Streaming video and music explained - what is it and how does it work?

Streaming makes it possible to instantly view movies online or to beam songs and films around your home. How does it work?

If you've ever enjoyed videos or music online, you'll have used a technology called streaming. Streaming brings these media from the online world into our homes, and also lets you enjoy them wirelessly using a smartphone, tablet, laptop and/or wireless speaker.

But how does it work? And what exactly can it do? Read on, and all your questions will be answered.

[Make your music mobile with downloading and streaming services]

How does streaming work?

Streaming is the delivery of data over either a wired or wireless connection. But what makes it tricky is that once sent, this data must turn up at its destination in sequence and that sequence must be unbroken. After all, nobody wants to watch a video or listen to a music track that skips back and forth or constantly pauses.

Streaming gets around the first issue by arranging the data into sequential order before it's sent. It avoids the second issue through a combination of using lots of bandwidth so the stream doesn’t choke and utilising memory in the playback device to create a buffer. This buffer is useful, as by holding a certain amount of received data in place, it avoids drop-outs if there's a slight delay in the data arriving at the playback device.

What technologies are available for audio streaming at home?

Bluetooth is one of the most popular ways to stream audio around our homes. It's a secure, low-powered wireless technology that can be used to send audio from mobile phones, tablets or laptops to headphones or speaker docks.

You simply connect – or ‘pair’ – the two devices via an easy set-up process and music can then be beamed from one to the other. However, the fact that Bluetooth compresses audio when streaming means that sound quality can be a bit compromised.

Thankfully, there are other technologies that use your home's wi-fi network to stream without any loss in quality.

Can I stream video around my home too?

Yes, there are several ways to stream video files in the home. 

Most Smart TVs support a technology called DNLA (which stands for Digital Living Network Alliance). This lets you stream videos, as well as photos and music, from any device running DNLA software. This software is built into Windows, so it's ideal for streaming videos stored on your PC to your TV.

What is Google Chromecast?

Chromecast is a family of Google-made streaming devices that use Google's Cast streaming technology to play content from the internet on your TV. The family comprises the Chromecast, Chromecast Audio (which only streams audio) and Chromecast Ultra (which streams video in 4K HDR).

Plug a Chromecast into your TV's HDMI port and you can stream video and audio from your phone, tablet or PC to a larger screen - it's which is great for beaming videos you've recorded on your phone to your telly. To do so you'll need the Google Home app installed on your phone or tablet - your mobile device acts as the remote control.

You can also stream straight from your wi-fi network, using services like Google Play or any number of third-party apps including the BT Sport app and various telly catch-up services - just look for the Cast icon on the screen when you play video. 

You can also set up casting using a Chrome browser on a PC to display the content of a browser tab or whatever is on your desktop itself on a larger screen, as long as the device is on the same wi-fi network as the Chromecast device.

Other streaming devices are also available, from other manufacturers, which work in a similar way.

[Read more: What is Google Chromecast and Chromecast Audio]

What about online streaming services?

Almost all the media we watch or listen to online – such as YouTube or Netflix – is delivered to our devices using streaming technology.

In fact streaming is now so mainstream that many of us rely on it to watch sports broadcasts using apps such as BT Sport or to catch up with TV shows using services such as BBC iPlayer.

There are now also a whole raft of online streaming music services, including Spotify, Napster and Deezer, which give you instant access to a streaming catalogue of millions of tunes stored in the Cloud. That way, you don’t have to store music on your PC or phone.

These streaming services are available through Google Chromecast and some are also available through smart TVs' own user interfaces.

[Read more: How to connect your tablet to your TV]

More from BT