How Much Data Are You Really Using While Streaming?


Picture this:

You’re on the way to visit family in another state. It’s your spouse’s turn to drive, so you settle into the passenger seat with your phone, ready to pass the hours with some Netflix. Thank goodness for that 4G connection! Everything is great… until you get your phone bill.


That’s quite a bit of money for going over your data cap! Unfortunately, this scenario is a common one—especially for video junkies who just can’t resist streaming on their phones. But who could blame them? It’s so darn convenient!

We’ll be the last to tell you not to use that smartphone for streaming videos. However, you should know how much data you’re really using up when you do — especially because for most of us, the days of unthrottled, truly Unlimited Data plans are over.

The trouble is… no one seems to have a straight answer.

Mystery Data Usage

Do a quick Google search for how much phone data you’ll use when streaming videos and you’ll be inundated with conflicting answers. Some service providers say 350 MB/hour, others say 120 MB/hour, and others ballpark around 250 MB/hour.

The common theme? Streaming videos on your mobile devices eats up a lot of data.

So how can you figure out how much data Netflix is going to use while watching your favorite show? Well… it depends. It all comes down to the network you use and the quality of the video you stream.

Why Your Network Matters

What’s the difference between streaming a movie on a 3G device versus a 4G one?

Streaming over 4G could rack up more data.

When you stream videos on 4G, you could be streaming at a speed up to 10 times faster than on a 3G network. You aren’t initially streaming more, just more in a shorter amount of time. It might also be a smoother stream, meaning less load time and pauses. With the absence of buffer times, you’re less likely to stop streaming a movie.  You also might not even think about how long you’ve been watching YouTube videos! So while you’re not automatically streaming more data over 4G, you might end up doing so because of the better viewing experience.

But say you’re streaming the same amount—just one movie on Netflix. Would it be the same then?

Unfortunately, you could still wind up using more data with 4G. These devices often have the bandwidth to support higher quality videos that can’t be streamed on slower networks (like 3G, in some cases). Some sites register your device’s higher bandwidth and automatically make changes to accommodate these faster speeds. Which leads us to quality…

Why Video Quality Matters for Data

Anytime you stream a higher quality video, you’re going to chew through more of your data. Higher quality videos use more data because they’re comprised of more pixels, which are what give you that crystal clear picture on your screen.

Just how much more data are we talking about? According to Netflix, using their “High” data usage setting runs through 3 GB per hour when streaming High Definition (HD) videos and 7 GB per hour for Ultra HD. The “Medium” setting only uses 0.7 GB per hour for a Standard Definition (SD) video.

If you’re sitting on a 5 GB data plan, that 7 GB/hour probably has you sweating! Obviously the best solution is to always stream Standard Definition videos, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Bitrate (the amount of data you stream in a given period of time) varies across video streaming sites, so you how much data you’re using on Amazon & Hulu could be very different from Netflix & YouTube. And while some video sites, like Netflix, give you the option to change your data (or bitrate) settings, others might automatically adjust video quality for you based on available bandwidth. This means your 4G device (when connected to the 4G network) could automatically stream super high quality videos—and automatically run through that precious data.

What You Can Do

Now for the good news! Before you go running to trade in your 4G phone for a 3G one, know that there are ways to stop your device from speeding through its data allowance—and no, we’re still not going to tell you to stop streaming videos (though that would help!).

First, check and see if the video streaming site you’re using allows you to control your data usage settings. This will enable you to control the amount of data (and the quality of data) you stream in a given period of time. You might have to settle for lower quality videos and longer buffer times, but you’ll save data and be less likely to stream more because of slower speeds.

Don’t have the option to control data usage settings? Another foolproof way to save data is to use Wi-Fi! Browsing or streaming over Wi-Fi doesn’t use your cellular data allowance. However, some phones will automatically use cellular data if they can’t connect to Wi-Fi, so just make sure you’re actually connected before you start that YouTube video!

There are also ways to monitor your data usage. Apart from your phone’s settings, which usually will show you your data usage, there are plenty of apps that help you keep tabs on how much data you’re using each month. Some apps can even notify you when you’re getting close to your maximum! There are also data calculators online that will provide an estimate of data usage based on your activities. Keep in mind that these are ballpark numbers, and can vary based on network, video quality, and even service provider.

Figuring out how much data you’re using can be tricky, but don’t lose hope! It’s not impossible. Remember to stream lower quality videos (if possible), use Wi-Fi, and keep tabs on that data usage! Have more questions about video streaming and data usage? Hit us up on Twitter @puretalkusa!

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