Streaming vs downloading: which saves more mobile data?


Nowadays, we can watch our favorite movies, music and TV shows literally anywhere – on our smartphones. We do not have to always buy the DVD when we want to re-watch shows that were aired years ago. With the video-on-demand services available these days, we can stream and even download our favorite shows anywhere, anytime—and of course legally.

However, sometimes the download option is only available within certain types of membership (usually the more expensive ones). Otherwise, you need to have a sufficient data plan to stream and enjoy the show. If you subscribe to a plan where download is possible, you can save the video and watch it anytime, even without internet connection.

Since the price of data plan is high while the connection is not that good in Indonesia, people usually opt to pay more in order to have access to download the contents and watch it anytime. The common assumption is that streaming uses more data than downloading, even if the content is of the same quality. Is it true?

To help you make the decision about spending your mobile data on streaming or downloading, here are some important points to consider.

Downloading vs streaming: are they same?

As a starter, let’s discuss the definition of both.

“Streaming” describes the act of playing media on one device when the media is saved on another. The media could be saved on a computer, media server or network-attached storage device (NAS) on your home network. The file does not need to be moved or copied to the device that is playing it (your mobile phone, tablet, computers etc). The media you want to play could come from an online website, in this context is like Netflix, iflix, Hulu (for videos) or Spotify and Pandora (for music). Streaming happens in real time.

The other way to play media on a network media player or computer is to download the file. When media is downloaded from a website, the file is saved to your devices. You must wait until the download is complete before you can watch the media. You can play the media at a later time.

Which one consumes more data—streaming or downloading?

This is kind of surprising: the size of the file is often the same regardless of whether you stream it or download it, as long as it is offered with the same level of quality for both selections. For example, if a file of a TV show is 500 MB, that fact doesn’t change whether you download it or stream it.

Moreover, certain options may differ depending on available quality. If you have the option of streaming a video at 480p but can download it at 720p, the 720p will be larger than the 480p counterpart. This means it takes more data to download the 720p file than stream the 480p version.

Usually, movie or music streaming websites and apps provide a feature for you to adjust the data usage, so you can choose a lower resolution option to save data.

What should I choose, stream or download?

We have concluded that both streaming and downloading will consume the same amount of data. Now, whether you choose to stream or download a file needs to be based on how you want to use the file.

If you have one title of movie, or TV show, or a playlist the songs you loved so much, then downloading the file is the better option. You only need to spend the data one time during the initial download, and then you can watch or listen to the files anytime you want. This approach is also necessary if you want to access the file at a time when you do not have a connection to the internet, since you cannot stream videos or music without an internet connection.

However, if you think that re-using the same file is not interesting, or you do not want to take up the memory in your devices, you might want to stream instead. Unlike downloading, streaming doesn’t place the file in your device’s memory. If you are in an area with a strong signal (and maybe an unlimited access to the internet), this option probably appeals to you more.

From this we can conclude that basically both streaming and downloading consume the same amount of data. While this may sound trivial and not important, sometimes you want to analyze before choosing between streaming and downloading. Especially if you are using a device with a limited data plan or controlling the data usage in your house, these can be important considerations. Remember to review the size and consider how you intend to use the file before choosing whether to stream or download.