The Ultimate Guide to Video Streaming Hardware

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What is video streaming?  
In simple terms, video streaming is a way to watch TV and movies in real time through an internet connection. Video streaming lets you watch your favorite shows on a host of different devices and screens, from your television to your desktop computer, tablet or mobile phone. Also, since it’s available through an internet connection rather than a programming decision through a TV channel, you can choose from nearly infinite options of what you want to watch.

How does video streaming work?  
Instead of downloading and saving the show or movie you want to watch, which can take a long time, video streaming loads only a little content as you’re watching - making for a faster viewing experience. If your internet connection is strong, you can begin video streaming whenever you like, and you do not have to wait for the entire show to download before you press play.

How can I start video streaming?  
To begin video streaming, you’ll need a fast internet connection - this will help make sure you have a crystal clear picture and audio every time you tune in, and avoid any buffering (see below). To get your high-speed internet connection, you have two options which are detailed below (see WiFi vs. hard-wired internet connections).

You’ll also need access to video streaming services, of which there are many. The most popular streaming services include Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, Hulu, Disney+ and many more. These streaming services are delivered via three different hardware formats: smart TV (a modern TV which uses your internet connection to access video streaming services), an HDMI stick or a streaming box (more on these below - see Boxes and Sticks).

Almost all streaming services include a subscription fee of some kind, with the majority offering a monthly subscription for a relatively low amount (i.e. Netflix currently charges users a basic fee of $12.99 per month, which allows you and another household member to enjoy video streaming in high definition - aka HD - anytime and on any screen).

What is buffering?  
As mentioned above, video streaming means that only a little content is loaded while you’re viewing - which means that only a few seconds are pre-loaded before you watch them. If you’re streaming video and there’s some sort of lag that prevents the next few seconds from loading, then your video will begin “buffering” - in other words, it will pause - while the next few seconds of your content loads. Depending on your connection, buffering can last a few seconds to several minutes, which can be a real frustration when you’re trying to enjoy your favorite show.

Graphic overlay image of a young woman holding a tablet device, with tiled video streaming title options and data graphs flowing from the device out into the air.

WiFi vs. hard-wired internet connections for streaming

So you’ve signed up for your favorite shows via a bunch of video streaming services - now you’ll want a high-speed internet connection! There are two options to get you there:

  • WiFi, which provides a wireless connection and
  • Hard-wired internet, also known as ethernet, which is a wired connection

Why should I choose WiFi for video streaming?  
WiFi is a popular choice for those using laptops, tablets and mobile phones thanks to the lack of wire or cable. The undeniable pro is the convenience and flexibility WiFi provides. As it delivers a high-speed internet connection with no wires to all your devices (TV, tablet, laptop, mobile phone, etc) you can watch via any screen you like, wherever you are in the house.

Is WiFi a reliable connection for video streaming?  
The only downside to WiFi is that it can sometimes drop connection or lose signal - meaning you could get patchy or slower service, depending on simple things such as the layout of your home, objects disturbing the signal or even your neighbor’s internet activity. WiFi connections can be a little less reliable than a hard-wired connection, which could make buffering more likely if you’re streaming video that contains a lot of data, such as ultra high-quality 4K HD. These disturbances, however, are often minor and do not present a long-term issue for a majority of users.

What is hard-wired internet?  
Hard-wired internet, also known as ethernet, requires a cable to your device to provide a high-speed internet connection. An ethernet cable is like a large phone wire that plugs into the internet to give you a faster, more reliable connection.

Why should I choose hard wired internet, or ethernet, to video stream?  
In terms of reliability and speed, ethernet is undeniably a faster and more reliable option for delivering great sound and picture. So if you’re video streaming on a desktop computer or via smart TV - and you’re not looking to move those devices around - then running an ethernet cable to them may be the better option for you. It all depends on how you want to enjoy video streaming at home.

Animated diagram depicting an HDMI cable, and indicating how and where to plug an HDMI cable into a television’s HDMI input

Cords and cables you need for streaming

There are three types of cords and cables involved in streaming video.

The first is the power supply, which just makes sure everything that needs it is plugged in to an outlet. There are even some HDMI sticks that enable streaming (see Boxes and Sticks) that don’t require a power source.

The second type is a video and audio connection, which runs from any external streaming device (again, see Boxes and Sticks or just keep reading - we’ll get there) into your TV. Usually, this will be an HDMI cable. In cases of Smart TVs or streaming on tablets and mobile devices, the screen you’re watching serves as the streaming input, so there’s no need to set up a video/audio connection.

The third cord type is the internet connection. This is where you might want to run an ethernet cable from your router (see the Home Internet Glossary for details on routers - it’s the internet connection box with the blinking lights on it) to a Smart TV or streaming device. If you choose to connect to streaming services through WiFi, then you won’t need a cord or cable for your internet connection, although you will need to follow procedures on your device for connecting to your local WiFi network.

Close-up photo of an Amazon Fire stick sitting on a wooden countertop, its HDMI output visible to the camera.

Boxes and sticks

What are video streaming boxes and sticks?  
Video streaming boxes and sticks connect to your TV to bring you a variety of video options, from a simple YouTube cat video to epic movies in 4K HD. So if you’re looking for a truly cinematic experience but don’t have a Smart TV, additional streaming hardware can help you achieve that.

What video streaming boxes and sticks are available?  
There are a number of video streaming boxes and sticks available for different services. Popular examples include the Roku Box, Apple TV box, Amazon Fire stick and Google Chromecast. Each of these options have their own recommended usages in terms of controls and preferred streaming services.

Why should I use a video streaming box or stick?  
Different video streaming boxes and sticks have individual benefits, such as live TV streaming, Smart Home technology (meaning you can control thermostats and even light switches all from your TV), internet apps (including YouTube) and access to your favorite music and podcasts.

The Amazon Fire stick and Apple TV box, for example, have voice control programming - namely Alexa for Amazon and Siri for Apple - so instead of searching or scrolling, you can simply pose questions directly to these controls to ask for what you’re looking for.

Do I need a video streaming box or stick to video stream?  
A number of video streaming services do not require a box or stick - these include Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, Vudu, HBO, etc - which are all available via an app (so you can watch them on your Smart TV, tablet or mobile device).  

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