Netflix recommends a minimum Internet connection speed of 500kbps if you want to stream movies.

Image courtesy of Netflix

adAfterSmallInset

How fast should my Internet connection be to watch streaming HD movies?

If you checked a dozen different video streaming information Web sites, you'd probably get 12 different suggestions as to how fast your Internet download speed needs to be to watch high definition (HD) video. So what's the correct speed? Let's take a look at the data out there and discover a little more about how your Internet speed relates to streaming HD movies.

First, consider what it means for video to be HD. For a single still image on your screen, high definition refers to having at least 720 lines of pixels on the screen, from top to bottom, making up the image. The upper end of HD is 1,080 lines of pixels. The more pixels you can cram into the same physical space, the more detailed an image you can see on the screen. That increased detail means higher definition.

When the pictures start moving, the speed at which pixels can change between images affects whether you can view the video in high definition. The first thing affecting whether you're receiving HD is the device you're using. Both the player (computer, game console or similar device) and the screen (monitor or TV) must be HD-capable in order to view true HD video. Check the specs to see if these components can handle progressive scan rates of at least 720p. That's the minimum rate for video that qualifies as HD, and a common rate used for streaming HD video online.

Supposing you're all set with home components, the next thing to consider is whether the site you're connecting to is really providing video in HD. For example, Hulu.com has common progressive scan rates of 360p and 480p for every video, even if HD is available for that video. When content is available in true HD, you'll have an additional option in the video's settings to switch to viewing in 720p.

So far, you've determined that you have all HD-ready devices, and that you're connecting to HD video content on the Web. Now, what about that Internet connection? Jump to the next page for the truth about the speed and bandwidth you need.

Web sites like speedtest.net offer free tests of your Internet connection's current upload and download speeds.

Screenshot by Stephanie Crawford for HowStuffWorks

adAfterSmallInset

Internet Speed and Bandwidth for HD Video Quality

In a 2010 survey, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) found that 80 percent of people with broadband Internet in the U.S. didn't know the speed of that broadband connection [source: Gurin]. In addition, some may be surprised to learn that they're only getting a fraction of their service's advertised maximum speeds. For example, your Internet service provider (ISP) might have you on a plan that says "up to 30 Mbps down" while you're really only getting download speeds of around 19 Mbps.

Web sites like speedtest.net offer free tests for both the upload and download speeds of your Internet connection, but be cautious of some of the tempting "start" buttons in ads on the sites -- many are actually well-designed ads that look like they're part of the site's test mechanisms. Before you call your ISP about any discrepancies, remember that the plan you're on is based on a maximum value. Your actual results are affected by factors like your ISP's peak Web use times, the number of people sharing your line and your distance from the ISP's fiber pipeline.

When it comes to streaming HD video, you'll need a broadband speed, or bitrate, that's capable of handling a progressive scan rate of 720p. Since your HD-capable screen is refreshing the screen 60 times per second, this means ensuring that all those video frames are received and ready to play before they're needed. Your computer or other device will cache all the incoming data and queue the video frames so they're ready for smooth playback.

From there, determining the speed you'll need seems to be a matter of math. That math, though, requires some idea about the size of the video file. This depends on how the file is encoded, more commonly referred to as the file type. A one-hour 720p video in the MPEG-2 standard might be 2.7 GB while the same video in one of the newest video standards, H.264/Advanced Video Coding (AVC), could be almost 13 GB [source: Digital Rebellion]. Thus, differences in file size could be one explanation for why different Web sites have different speed recommendations for streaming their HD content.

Suppose the video you're streaming is one hour long, and the file size for that video is 6 GB. While a broadband connection of up to 10 Mbps lets you easily stream a lot of video content online, you'll want 15 Mbps or more for this six-gigabyte HD video. Here's a quick look at the math:

  • Approximate megabytes: 6 GB = 6,144 MB (1 GB = 1024 MB)
  • Approximate megabits: 6,144 MB = 49,152 Mb (1 byte = 8 bits)
  • Number of seconds per hour calculation: 60 x 60 = 3,600
  • Megabits per hour calculation: 49,152 / 3,600 = 13.65 Mbps

When you're streaming HD content, also consider whether the connection jumps over a wireless router. If so, note that the connection speed could drop over the connection if the WiFi standard isn't fast enough. You'll want to avoid slower 802.11b connections, and the newest 802.11n is the ideal choice to keep up with faster broadband services.

As with anything you do over your broadband connection, be sure to note whether your ISP will slow down or stop your service after reaching a certain bandwidth threshold. Some sites, such as Netflix, let you choose a lower playback quality to help you stay within those thresholds, even though it means giving up the higher definition. Also, make sure the hardware you're using isn't just HD-capable, but it has the processing power to cache and play video files in HD.

For lots more information about your internet connection and streaming HD video, head on over to the next page.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
  • Digital Rebellion. "Video Space Calculator." Digital Rebellion LLC. (Oct. 28, 2911) http://www.digitalrebellion.com/webapps/video_calc.html
  • Federal Communications Commission. "Encyclopedia: Broadband Speed." (Oct. 28, 2011) http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/broadband-speed
  • Gurin, Joel. "Broadband Speed: When Ignorance is Costly." Federal Communications Commission. June 2, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2011) http://reboot.fcc.gov/blog?entryId=474986
  • Gurin, Joel. "Internet Service: Would You Switch - and Why?" Federal Communications Commission. Dec. 6, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2011) http://www.fcc.gov/blog/internet-service-would-you-switch-and-why
  • Hulu. "Help: Hulu Desktop System Requirements." (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.hulu.com/support/article/166573
  • Hulu. "Help: Video Streaming." (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.hulu.com/support/article/166587
  • Hulu. "Video Quality." (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.hulu.com/about/video_quality
  • Netflix. "Help: How does my Internet connection affect the picture quality of movies I watch instantly?" (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.netflix.com/Help?action=2&jsEnabled=false&faqtrkid=5&p_faqid=1190&lnkctr=yas_faq&p_search_text=recommended%20internet%20speed