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What is streaming and how does it work?

Whether it’s music, movies, or series on Netflix, YouTube, Apple TV, Disney Plus, or Amazon, most of us consume media online these days. Streaming technology makes it possible — and it’s all served up on demand, so you no longer have to wait to download content before you can listen or watch it. Read on to discover how streaming works, what the different types are, and how you can easily get around any issues you may experience by using a secure VPN. 


What is streaming? 

Streaming is the continuous transmission of audio and video files over a wireless or wired internet connection from a server to what’s known as a client. No matter whether it’s live or recorded: in both cases, media content is transmitted to your computer or mobile device in real time. 

In everyday terms, the most common forms of streaming we come across are podcasts and music as well as movies and series. If, for instance, you stream a video, the media file you are playing is stored remotely on a server and transferred to your device over the internet in increments of seconds. 

How does streaming work? 

When data is sent over the internet, it is divided into smaller packets. The protocols used are: 

  • Transmission control protocol (TCP): This protocol opens a separate connection before transmitting data. This is how TCP ensures that all packets arrive in the correct order and without errors. As a result, the data transfer rate is slightly slower than with UDP (see below) but is considered more secure. 
  • User datagram protocol (UDP): Compared to TCP, UDP does not create a separate connection. This makes transmission faster, but packets can be lost. In addition, this protocol can lead to internet traffic overload, leading to the connection being throttled. 

Either TCP or UDP is used depending on the provider and platform. In both cases, media files are transferred in advance in successive data packets when streaming content. The internet-connected device you use to enjoy streamed content then receives this flow of packets and interprets them as video or audio. 

What’s the difference between downloading and streaming? 

A download creates a copy of the media content and stores it on your device’s hard drive. This means you can only access the file once you’ve completely downloaded it. Afterwards, you no longer need an internet connection to play the content. 

By contrast, streaming happens in real time. As soon as you select a piece of content, it starts playing straight away. Only a small number of data packets are loaded, which are deleted automatically following playback. This means that no extra storage space is required on the device — you just need a stable internet connection. 

Check out our post on the difference between streaming vs downloading for more info. 

What different streaming types are there? 

There are different types depending on what you want to stream: 

  • Video streaming 
  • Audio streaming 
  • Live streaming 

Below, we take a deeper look at each one in turn. 

What is video streaming? 

If you watch video content — like movies, series, and documentaries — online, it’s referred to as video streaming. A paid subscription to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Sky, or Apple TV is often required to enjoy the content ad-free. However, there are also streaming platforms where you can consume content uploaded by others for free. In this case, however, you’ll typically have to put up with ad breaks. 

What audio content can I stream? 

Podcasts are one of the most popular forms of streamed audio content, where you can listen to recordings of one or more speakers discussing a topic. The recordings are published as individual episodes on a range of dedicated platforms. Music streaming services are just as popular. These give you instant access to your favorite songs without you needing to purchase a physical album or download an MP3 file. 

What is live streaming? 

Whether video or audio, live streaming allows you to watch sporting events or video games in real time on live streaming platforms such as YouTube. Whereas content that isn’t live streamed is recorded beforehand and then made available, live streams mean you can enjoy content directly as it’s broadcast. 

What factors slow down streaming? 

An unstable or slow internet connection is one of the main reasons why media files load slowly. Too little bandwidth (or speed at which data is transmitted) can also impact your streaming experience. If you want to stream a video, you need at least 4 Mbit/s of bandwidth — with 6 to 7 Mbit/s recommended for high-res, HD video content. 

A slow device can also affect streaming performance. That’s because you need a lot of processing power, especially for video streaming. If the device you want to play the video on is generally slow or has a lot of other processes running in the background, this can impact the streaming speed. 

Another possible reason for a slower streaming experience can be network congestion on the provider’s end. This can happen if the streaming platforms are overwhelmed with requests — like when a popular series launches. However, this doesn’t happen much and the issue typically is on the user’s end — such as buffering causing longer loading times. 

What is buffering? 

When streaming, your media player loads a few seconds of the video in advance. It all happens on demand, so there’s no delay in playback. The technical term for this is buffering. It’s employed to ensure that the video can continue to be played even if the internet connection drops briefly. However, if the network connection is very slow or down for a while, video playback stops and buffering continues. 

If buffering is constantly interrupting playback, it’s worth taking a break. Pause the stream for a few minutes to allow a larger buffer to build up. If you then continue playback, the interruptions will be reduced. Now let’s explore what your options are to speed up streaming. 

How can I speed up streaming? 

Many streaming issues can be traced back to a local level, such as to your own device or home network. These can range from having too many apps and programs open all the way through to your Wi-Fi router. Discover in the following which components affect your streaming experience and what you can do about it. 

Close apps and programs 

Streaming requires a lot of processing power from your device. If you have loads of other programs open, they’ll consume resources that your device needs for streaming. This also applies to apps running in the background. So, if you notice that loading times are unusually long — especially when streaming videos — close all the programs that you don’t need. 

Unsure what programs are running in the background and slowing down your device? A tune-up tool like Avira System Speedup detects performance-sapping apps and programs, stopping them as long as you’re not actively using them. This allows your device to focus its resources on streaming instead. 


Choose a lower video resolution 

The larger the file, the longer it’ll take to load. As such, if you reduce the resolution, the file size will also shrink and the loading time reduce. That’s why many streaming providers offer the option to reduce the video quality. This is really handy, especially if streaming a movie or series on a device with a small screen such as a smartphone as you’re unlikely to notice you’re viewing content at a lower resolution. You also significantly cut the loading time and can stream without annoying interruptions. 

Disconnect devices you’re not using from your home network 

Devices connected to your Wi-Fi router consume precious bandwidth — even when they’re inactive. All this bandwidth use can add up quickly and impact your streaming experience. Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: Disconnect any devices you’re not using from your home network to free up more bandwidth for streaming. 

Restart your Wi-Fi router or use a network cable 

It’s a good idea to restart your Wi-Fi router once in a while. To do this, disconnect the power cord, wait ten seconds, and then plug the device back in. This reboot can have a positive impact on loading speeds, reducing them. Restarted your router and still experiencing lengthy loading times when streaming? Then it’s worth using a network cable instead of Wi-Fi since an Ethernet cable gives you a solid signal. 

Clean up your browser 

Often, the issue isn’t the internet connection but the device you use — especially your browser. No matter which browser you use, they all have a local cache. This is where the data from previously visited websites is stored. When you visit a web page again, the browser checks the cache to see whether the local content is still up to date. If it is, the content is taken from the cache and won’t be downloaded again. Typically, this speeds up your browsing experience. 

However, your browser might be overloaded with cached data, slowing it down and increasing loading times when streaming. You can easily solve this issue by clearing the cache. This tunes up your browser and cuts loading times for video streaming. 

What security risks does streaming pose? 

Streaming via platforms with paid subscriptions is usually safe. That’s because providers have put in place strict precautions to ensure user safety. If you consume media for free on unsafe sites, there’s no protection — and this can have consequences. 

  • Your device may become infected with malware 
  • Your personal data may be passed to third parties 
  • You will frequently see pop-up ads 

With a virtual private network (VPN), you can surf anonymously and securely. That’s because it encrypts all the data you send and receive so third parties cannot access it — no matter where you are. In addition to a secure internet connection, a VPN is also beneficial for streaming. 

Among other things, if you can’t use your streaming provider’s subscription when abroad, you can use Avira Phantom VPN to get around what’s known as geoblocking. Simply choose a virtual location and you can enjoy your favorite movies and series as if you were at home, even when on holiday.  

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Avira, a company with over 100 million customers and more than 500 employees, is a worldwide leading supplier of self-developed security solutions for professional and private use. With more than 25 years of experience, the company is a pioneer in its field.
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Enjoy anonymous and secure surfing with Avira Phantom VPN — for a fast streaming experience

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Fast, private, and more secure — remain anonymous even when streaming with Avira Phantom VPN

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Stream more securely and privately on the go with Avira Phantom VPN

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Stream more securely and privately on the go with Avira Phantom VPN