By Emma Lunn | Friday, June 26th 2020
Streaming movies is something that most of us do regularly these days. But there are a wide range of speed requirements and levels of quality among the various streaming services. Here in this guide we'll take a look at how much speed each requires.
For standard definition (SD) streaming you'll need on average 2-3Mbps, 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. Note that, for now, during the coronavirus crisis, quality has been lowered on most of the following services, thereby lowering the bandwidth requirements of each temporarily.
*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 on the safe side, you’ll need your broadband speed to be safely above these minimum 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 stops 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 like to 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 1 (previously BT Infinity 1) has speeds averaging 50Mb while Virgin Media offers crazily fast connections up to and beyond 500Mbps.
For the uninitiated, live-streaming is basically broadcasting your own video across the internet. Various services offer this, including Periscope, Facebook Live and Twitch. When you’re watching a video, the download speed is important, but when you’re live-streaming (i.e. the star of the video), upload speed is the crucial thing.
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 advertised download speeds. This means live-streamers need a top-end broadband package to get the faster 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 Periscope require an upload speed of at least 1.2Mbps to live-stream in SD. When it comes to 'low HD', you normally need a speed of at least 2.8Mbps.
'True HD' generally requires an upload speed of 3.5Mbps or above, although YouTube recommends 6Mbps. Periscope doesn’t offer specific guidelines, only an overall minimum of 2Mbps for all resolutions – it will scale up the broadcast quality depending on how fast the connection it finds.
Standard broadband deals normally offer download speeds averaging 10Mb, but these will generally have sluggish upload speeds of about 1Mb (if you’re lucky). That’s barely enough for any of the popular live-streaming services, even at low-res, so you’ll need a fibre broadband connection and one with a decent upload speed at that. Our guide on which broadband deals offer the best upload speed in the UK has more information on this subject.
A single 30-minute broadcast (at 1080p HD) will consume around 1GB of data so if you do a lot of live streaming, you’ll use a lot of data. For that reason you should look for an unlimited broadband deal – but that’s most of them these days anyway.
Your required upload speed will vary depending on your capture quality (eg: 720p HD), your streaming platform (eg: Periscope, 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, 5Mb or above is considered optimal for HD video.
Some unlimited 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. Virgin Media applies a traffic management policy to what is describes as 'a small minority of customers' from 6pm to 11pm each day. During this time it puts a temporary speed restriction on the heaviest users uploading data.
However, Virgin Media doesn’t traffic manage customers on its fastest packages, so if you want to upload on Virgin, restriction-free, you need top-end or close.
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 just 100kps and a minimum of just 30kps. That’s easy to achieve – but you’ll need faster speeds for group chats and group video calls. The recommended download speed for a seven-way video chat is 8Mbps and upload speed 512kps.
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 but, perhaps surprisingly, Virgin Media tends to offer slower uploads speeds than most of its competitors, despite its speedy download speeds. You’ll only get close to a 20Mbps upload speed on Virgin’s 350Mbps deal, while top-end fibre deals with the likes of BT, Plusnet and Sky normally offer upload speeds up to 19Mbps.
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.
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.