couple in bed watching movies

Australian viewers have long faced paying a hefty price for a pay TV subscription or waiting for shows to be broadcast on free-to-air TV. Not any longer. Smart TVs and devices such as the Chromecast and Apple TV are bringing streaming services Netflix, Stan and Amazone Prime Video into the loungerooms of many households.

But if you're new to streaming, our guide should help explain what you need to know about internet speeds, resolution, hardware and software to stream TV and movies at home.

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Where and how can I watch?

There are a variety of ways you can view online movies and TV shows.

Streaming services

  • Pure streaming services such as Netflix, Fox Now, Amazon Prime Video and Stan require an internet-connected device such as a computer, tablet, smartphone or smart TV to watch shows. 

Loungeroom smart devices

  • A smart TV or PVR (personal video recorder) can access free-to-air TV catch-up services and some streaming services such as Netflix. They will need to be connected to the internet through your home network.
  • Media streamers or hubs are hardware devices that connect to your home network to stream movies and shows stored on your network or from the internet to your TV.
  • The new Telstra TV is a hardware streaming device that connects to the internet and is plugged into a TV; it has apps for many streaming services, including BigPond Movies, Netflix, SBS OnDemand and Stan.
  • Apple TV has its own app store. It's a hardware streaming device that plugs into a TV to play iTunes content and shows through streaming apps, and can also 'cast' content from an iPhone, iPad or Mac wirelessly to the TV. 
  • Chromecast is also a hardware streaming device that plugs into a TV and is used to stream content from Android phones and tablets as well as iPhones, iPads and Windows and Mac computers to the TV. It can be used to cast streaming content.
  • Foxtel Now box can cast Foxtel Now content in HD from mobile devices (Android or iOS), or computers to the TV. It can also cast content from streaming platform Stan as well as free-to-air catch up TV services such as the ABC's iView.
  • Games consoles such as the Sony PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo Wii have their own streaming services and can link to platforms such as Netflix, Quickflix and Foxtel Play.

Apple and Google streaming/downloading platforms

  • iTunes Store has movies and TV shows that can be watched on a PC or Mac through the iTunes software, on an iOS device such as an iPad or iPhone, or on a TV with an Apple TV.
  • Google Play Store content can be viewed on a PC or Mac through a browser, via an iOS app, on an Android device such as a smartphone or tablet, or a TV with a Chromecast.

Streaming or downloading?

Streaming means watching in real time, whereas downloading stores the file on your computer for watching at a later time. Streaming services are also called 'subscription video on demand' (SVOD) services. Some platforms such as iTunes, Stan and Netflix allow you to stream and download content, meaning you can download select TV shows and movies to watch at a later date without using up your data each time you view them.

What is SD, HD and 4K?

When it comes to picture quality, these services all stream in standard definition (SD) and some also have high definition (HD) shows. This is the 'native' resolution which is the original resolution of the video stream.

  • Standard definition in streaming is typically 576p resolution.
  • High definition is usually 720p or 1080p resolution.
  • Ultra high definition resolution is also called 4K and is typically 3840 pixel resolution.

However, your actual viewing resolution may not exactly match this because many platforms use 'adaptive bitrate' streaming which downscales the video quality for lower speed connections to limit drop-outs.

In most cases, SD movies and TV shows are cheaper to stream and download than HD content. Content producers justify this because of the extra cost to produce and store HD shows. 

What kind of internet plan do you need?

It can be hard to gauge what internet data allowance you'll need for streaming. As you watch more content, you may need to increase your data allowance. Most streaming services are metered by your ISP, but there are some exceptions so check the table in our streaming comparison story or ask your ISP if you're not sure.

On average, you'll use 1GB (gigabyte) per hour for standard definition streaming, although this could climb to 3GB per hour when streaming high-definition content.

Keep a close eye on your usage for the first month or two after you go to a streaming platform. To do this, use your ISP usage meter via a web browser or app and check if it can send usage alerts when you are approaching the limit.

What speed will you need?

What speed internet connection do you need to enjoy streamed movies and TV shows without any hiccups?

Streaming platforms recommend at least two megabits per second (Mbps) or a broadband connection to watch without major disruptions. You may need something faster for high-definition content and remember that members of your household may also be online as well.

Some streaming services such as Netflix use 'adaptive streaming' to scale the quality for buffer-free, uninterrupted viewing. This will reduce the sound and picture quality but is designed to minimise delays and give you the best possible consistent video.

Can the internet cope with streaming?

The multi-technology mix national broadband network (NBN) that uses copper, pay TV cables and fibre should ease some capacity issues, although there are limitations.

An NBN connection of 100Mbps is needed for streaming ultra high-definition content such as 4K TV and movies.

Which streaming service is right for you?

Streaming is still a new thing for many people so we'd like you to share your experiences and know-how with other readers who may be looking for help. If you want to know more, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has a guide to subscription video on demand (SVOD) that explains your rights and how to compare platforms.