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How much data is your streaming taking up?

The massive rise in popularity of streaming services, especially video streaming services such as Netflix, in recent years has had some astounding effects on the online world. There’s now such a thing as “peak” internet usage time, typically around 7pm-11pm each evening, simply because so many people are using that evening time to binge-watch their favourite new streaming shows, or simply catch up on classic material they want to watch all over again. That’s led to some congestion on some networks, and not a small amount of dissatisfaction as well.

It’s not just an at-home issue any more, however, because the vast majority of streaming services are mobile-ready, whether you choose to watch on a tablet or a smartphone. While it’s unusual to find a home broadband plan with limited data allocation, it’s still more normal to find mobile plans with rather strict data limits, and excess data fees if you’re not very careful about your usage. Even in the parts of the planet where “unlimited” data plans exist, they’re often asterisked with very small print that either gives you a practical speed limit after a certain quantity of data usage, or simply leaves a vague warning that the highest data users may find their speeds limited. That’s not unheard of for home broadband plans, too, although thankfully it is pretty rare.

How much data are we talking about, though? The issue with streaming TV shows and movies is that they’re much more data intensive than grabbing web pages, downloading emails or even streaming music services by a significant factor. The precise details of how much data you’re using will vary by service, and then by the quality of the image they’re sending to you.

Not surprisingly, if you’re willing to put up with a lower quality picture, you’ll use up less data. Indeed, many services rather explicitly use adaptive streaming technologies to match your connection speed to the quality that you get in order to minimise buffering. The end result is that if you’re on a poor connection, you can still “watch”, but possibly in a more blocky resolution than if you’re on a good one.

To use Netflix as a good example, given that’s it’s functionally a global service, you can expect to burn through the following data quantities in a given hour’s worth of watching:

Netflix Quality Setting Data Usage Per Hour
Low (SD) 0.3GB
Medium (SD) 0.7GB
High (HD) 3GB
High (UHD) 7GB

Netflix uses more aggressive compression for those choosing Low quality video, but if you can stand it, it’s not a bad way to lower the quality. Bear in mind for that service, however, that the default setting for quality is none of the above mentioned settings. Instead, it’s “auto”, which means Netflix will send you video at a level that matches your current internet downstream quality. That relates out to the relative speed you’re getting from your provider, stated by Netflix as follows:

Netflix Recommended Speeds Speeds
Minimum Required 0.5 Megabits per second
Recommended broadband connection speed 1.5 Megabits per second
Recommended for SD Quality 3.0 Megabits per second
Recommended for HD Quality 5.0 Megabits per second
Recommended for UHD Quality 25 Megabits per second

Remember that whatever speed your provider suggests for a given connection, fixed or mobile is typically the maximum speed you’ll see, so you may dip beneath those rates at any time — especially on a congested connection!

If you’re concerned about usage because your plan does charge you for excess data, check if your streaming service offers an offline or download mode. Netflix certainly does, although not for all titles in its library, and many other services are starting to offer that as well. It takes a little more preparation, but allows you to fully download a movie or episode to watch later, skipping issues of buffering or for that matter even simple internet connectivity at all.

Certainly, if you’re a streaming video addict that hits a commute or period where your connectivity is limited or non-existent (such as most plane flights, for example), it’s a highly recommended step.

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