Monday, February 4, 2019

Will Downloading Replace Streaming?

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Streaming was touted as the next big thing that would replace cable television. But maybe downloading will be the next big thing that replaces streaming.

We've been streaming video for almost a decade now.  We started out, as I chronicled long ago, using a old laptop to stream videos from YouTube and Netflix and then display them on a flat screen television using a VGA cable to connect the laptop to the TV.  It worked OK, for the time.

We then progressed to a smart TV that had a built-in Netflix and YouTube interface.  The television plugged into a router through a CAT-5 cable and we streamed directly from U-verse.  This worked OK, too, although there were sometimes glitches in the video and sometimes the audio and video would go out of sync.

Lately we've slimmed it down even further.  We started by using our cell phones to play the video and then screen mirror to the television using something called Miracast or screen mirroring depending on what brand of phone or television you have.  Then, I figured out that it was easier to use the phone as a "hot spot" and then link the television to the phone wirelessly (I didn't know it had that feature!).  This worked even better, as screen mirroring uses a lot of battery power on the phone (draining it faster than it will charge) and the phone gets hot as a result.  Screen mirroring also results in a more artifacts in the picture.

Funny thing, you can get two different levels of service on GoPhone (AT&T Prepaid).  One, for $55 a month (with prepay) gives "unlimited" data, but says using your phone as a mobile hotspot is not allowed.   To get hot spot activation, they claim you need to go to a $75 a month plan.   For some odd reason, the $55-a-month plan allows for hotspot usage (indeed, how can they tell what the data is being used for?).  But we plan to shop this plan around - aggressively - as well.

For the most part streaming works pretty well, though there can be some glitches depending on how good an internet connection you have.  In order to seamlessly stream video you need a robust connection, which often means you have to pay extra for higher streaming rates.

I've noted in the past, and some readers have confirmed, that you can adequately stream at lower resolutions, taking advantage of the cheaper rates for basic internet plans.  However, sometimes the data stream is interrupted and there are glitches in the video.

Both Netflix and YouTube now offer you the option of downloading videos. You can download the videos to your device and play them for a limited time.  It takes a few minutes to download each video, but when they play back it's usually pretty seamless.  When streaming on a limited bandwidth Channel you may see artifacts in the picture.  But with a downloaded video usually the picture is very crisp and clear without digital artifacts.

Of course, this is really nothing new.  The original TiVo and other video storage devices could be programmed to record specific programs at specific times for later playback.  But of course, these were not really downloading programs but rather recording them off the air from cable television  Nevertheless, I'm sure whoever owns the TiVo patents will allege that Netflix's downloading is infringing their patents, assuming the TiVo patents are still in force.  Such is the nature of the patent system.

Will downloading replace streaming?  I think at least in part for a number of reasons.  First of all, it seems that downloading may, ironically, take less bandwidth than streaming.  Downloading a file doesn't require a consistent and constant stream of data that is uninterrupted.  You can download a file and it can pause halfway through the download and it doesn't affect the integrity of the video image.  Low-bandwidth connections that aren't capable of streaming still can download.

Moreover, as data rates increase, downloading entire video files will take less and less time.  It will make more sense to download a video in a few minutes rather than try to stream it and hope to maintain a robust data connection for an hour or more.

For people like myself on a data diet, downloading offers a number of intriguing possibilities.  For example, during the day you could, during your lunch break, download videos onto your pad device or phone using your Wi-Fi connection at work or some other place providing free Wi-Fi.  You could then play back such videos in the evening without having to use your existing data plan and worry about a poor data connection.

Downloading may be the wave of the future - and streaming may already be obsolete!

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