From instantly playing videos of cats jumping into boxes on YouTube to beaming tunes wirelessly from a tablet to a speaker dock, we now take the ability to stream media from the internet or between devices for granted.
Streaming has made it quicker and easier for use to enjoy videos and music not just online, but also around our homes, especially when used in conjunction with other technologies such as wi-fi and Bluetooth.
How does it work?
At its most basic, streaming is just 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 and 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.
This is one of the reasons why Apple developed its own streaming technology called Airplay. Instead of using Bluetooth, Airplay sends audio over wi-fi to compatible speaker docks. The extra bandwidth available on wi-fi means that audio doesn't have to be compressed, so the fidelity of the streamed music is preserved.
Can I stream video around my home too?
Yes, there are several different ways to stream video files between your devices or to your TV. Apple's Airplay started life as an audio-only standard, but it now supports video streaming too. So if you buy an Apple TV box you can stream video you've taken on your phone or tablet to the telly that your Apple TV is connected to.
Most Smart TVs now also support a technology called DNLA (which stands for Digital Living Network Alliance) that 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.
I've heard about Miracast, what does it do?
Miracast can be thought of as Google's answer to Apple's Airplay. Although not developed by Google, the company has raised the profile of this technology substantially by supporting it on the newer version of its Android operating system. Miracast allows you to stream audio and video to compatible TVs by mirroring what's on the phone or tablet's screen over wi-fi to your TV. Many of the latest Samsung, Sony and LG Smart TVs have this feature built-in as standard. Microsoft has also added support for Miracast to its Windows 8.1 operating system, allowing you to display what's on your Windows PC's screen on these TVs’ displays.
What about online streaming services?
Almost all the media we watch or listen to online – such as YouTube or LoveFilm - 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 Sports Live 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 so you don’t have to store music on your PC or phone.