The Difference Between Downloading & Streaming Digital Media

Words such as compression and encoding are thrown around a lot in the digital media industry, but when it comes to understanding the differences between streaming and downloading, it’s always best to start with the basics. 

So, what exactly are you buying when you stream a television box set, tune into a live event or download the latest blockbuster? And more importantly which technology is better? Read on to find out…

What is streaming? 

Streaming is essentially a way to view a video or listen to audio online. Streaming creates temporary copies of the video and/or audio files which are transferred as small streams of data across a network to your computer. 

Bitrate refers to the units of data sent to your computer per second. As a general rule, the higher the bitrate, the better the quality, and the larger the file size. For example, an HD video on YouTube has a high bitrate, most likely in the range of 5-20 Mbps, whereas listening to music consumes a lower bitrate, as little as 0.5-1.0 Mbps.

When you start viewing the files, the data is discarded by your computer almost immediately. The best thing about streaming is the file can be played instantly using as little bandwidth as possible. The only downside is streaming won’t work without a good internet connection. To put it another way, if the network isn’t fast enough to load the data you’re trying to stream, this could result in frequent buffering, glitches or the quality of the file may be reduced. 

Real-time vs on-demand 

There are two types of streaming services – real-time and on-demand. With real-time streaming, a live stream is sent over the internet as it happens, similar to a traditional cable or satellite experience. Most of you will be familiar with at least one of the most popular live-streaming platforms – Twitch, Facebook Live, IG  Live, YouTube Live, or Periscope.

On-demand streaming simply means that the content is available online as and when you need it. In 2007, Netflix became one of the world’s first video-on-demand streaming services to allow subscribers to access and stream movies and television shows directly from the internet.  Over a decade later, it has paved the way for a variety of on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and Apple Music. 

What is downloading? 

Unlike streaming where there is a constant stream of data, downloading has to transfer and store a file in its entirety before you can enjoy it. For example, if you download a feature-length movie on Hulu, you have to wait until the download is complete before you can start watching it. This normally takes a few minutes. 

Moreover, these files can be quite large; an HD Netflix movie can use up to 3GB of data. This can be quite a disadvantage, especially if you’re watching the movie on your smartphone or tablet and have a limited amount of data. 

That said, one of the biggest benefits of downloading a digital media file is you can play it even when you’re offline. This is most useful when you’re hopping on a plane or jumping into the back seat of a car and want to watch a favorite video or listen to a podcast without an active internet connection. 

Which is better, streaming or downloading?

There are pros and cons to both streaming and downloading and which method you choose depends on how you intend to use the file. For watching movies on the go, downloading is a safe option. Streaming works better for devices that use a lower bandwidth such as a smartphone or laptop. 

Be that as it may – nothing is free and subscribing to one or more streaming services can cost a pretty penny.  On top of that most downloads have an expiration date. For instance, a Netflix download usually lasts about 7 days and most expire 48 hours after playing the content. If you want a hard copy of the movie or plan to play an album multiple times, you’re better off with a screen recording app like Replay Suite. It allows you to record and download all kinds of streaming video and audio from any website so you keep your files safe and sound for as long as you want them. 


Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash