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Streaming video data usage


docj

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There's often a lot of claims made that streaming even a little video will consume your data budget and should be avoided at all costs. I'll admit that I have an unlimited Verizon plan so I'm not personally sensitive to this issue but I thought it would be worth sharing some data I collected that shows this to be a somewhat exaggerated claim.

 

What's often overlooked is that all the major streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc) use dynamic compression to on-the-fly alter the video resolution you are receiving to match changes in the speed of your internet connection. If your connection is an ultra high speed one like you find in a fixed sticks and bricks, this doesn't affect you much, or at all. But when you are using a cellular connection the speed of which can vary widely from one moment to the next this dynamic compression is important since it prevents most of the "LOADING" or "REBUFFERING" pauses that were very common. Even as recently as a year or two ago dynamic compression was limited to a few step-wise changes and your resolution didn't change all that often and it was pretty noticeable when it did. Now, Netflix, for example, uses a more subtle set of smaller step-wise changes and it is not uncommon to see the resolution changing several times in a couple of minutes.

 

As a result your actual data usage is often far below what you otherwise might expect it to be. Last night my wife and I performed an "experiment" by binging on the last three episodes of House of Cards. With the help of the current WiFiRanger firmware (version 7.0.1) I was able to monitor my Roku's usage during this ~160 minutes of HD video. The total for the 3 episodes was 1.25GB with Netflix set to automatically control resolution. This means I probably could have significantly throttled back the usage if I had used one of the more restrictive settings.

 

This data is consistent with previous, less "scientific" tests I have conducted in which I estimated my usage to be ~1GB/2 hours of video (roughly one movie's worth). Depending on what the $/GB costs are for your data plan you may find that the cost isn't all that much more than the cost of a pay per view on satellite TV. Obviously, this isn't something you would do on a regular basis if you were on a plan with <5GB limit, but if you're on a plan at the ~20GB level then an occasional movie probably isn't going to do in your budget.

 

Again, I admit that I have an unlimited plan so please don't attack me for that. Since streaming is fast becoming the manner by which many of us will receive much of our video in the not-too-distant future I think it's important to understand what is and is not affordable for us. I assume that someday I'll lose my unlimited plan, but I sure won't be willing to give up streaming video so I will need to understand the data budget I would need.

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How low a resolution and how much compression you can live with is dependent on your screen size and your personal tastes but there is certainly no reason to set either to consume more data than necessary to give you a good viewing experience. Your idea of seeing what meets your needs and checking the data requirements is by far the best way to plan for future usage.

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Our TV entertainment consists of 98% streaming and perhaps 2% DVD's and downloads. We started streaming from Central America more than eight years ago. Though our data there was not limited our bandwidth speed was. Speed there was also fairly expensive so we progressed from 128k to 512k eventually settling at 1mb as a minimum needed for streaming. Service from Pandora, Netflx and Hulu for example also required a US IP address so we provided one via a VPN (virtual private network). This streaming experience has served us well since we hit the road here in the states but for a different reason. Where we would set our streaming resolution low, i.e. "standard definition or less, to prevent "buffering" now we use these setting to stay within our "data" plans. Though buffering does still occur it is minimal since most of the speeds we encounter now via our phones hotspot or our jetpack are screaming in comparison. So experiment with the resolution settings available from the various providers and enjoy this ever expanding entertainment technology in a way that won't eat up your data too fast.

Later,

J

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Service from Pandora, Netflx and Hulu for example also required a US IP address so we provided one via a VPN (virtual private network).

 

At the risk of this being flagged as a commercial post, the new WiFiRanger SafeSurf capability which is part of the current firmware package (7.0.1) provides an easy way to present a US IP address when you are outside the country. In essence it is a VPN back to the WiFiRanger facility in Idaho which is where you will appear to be located. Last summer while in Canada I was able to use the Hola app to spoof my computer's IP but I couldn't figure out a way to do that with my Roku. Now with the Roku connected through the WiFiRanger it, too, will appear to have a US IP. :lol:

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One way to keep your data budget under control is to watch lots of old TV shows that were broadcast in SD because that's all there was! :D My wife and I have streamed a number of European and Australian cops and robbers shows (Spiral, The Bridge (Sweden), Braquo, Rush, Wallander) some of which are old enough to be in 4:3 format.

 

The worst streaming experience we have encountered has been DirecTV's version which it calls DirecTV Cinema. It insists on downloading data as 1080p which means that quite often you can't watch in real time since your connection probably can't handle that load and, of course, it uses a lot more data than would a similar stream on one of the other services.

 

We primarily use Netflix and Hulu. We have Amazon Prime (for other reasons) but most of the time when we check Amazon the video we want to watch isn't part of the Prime package.

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We've used the low setting on Netflix (0.3GB/hour) and Hulu for years. But we don't have an unlimited account. ;)

Yes we did this too but would become frustrated by Hulu's commercials that would stream at a higher resolution throwing a monkey wrench...guess buffering wrench would be a better term...into what we were watching often to the point of dead stop. But this was from south of the border and we have experienced nothing like it here in the states.

Later,

J

 

PS Docj thanks for the intergrated VPN info. Very nice feature and one some VPN providers market by itself with a simple wireless router.

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I don't know if it works on Direct but on Dish you can record movies to an external hard disk and watch them later. Wait for a special deal on one or more of the premium movie channels and fill up your external hard drive and then at the end of the sale unsubscribe to the extra cost channels. Also keep an eye out for "free programming" weekends and such and load your drive up.

 

I think Dish supports up to a 2 TB drive (Western Digital Essential or AV lines are very good ones) so get that size (upsizing later really is a PITA) and stuff it full. Roughly 5 GB per 90 minute HD movie. You can use the internal drive too but anything there is lost if the box has to be replaced.

 

Ripping your DVD collection to another disk and using something like the WD Live TV box to play them back is also far nicer than sitting through the usual DVD startup sequence. Some other brands of these little set top boxes also support local movies off a USB drive or your network too.

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We primarily use Netflix and Hulu. We have Amazon Prime (for other reasons) but most of the time when we check Amazon the video we want to watch isn't part of the Prime package.

I've found that the benefit of free movies from "Prime" is basically just marketing "come on". There are virtually ZERO things that I'd be interested on Prime. I use Netflix when I stream.

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With 6 GB on one smart phone and 2 on the other and having to supplement with park and other public wifi just to get our month of surfing accomplished, the notion of streaming doesn't even come into play. We don't yet see it as a good tradeoff to drop Directv for a bigger data plan.

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