Emma Lunn | December 22nd, 2022
Streaming TV and movies is something that many of us do regularly these days. But there are a wide range of speed requirements and levels of quality among the various streaming services. In this guide we'll take a look at how much speed each requires.
Key: SD = standard definition (720p), HD = High definition (1024), UHD = Ultra high definition (4K)
|Google Play Movies & TV||-||-||15Mbps|
For standard definition (SD) streaming you'll need at least an average speed of 3Mbps, for HD 5-8Mbps and for 4K UHD you'll need 25Mbps minimum, but we recommend a connection of 50Mbps to cover all scenarios (live 4K broadcasts require more speed, for example). Here are the fine details for each of the UK's main streaming services.
*For 4K streaming across all these services pay special notice to the word ‘minimum’. Depending on what is going on on the screen at any given time, the amount of speed you require will go up and down – these minimums, then, do not guarantee you a 4K UHD stream 100% of the time and will drop in resolution when things get busy. To guarantee a true 4K stream across any service you should take the minimum and add 25% to those requirements.
It’s important to understand the speeds quoted are the minimum speeds you need for HD/UHD. The exact speed you need relies on a few different factors, including what’s going on on-screen – more detailed scenes require faster speeds.
To be guaranteed to be able to watch in the quality you want, you’ll need your minimum broadband speed to be safely above these speeds. This is especially the case if you have a busy household with lots of internet-connected devices. If you’re trying to watch a Netflix show in UHD and your flatmates are gaming, it will slow down the speed you get. If your connection is too slow for your on-screen action, you’ll experience the dreaded buffering – where your video streaming stops in order to wait for your broadband to catch up.
Estimates vary, but if you want to be absolutely safe from buffering, you should aim to get double the speed you need, especially if you have other people in your household who also use the internet.
The good news is that this is pretty easy to do. Most fibre broadband connections should be able to handle HD and UHD streaming without too many problems. Providers generally offer fibre speeds averaging 36Mbps and 67Mbps, which should be plenty. BT Superfast Fibre has speeds averaging 67Mbps while Virgin Media offers crazily fast connections up to and beyond 1000Mbps with its Gig1 service. The rollout of full fibre by Openreach means that a number of providers (including BT, Sky, EE, TalkTalk and Vodafone) can also now offer much faster speeds in some areas – up to 900Mbps in some cases.
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For the uninitiated, live-streaming is basically broadcasting your own video across the internet. Various services offer this, including Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook Live and Twitch. When you’re watching a video, the download speed is important, but when you’re live-streaming, it is upload speed that is crucial.
This is where things get tricky. When broadband providers advertise broadband speeds, they’re talking about download speeds, not upload speeds. Most upload speeds are a fraction of the accompanying download speeds. This means live-streamers need a top-end broadband package to get the faster upload speeds they need.
As with watching video, the speed you need depends on the definition of your live-streaming. As a rule, live-streaming services such as Twitch, YouTube, Facebook Live and Vimeo require an upload speed of at least 1.6Mbps to live-stream in SD. When it comes to 'low HD', you normally need a speed of at least 3-3.5Mbps.
'True HD' generally requires an upload speed of 3.5Mbps or above, although YouTube recommends 6Mbps. Twitch recommends an upload speed of 6Mbps for high-quality, slow-motion 1080p, and a recommended upload speed between 9-13Mbps for faster live-stream content.
A single 30-minute broadcast (at 1080p HD) will consume anything from 1GB-3GB of data so if you do a lot of live-streaming, you’ll use a lot of data. Most entry-level fibre broadband deals come with an accompanying upload speed of around 10Mbps, with the 67Mbps deals coming with around 19Mbps upload speeds. Both of these will be sufficient for live-streaming, but the faster speed you have, the more quickly and smoothly your video will upload. The faster the download speed you choose, the faster an accompanying upload speed it will have. Always think about how you use your internet package overall, and how many people you have to share it with before you commit. Our guide on which broadband deals offer the best upload speed in the UK has more information on this subject.
Your required upload speed will vary depending on your capture quality (eg: 720p HD), your streaming platform (eg: YouTube, Twitch) and whether you’re outputting a single stream direct to the web or multiple streams at variable bit rates via a video encoder. In any case, your streaming service of choice will likely have its own recommended upload speed, but as a general rule, 5Mbps or above is considered optimal for HD video.
Some broadband packages have traffic management policies hidden away in the small print. However, these generally only affect activities such as peer-to-peer file sharing and downloading a lot of data. During this time it puts a temporary speed restriction on the heaviest users uploading data. Virgin Media used to apply a traffic management policy to what is described as 'a small minority of customers' from 6pm to 11pm each day, but they’ve updated their policy to use traffic management practices only in case of severe misuse or abuse, where a customer's connection is being used for purposes that are illegal, unlawful or inconveniencing other Internet users.
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype and Facetime need both a decent upload speed (for when you talk) and download speed (for when the other person talks). Most VoIP providers don’t recommend download and upload speeds, but Skype is the exception with clear guidelines about what you need.
If you’re just having a one-on-one chat on Skype, it recommends download and upload speeds of 1.5Mpbs for high definition calls. The recommended download speed for a group chat of seven people or more is video chat is 8Mbps, with an upload speed of 512kbps.
When you send documents and files to the cloud or Dropbox, you need a good upload speed (and a good download speed to retrieve them). The bigger the files, the longer they will take to upload.
Upload speeds vary between broadband providers and, perhaps surprisingly, until very recently Virgin Media tended to offer slower upload speeds than most of its competitors, despite its speedy download speeds. However, they've not upgraded their network and now you'll get close to a 52Mbps upload speed on their 500Mbps deal, and something like 104Mbps with the top-of-the-line Gig1 service. Top-end full fibre deals with the likes of BT, Plusnet and Sky normally offer upload speeds up to 110Mbps.
Multiplayer games online on Xbox, PlayStation or PC don’t just need fast speeds, but stable connections too. Bad stability manifests itself in the form of things called latency and packet loss, which manifest as slow response times during gameplay. Depending on which console you are using, you will need a minimum download speed of 3Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 2Mbps.
Gamers should head over to our guide on broadband for gaming for the lowdown on what to look for in a broadband connection if you want to get the edge in gaming.
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