internet Loading Slow

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If you've ever wondered how good your connection to the Internet was, whether if that was out of pure curiosity or to see if there was a problem, then now's your chance — give your computer a simple and quick Internet speed test. This is a great way to get an accurate representation of how fast your Internet connection is at any one time, as well as solve possible connectivity issues. Here are a few sites that can help you test your Internet speed and connection:

  • Speakeasy Speed Test: easy to use; just click on the nearest geographical mirror site and you'll see it begin to work.
  • SpeedTest: works on Linux or Windows servers; click on "start" and you'll soon see the results.
  • InternetFrog: you can get MUCH more detailed information from InternetFrog's test, including a graph that shows you your quality of service, round trip time, how long it would take you to download files, and much more.
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How Do These Files Move?

Download button

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Files are able to be transferred online (uploading and downloading) due to a protocol called FTP. The acronym FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. FTP is a system of moving and exchanging files via the Internet between different computers and/or networks.  

 All information on the Web is transmitted in tiny bits, or packets, from network to network, computer to computer. In the context of the Web, a packet is a small piece of data sent over a computer network.Each packet contains specific information: source data, destination address, etc.

Billions of packets are exchanged all over the Web from different locations to different computers and networks every second of the day (this process is called packet switching). When the packets arrive at their intended destination, they are reconstituted back into their original form/content/message.

Packet switching is a communications protocol technology that breaks down data into small packets in order to make this data easier to send over computer networks, specifically, on the Internet. These packets — tiny pieces of data — are transmitted over different networks until they reach their original destination and are reassembled into their original format.

Packet switching protocols are an important part of the Web since this technology makes it possible to transmit high-quality data online anywhere in the world, quickly.

Packets and packet switching protocols were designed specifically to handle large amounts of data traffic since a large message can be broken down into smaller pieces (packets), transmitted through a series of different networks, then restored at its destination quickly and efficiently.

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What About Large Media Files?

Computer File Search

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Most media files, such as a movie, book, or large document can be so large that they present difficulties when a user attempts to upload or download them online. There are different ways that providers have chosen to deal with this, including streaming media.

Many websites offer streaming media, which is the process of "streaming" an audio or video file on the Web, rather than requiring users to download a file in its entirety in order for it to be played. Streaming media enables users to have a better media experience since the multimedia content is available instantly, rather than downloading the entire file first. 

This method of multimedia delivery differs from live streaming in that live streaming is an actual, live video broadcasting on the Web, happening in real time. An example of live streaming would be a sports event broadcast simultaneously on both cable TV networks and cable TV websites.

In addition to streaming media, there are also ways to share files via online storage that is too large to share via email. Online storage services such as Dropbox or Google Drive make this an easy problem to solve; simply upload the file to your account, then make the location shareable with the intended party.