When it comes to the average household, streaming media is the biggest bandwidth hog. Which of the big three online streaming services—YouTube, Spotify, and Netflix—uses up the most bandwidth? The amount of bandwidth that videos use can vary greatly—unlike streaming music, which is usually fixed. So exactly how much of your monthly allotment will those cat videos cost you? Internet plans often cost less than C$$10, which includes 60 gigabytes of traffic. Then you typically pay about C$$8 for every extra 20 GB of data. Such data plans sound very cost-effective. They are. . . but only if you only rarely consume video content. For a month’s worth of web browsing, 60 GB of data is more than enough. This is not how the average person uses the internet, however. According to DecisionData, usage of internet data has drastically increased in recent years. An average household uses 38 times more internet data than it did ten years ago. As of 2020, an average household uses as much as 344 GB of data a month. If this rapid climb in data usage continues unabated, no amount of infrastructure will be able to handle it. And that’s not even accounting for the growth of world population and the ever-greater access to high-speed internet around the globe. One consequence of the exploding demand is that more and more internet service providers are imposing hard caps on data usage. Depending on region, the caps may range from 300 GB to 1 terabyte per month. After the cap is reached, the ISP drastically reduces your internet speed, often to about 4 megabits per second. As you would expect, most of that data is spent on streaming services— consumption of things like movies, TV shows, and gaming streams. Even a short-clip app like the highly addictive TikTok, with its nearly one billion users, gobbles up 840 megabytes of data per hour! With Data Saver mode on, this can be halved to 360 MB per hour. Unfortunately, Data Saver can be turned on only while using mobile data, not also while using Wi-Fi. There’s only one way to make sure you don’t crash into a data cap: keeping track of the kind of content you consume.
Video or Music? Which Uses the Most Data?The rule of thumb is that the more media layers in a particular piece of content, the more data it requires. Always look at the layers of the content you are consuming.
- Text. Text is the cheapest form of media to consume. An e-book consisting of 300 or so pages of text and no images is only about half a megabyte in size. You can spend a week engrossed in that 0.5 MB, which is 0.0005 GB.
- Images. The size of images varies, but web developers have settled on around 0.1 MB per image to keep a website page responsive and SEO-friendly. If you are visiting an image-heavy website like Instagram, though, the megabytes add up quickly. Still, it is leagues lower than the next media layer.
- Audio. If an e-book of 300 pages requires only 0.5 MB of data, its audiobook version requires almost 700 MB. This represents an increase in data usage of 140,000 percent, an astronomical jump in data consumption. Even so, audio is still way more conservative than our final media layer.
- Video. Video is the main reason for skyrocketing data usage and ISP data caps. If 12 minutes of audio of normal audio quality (128 kilobits per second) requires 12 MB of data, a 12-minute video version of normal video quality (360p resolution) requires 62 MB of data. That’s a jump in data usage of 517 percent.
How Much Data Does YouTube Use?Consider a typical YouTube gameplay video of around 12 minutes. How data-intensive would each possible quality setting of the video be? If we translate the above numbers into a comparison chart, we get the following data usage for each specified video resolution: As you can see, we are looking at a near doubling of data usage per jump in resolution. Nobody wants to watch videos at the lowest resolution of 240p. The optimal video quality for a screen larger than 10” would be a resolution of either 480p or 720p, commonly referred to as standard definition (SD). The difference in visual quality between the lowest data usage at 240p and the optimal data usage at 720p is shown in the image below. When we reach screen sizes of 20” to 24”, we need 1080p resolution (1920 pixels x 1080 pixels) to avoid pixelated video. For a screen larger than 24”, 2.5K resolution (2560 x 1440) is even more suitable. For very large TV screens, 4K resolution is best for achieving crystal-clear video images.
How to Use Less Data in YouTubeThe amount of YouTube bandwidth you use depends on your watching habits. If you are watching YouTube on a smartphone, you can switch to 480p resolution (or make it the default), which is fine for a wide variety of content. If you want to enjoy gameplay videos, though, 60 frames per second (fps) is a must. You can get an impression of the greater smoothness provided by higher frame rates from this video demonstration. Let’s say you want to listen to a one-hour podcast that comes in the form of a video. At 480p, doing so would cost you about 525 MB. But does it make sense to watch hour-long podcasts? We only want to listen to them. If we strip the video down to an audio format, we can transform that 525 MB one-hour podcast into an MP3 audio track of 56.5 MB (or less). You can perform this conversion with the 4K Video Downloader software, which you can download here. If you don’t want to bother manually stripping audio from video, keep in mind that most podcasts have links at the bottom of their descriptions to Spotify or other audio-streaming services.
How Much Data Does Netflix Use?YouTube provides a baseline of the amount of data that video streaming services use. If we set aside gameplay content, we can forget about the 60 fps requirement present as an option on YouTube and Twitch and consider only resolution. Like YouTube, Netflix uses the following bandwidth for each resolution:
- For standard definition (SD) 720p video, 0.7 GB per hour.
- For high definition (HD) 1080p video, 3 GB per hour.
- For ultra high definition (UHD) 4K video, 7 GB per hour.
How to Use Less Data When Watching NetflixLife is about compromises. It’s also about knowing when it makes sense to use a higher resolution. If you are watching your content on a tablet or smartphone, it doesn’t make sense to go above a medium resolution setting. Not all videos are even available in 4K. If you have selected the High setting but 4K is unavailable for a video you want to watch, Netflix will switch to the next-best resolution given your internet speed. (Don’t forget to uncheck the Auto-Play setting shown above. Otherwise, videos will play automatically, one after another, after you have fallen asleep.) Adjust such settings in all of your accounts and devices.
How Much Data Does Spotify Use?A 30-minute audio (usually an MP3 track) at 128 kbps will use about 28 MB of data. Spotify uses Vorbis format for its streams instead of its default setting of 160 kbps. Spotify’s premium audio streaming offers audio quality at 320 kbps, so count on doubling the data usage when you listen to the premium audio. Still, this is 10 to 20 times less data than an SD video requires. Whether or not you switch to Spotify’s lower default setting of 160 kbps, you have little reason to worry that audio-streaming platforms will gobble up your internet data traffic. There aren’t enough hours in a month to expend a significant proportion of your data on audio streams. Look at it this way. One 700 MB audiobook will hold you for about 10 hours of listening time. If you do nothing all day, every day, but listen to audiobooks, you would still use only about 21 GB of data a month.
How to Best Manage Your Data UsageWhatever account you have, whether video streaming or audio streaming, first check its resolution and bitrate settings and whether auto-play is enabled. Also make sure that your mobile devices are connecting to appropriate networks—mobile data or Wi-Fi. When you can, use your home Wi-Fi network so that you can reduce your usage of more expensive mobile data. Cell phone data plans are always more expensive than those of Wi-Fi routers and streaming boxes. Next, don’t forget to hard-limit your data usage using the settings of the operating system. Windows 10 enables you to do this with a few easy steps:
- Click on the Windows icon and Settings.
- Click on Network & Internet.
- Click on Data usage and limit each program or app accordingly.