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Difference between Streaming and Downloading

Difference between Streaming and Downloading

Streaming is where a device constantly receives data to watch videos or listen to audio without acquiring the physical media file, whereas Downloading uses data to make a copy of a file from one location, such as a remote server, and save it locally to a connected device.

In Streaming media, data is received from the server and played in a stand-alone player or plugin that is part of the web browser and this allows live or prerecorded media to be played on-demand.

Bit of History

Streaming platforms were developed since the early nineties but it was only a few years later when it really exploded in usage with consumers and started to go mainstream.

In 1999, Victoria’s Secret streamed their annual fashion show in a live webcast.  Even though the video resolution was of poor quality and it constantly buffered, over a million viewers watched.

It was one of the first live events for Streaming content and considered to have captured a very large audience.   And today those numbers are much larger.  In 2017, Streaming provider Netflix recorded 19 million new subscribers in just one year!

E-sports in particular contributed to the surge in live streaming viewership, which started with the growth of gaming in South Korea.  Amazon’s Twitch (E-sports platform) recorded over 100 million unique viewers per month in 2016 and it continues to increase significantly.

Downloading media has had a less glamorous past with authorities and copyright holders having to track illicit download and torrent sites to curb illegal acquisition and distribution of movies and music.

Legal Distribution

Because the media files are not retained on the device when Streaming, it helps limit (not prevent) illegal redistribution of content and a lot of broadcasters and content providers opt for Streaming because it is more difficult to acquire the physical media files.

Licensing requirements are more complicated with Downloading compared to Streaming, because once the actual media files are obtained, consumers are expected to comply by the license agreement where content may only be consumed and not distributed.

For example, if a consumer purchases a movie online and downloads it legally,  the license agreement prohibits the content from being modified or redistributed through sharing copies or making it available for others to download.

Unfortunately, a large percentage of consumers ignore these legalities and share media without much thought to the copyright infringements, the negative financial impact for artists, and the consequences of being fined and jailed.

There has been ongoing controversy over music downloads which started in 1999 with Napster.  After multiple lawsuits from several recording artists, the music download service was closed.

The Pirate Bay story is another example of an online file sharing service that illegally (although unintentional from the outset) distributed media from 2003.  By the end of 2005, its’ traffic volume was exceeding 2.5million users which caused authorities and copyright holders to start investigating the company.   The Pirate Bay were found guilty and fined $6,500,000.

Finding legal ways to download media was going to be a solution towards curbing illegal download activity.

iTunes lead the way in providing an affordable download service for movies and music, and some recording studios have started proposing a standard monthly fee to members who can access an entire music catalog and download unlimited songs.

Data Decisions

Common Streaming services such as YouTube and Netflix provide consumers with a significant amount of varied content, usually stored on a remote server, and then played on a different connected device.

With Streaming, the physical media file is not acquired and can only be played with a continuous feed of data, whereas Downloading copies the actual file onto a device while connected to the internet.  Once the file is stored locally, it can be played without having to be connected online, but Streaming cannot be used if the device is offline as the content cannot be accessed.

Downloading media increases the connected device’s storage requirements, but on the upside, the file is retained and data would never have to be consumed again to access that same file.

Although Streaming simply requires a web browser connected to the internet to watch or listen to media content, it can come with a big data cost.  Video content is particularly data intensive and the amount of data available will determine how many files can be streamed.

Streaming is best suited for WiFi connections, or for consumers who have unlimited data plans, and for devices with solid state drives (with less storage capacity) as the files can be played without having to save the media content locally.

However, to access the same content or file via Streaming, data is consumed again, whereas with downloading, the data consumption is once-off and can be played an unlimited number of times without any additional data cost.

Activity Stream Download
1 hour audio 150MB 4MB
1 hour non-HD video 250MB 700MB
1 hour HD video 2GB 4GB

Data Usage Comparison Estimates

Before Downloading any content, the file size and storage requirement is exact and known up front and does not change, whereas with Streaming, any buffering could use up more data.  Buffering occurs when manually rewinding or through an unpredictable connection interruption.

When streaming a video, it generally buffers to load a few minutes of the video, but if it buffers too frequently, then the connection to the internet is probably not fast enough to handle the streaming for a smoother viewing experience.

It can be painful to Stream media on a slow internet connection, in which case, Downloading the file in the preferred resolution would be more practical and if storage is a concern, the file can be deleted after it has been played.

There are some Streaming platforms that are gradually allowing consumers to download movies directly to a mobile device but this strategy is still in its’ infancy.

Portable Devices

Where Downloading is limited to storage capacity on portable devices, Streaming has its data restrictions on mobile data, but if using WiFi, the battery consumption increases.

Watching and listening to streamed media uses a lot of power to constantly communicate with the internet to pass data, so much so that many people report their devices heating up while Streaming.


The rise of Streaming services altered the way television, movies, and music is being consumed and Live Streaming is changing the way consumers engage with social media.

With the growing popularity of SnapChat and Facebook’s “Live” feature, and even using live footage from drones, shows there is a noticeable growing trend from consumers wanting to access live content across different platforms.

However, there is still a future for digital downloads as iTunes proved that consumers will pay for music and movies at a reasonable cost.  Illegal downloading is not widely approved of and it is unnecessary.

Component Streaming Downloading
Data and Power Requires a constant internet connection which increases power and data consumption on mobile devices. Preferred option to store media locally especially when preparing to go offline.
Storage Does not require free space on the connected. Hard drive space needed for any downloaded media and will the space requirements will increase if media is retained on the device and not deleted or backed up on a separate device.

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References :

[0]Gonzalez, Barb. “How To Avoid Buffering Issues.” Lifewire.com. Updated 13 Mar. 2017.


[2]Girod, Bernd. “A brief history of streaming media”. Web.stanford.edu. Published 2004.


[4]WebWise Team. "What is streaming". BBC.co.uk © 2014. Published 10 Oct. 2012.


[6]Golum, Caroline. "62 Must-know live video streaming statistics". Livestream.com.


[8]Schaefer, Don. "Here's how Amazon, Uber, Apple Beat and ESPN are using SnapChat". CTA.tech. Published 9 May 2016.



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