How-To Geek

How to Reduce the Amount of Data (and Bandwidth) Streaming Services Use

Streaming services are so commonplace that we often give little thought to how much data they use until it’s too late. It can be a lot, but you can reduce data use and prevent overages with a few minor changes here and there.

Despite the large number of streaming services and their associated apps, it’s safe to say, one of them might be Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, or especially YouTube. All these have ways to change how much data they consume, which is especially important if you have a data cap and/or share bandwidth.

Obviously, of these, Netflix and YouTube will use more data and bandwidth. In fact, you’re unlikely to experience bandwidth issues if you’re merely streaming music but that said, if you listen to music all day, it adds up, especially if you’re streaming higher quality audio.

Streaming Music? You Should be Okay

After some observation and research, it’s difficult to imagine that even with a paltry few gigabytes of mobile data, anyone could stream their way over their limit with Pandora or Spotify, as long as you pay attention to quality settings.

For Spotify, the “standard quality” setting on the desktop application, according to Spotify’s website, is ~160 kbps, which is known as “high quality” on mobile.

On a desktop or laptop, Premium Spotify subscribers can enable “high quality” (320kbps) streaming in the Spotify app’s settings, which is equal to “Extreme Quality” on the mobile app (confusing isn’t it?).

Regardless of what Spotify calls their audio quality tiers, non-Premium users can expect the highest quality music to stream at 160kbps (again, “Standard Quality” on the desktop, “High Quality” on the mobile app).

While Spotify’s desktop app will only stream music at 160kbps (unless you’re a Premium subscriber), the Spotify mobile app can stream music at a lower 96kbps (“Normal Quality”) to better minimize your mobile data footprint.

To understand how that translates to you and your data caps, we used this streaming calculator to plug in 96kbps and 160kbps.

  • At 96kbps, you will consume about 42MB of data in one hour, which translates to 0.04GB. To stream 1GB of data, you’d need to stream for 24 to 25 hours.
  • At 160kbps, data use climbs to about 70MB in an hour, or 0.07GB. This means you can stream 1GB of data in just under 15 hours.

Raising the audio quality setting will give you a somewhat better listening experience but obviously use more data, more quickly.

Meanwhile, Pandora states on their website:

Pandora on the Web plays 64k AAC+ for free listeners and 192kbps for Pandora One subscribers. All in-home devices play 128kbps audio, and mobile devices receive a variety of different rates depending on the capability of the device and the network they are on, but never more than 64k AAC+. (emphasis ours)

Pandora too allows you to bump up the quality (to 64kbps maximum) in its settings, but is configured by default to lower quality audio.

Again, plugging in the numbers, we see how much data Pandora uses.

  • Streaming at 64kbps will consume about 28MB or 0.03GB of data, which means you can expect to hit a gigabyte in just over 36 hours.
  • At 128kbps, hourly data use literally doubles to 56MB or 0.05GB, and that means your listening time will effectively halve to a little over 18 hours.

Bear in mind, Pandora’s mobile data bitrate never exceeds 64kbps, so that’s likely the most interesting number to mobile data users. Unlike Spotify however, you can probably get away with using the higher quality setting, as long as it doesn’t affect playback too adversely.

Be Careful with Video Streaming

Video streaming is going to always use far more data than music by virtue of the mere fact that it’s video. But, there are still settings you can adjust to alleviate how much data they use.

netflix

Indeed, if you have Netflix installed as an app, you can force it to only stream over Wi-Fi thus ensuring you don’t mistakenly eat into your mobile data allowance.

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The Netflix Android app’s settings.

If you use Netflix at home, such as in a browser, or you stream to your Chromecast or on your Roku however, you need to first access the data settings via Netflix.com. To do this, click “Your Acount” from your profile menu.

On the next screen, click “playback settings” in the “My Profile” section.

In the “Playback Settings”, you can now adjust your data usage per screen. Normally it is set to “Auto” but you can force it to play at low quality (up to 0.3GB per hour) or medium (up to 0.7 per hour). If you’re lucky enough to be able to stream high quality video, you can expect to consume 3GB to 7GB per hour.

Setting Netflix’s per screen data usage to “low” doesn’t mean you can now start streaming Netflix videos via your mobile data connection. It does mean your home Internet connection is less likely to crumble under the stress of other members of the household using it at the same time, which, if they’re watching YouTube, can happen in a hurry.

YouTube, a Mobile Data Hog

YouTube is by far the biggest video streaming site on earth, so you can expect to contribute a lot of data and bandwidth to it. It’s hard to simply watch one YouTube video, and chances are pretty good, most people watch YouTube videos every day.

YouTube-logo-full_color

Therefore, it’s especially important, if you watch YouTube on your phone over a mobile connection, to check your YouTube settings.

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Do this by tapping the options dots in the upper-right corner, then tap “Settings -> General” and tick the box next to “limit mobile data usage.” This will assure that you can only stream HD YouTube videos over a Wi-Fi connection.

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This won’t prevent you from watching videos on YouTube when you’re out and about, it just means you won’t be able to watch HD videos unless you’re on Wi-Fi. It’s a good solution but honestly, the way YouTube sucks us in, we know how easy it can be to quickly rack up a large watched video count.

Upon first load, all our videos default to 480P, but there’s a quick trick you can employ to ensure they play at a lower resolution. Click on your account picture in the upper-right corner of YouTube and click the settings gear.

On the next screen, click the “Playback” link and under “video playback quality” and choose the “I have a slow connection” option.

After using YouTube with this option enabled, our videos defaulted to 360P.

Yes but, How Much Data Do YouTube Videos Use?

The thing about YouTube videos are that even at lower resolutions, they can still consume a lot of data. How much data? It’s hard to say exactly since unlike Netflix, YouTube videos aren’t consistent from one uploader to the next, but we can take some measurements and make some observations.

Let’s take an easy example. Everyone knows the video Gangham Style. It’s been viewed over 2-billion times, it’s available in 144P through 1080P, so let’s queue that video up in each of it’s different resolutions and see how much data that video consumes using the firewall and data monitoring tool Glasswire.

The first time we load any video, it has to load the audio track as well, so it takes a little longer and the file size is initially larger. From thereon, the audio track is cached, so when we change resolutions, YouTube simply loads the video bits, so the file size is relatively smaller and it doesn’t take as long either.

Gangham Style is just over 4 minutes long (4:12 to be exact), and according to this source, the average audio bitrate is (probably) about 128kbps, which is approximately 4MB for a 4-minute long song.

In the following table, we present our Gangham Style findings. Each video’s observed size is adjusted to include the size of the audio track (as if you were loading each resolution the first time). This isn’t exact nor meant to be official, it’s just a rough idea of the size of an average pop music video with its accompanying audio track.

Video Resolution ~Size + 4MB Audio Track
144P 6.6MB
240P 9.6MB
360P 15.2MB
480P 25.2MB
720P 44.6MB
1080P 73.5MB

The takeaway here is pretty apparent. Don’t watch HD videos on your mobile connection and even at lower resolutions, YouTube videos can really add up.

How much do they add up over the course of time?

We cleared our results from Glasswire and simply went from pop music video to pop music video – twenty in all – at the default resolution (480P) and observed how much data they used.

As you can see, twenty pop music videos at 480P consumed over 400MB of data, which averages out to around 20MB per video.

The bottom line here is YouTube’s data footprint can add up very quickly, but really any video you stream will do that, so you want to make sure you only watch video on a non-metered Wi-Fi connection.

Obviously, these four services aren’t the only ones. There’s Hulu, Amazon Prime, Soundcloud, Rdio, and many more. For everything else, take a minute to peruse any settings in your apps and accounts to make sure you’re streaming at a mobile data-friendly bitrate, when possible.

Finally, if there is an option that prevents watching HD video (or in the case of Netflix, any video) using mobile data, turn that on as well.

If you have anything you’d like to add, any questions, comments, or observations, please share them with us in our discussion forum.

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 03/10/15

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