Streaming and downloading are two ways you can access digital media content (photos, music, videos) but many think that these terms are interchangeable. However, they are not - they actually describe two different processes.
What Streaming Is
“Streaming” is commonly used when referring to shared media. You've probably heard it in conversations about watching movies and music from the internet.
"Streaming" describes the act of playing media on one device when the media is saved on another.
The media could be saved in "The Cloud", on a computer, media server or network-attached storage device (NAS) on your home network. A network media player or media streamer (including Smart TVs and most Blu-ray Disc players) can access that file and play it. The file does not need to be moved or copied to the device that is playing it.
Likewise, the media you want to play could come from an online website. Video sites, such as Netflix and Vudu, and music sites like Pandora, Rhapsody and Last.fm, are examples of websites that stream movies and music to your computer and/or network media player or media streamer. When you click to play a video on YouTube or a TV show on ABC, NBC, CBS or Hulu, you are streaming the media from that website to your computer, network media player, or media streamer.Streaming happens in real time; the file is delivered to your computer like water flowing from a tap.
Here are examples of how streaming works.
- You watch and listen to streaming video and music as it comes to your computer or network media player.
- A website that streams video will often have a "buffer." Several seconds of video is streamed to your computer or network media player in order to keep the video playing in the event of an interruption of the internet connection.
- You must have a fast connection so there aren't pauses or hiccups in the video playback. Higher quality video -- high definition video with digital surround sound -- requires a faster connection.
- Within your home network, a router must be able to pass on the video stream to your network media player. Audio Video ("AV") Routers or Gigabit routers may be needed to stream high definition videos to more than one TV or player.
- You must have a fast internet connection to stream high definition videos from the internet without interruption. Many video websites will determine the quality of the video streamed to your device based on their estimation of your internet speed. Typically, it is best to have an internet connection of at least 2 megabits per second (Mbps) for standard resolution video. HD video may require over 3 Mbps (4K streaming may require as much as 25mbps) so the video doesn't have to pause as it buffers.
- A streamed file plays from other sources. The source of the media must be connected and turned on, or the streaming stops.
- When streaming from the internet, it is not only the speed of your connection that guarantees a smooth viewing experience. Factors such as the amount of traffic on the website -- that is, the number of people watching videos at the same time -- and the speed of the website's server connection can influence how well the media is streamed to you.
- A streaming file is never saved on your device. Streaming media is either free, as it is on ABC and NBC; or you are charged a monthly subscription to access the media, such as with Netflix and Rhapsody; or you rent the video for a certain length of time, after which it is no longer available without renting it again. You can only play music on a subscription website if you are an active, paying subscriber. Once you stop paying, the media is no longer available.
What Downloading Is
The other way to play media on a network media player or computer is to download the file. When media is downloaded from a website, the file is saved to your computer's or network media player’s hard drive.
When you download a file, you can play the media at a later time. Media streamers, such as smart TVs, Blu-ray Disc players do not have built-in storage, so you cannot download files directly to them for later playback.
Here are examples of how downloading works:
- Your device connects to the source of the file, then copies and saves it to your hard drive.
- Usually, you must wait until the download is complete before you can watch the media. Some services, like iTunes and Vudu, allow you to watch while a movie downloads after a sufficient amount of time.
- You can copy the file or move it to other hard drives unless it is a copyright-protected file.
- You can copy or move the file and save it to play on other devices unless it is a copyright-protected file.
- The downloaded file can be streamed to other devices once it has been saved.
- A downloaded file is available whenever you want to play it.
- TV shows and movies that are downloaded are “bought” versus rented and are available without time limit. That is, you “own” the movie or music file.
The Bottom Line
All network media players and most media streamers can stream the files from your home network. Most now have online partners from which they can stream music and videos. Some network media players have built-in hard drives or can dock a portable hard drive to save files. Understanding the difference between streaming and downloading media can help you choose the network media player or media streamer that is right for you.
On the other hand, media streamers (such as the Roku Box) are devices that can stream media content from the internet, but not content stored on local network devices, such as PCs and media servers, unless you install an additional app that allows you to perform that task (not all media streamers offer such an app).