Online Movie Streaming Guide

A short introductory guide to online movie streaming websites featuring service reviews, technical details, and a brief look at what the near future might hold.

Streaming Ahead

What does streaming mean?

Streaming means to watch a movie in 'real-time' rather than waiting for the entire file to be downloaded to your computer before playback begins.

In essence, streaming allows you to play a file as it is being downloaded, as opposed to conventional file transfers where the entire file needs to be downloaded fully before it can be played.

How does streaming work?

Streamed files are downloaded in small chunks at a time and each chunk is overwritten as soon as it has been played and is no longer needed. Disk space is minimised and the streamed movie isn't ever stored on the device it is being watched on. This feature affects various legal issues surrounding movie streaming, such as digital rights management and copyright concerns.

If the stream is interrupted, or there is a delay in the next section of data being received, the video will pause and buffer while it waits for the next data block to be sent. Yes, we encounter the dreaded buffer spinner animation, the plague of all movie streamers!

So, as long as the movie is downloaded at least as fast as it is being played, the viewer will experience no interruptions to the playback.

Watching and Streaming

In this article, I use the word 'watch' and 'stream' interchangeably - i.e. by the terms 'watch movies' and 'stream movies', I am referring to the same action; that is, the act of streaming audiovisual content with no waiting around for a huge file download to complete!

In the same regard, the terms 'online movie streaming', 'video on demand', and 'content streaming' are also used interchangeably to mean any audiovisual content viewed by means of streaming.

That description is somewhat long-winded. In reality, streaming is something most of us are familiar with, do on a day-to-day basis, and have come to take for granted. But let's take a closer look at the current state of things and how this movie streaming is achieved.

Video-on-Demand (VOD)

Video on demand services let you choose what you want to watch and when you want to watch it, as opposed to regular broadcasts where predetermined content is only accessible at certain times.

The majority of internet users are probably already familiar with streaming video on demand, even if they have never streamed a full movie online.

YouTube videos are streamed to your device - that is, the video and audio content is played as it is being downloaded.

The most popular VOD service in the UK is, of course, the freely available BBC iPlayer, an innovative service which helped popularise the idea of streaming programmes online and encouraged the uptake of VOD services as a way to access content as and when you wanted.

Online Movie Streaming

Online movie streaming has become a popular way to watch movies and TV shows in recent years. The rise of cheap, fast, reliable broadband connections has accelerated the growth and popularity of online movie streaming services as it is now possible for many users in the UK to stream HD movies through their residential broadband connection.

The days of browsing the shelves of your local Blockbuster store are well and truly behind us. We now have unrivalled access to thousands of high-quality movies without even leaving the house.

Technical Requirements

Laptops, TVs, Pads, and Pods

Devices, so many devices. Online movie streaming services are often compatible with a wide range of popular internet-connected devices, from games consoles and TVs to iPads and smartphones.

Broadband Speed

A minimum broadband speed of around 2Mbps is required by most streaming services. HD video will need a speed closer to 8Mbps ideally. There is a link to a speed test site at the bottom of this page. If you can stream content on the BBC iPlayer without excessive buffering then you should be fine with Amazon and Netflix etc.

Movie Streaming Websites

There are literally thousands of websites offering a movie streaming service. Some are great, but some are not so great. Stick with the big brand names and you can't go wrong.

Popular Services

Unlike most other countries worldwide, UK consumers have a decent choice of online movie and TV show streaming options available. The market is competitive, so prices are low given the amount of content available on services such as Amazon's Prime Instant Video and Sky's Now TV Movies.

Free Online Movie Streaming Websites

I recently looked back over the web statistics for this website and it looks like a huge percentage of visitors arrive here looking for ways to stream movies online for free. At least that's the impression given by the search terms used to reach this page!

It's important to mention that after the free trial, your subscription will normally automatically renew each month, at the full price, until you notify the website that you wish you cancel it.

It is easy to reactivate your account at any time in the future.

In general, it's wise to approach website for free movie streaming with caution if you are unfamiliar with the brand or the website's operators. Review the website carefully and always read the terms and conditions because lots of important details are often found lurking in the small print.

Only submit your card details to trustworthy websites where it is clear what you will be getting in return. If you have any doubts, search for reviews online or swiftly move along to more credible offerings!

The Different Ways to Watch

There are two alternative ways to pay to access movie content online; either on a pay-per-view basis or a monthly subscription basis.

Monthly Subscriptions

Some online movie streaming services use a subscription based business model where customers are charged a recurring monthly fee to access content without any limit to the amount they can consume. Many of the most popular providers – such as Amazon Prime Instant Video, Netflix, and Now TV – operate their on-demand video streaming services in this setup.

Services in this category typically offer users many thousands of available titles to choose from, including both TV programmes and feature length movies.

Pay Per View (PPV)

Pay a one-off fee for every movie you watch online with no monthly recurring charges. PPV suits viewers who want to watch the latest movies and also those who only plan to stream the odd film now and then rather than on a regular basis.

The typical cost of streaming a fairly new movie on Amazon Instant Video or Blinkbox is £3.49 for SD titles and £4.49 for full HD titles (some older movies are slightly cheaper).

Technical Details

(Specially written for those who know their RTMP from their HTTP!)

Streaming Technology

Real-time Messaging Protocol (RTMP)

Originally developed by Macromedia (now part of Adobe), RTMP was designed as a network protocol for the streaming of audio and video content over the Internet from a server to a Flash-enabled browser.

RMTP server software is fully implemented on Amazon S3 and Cloudfront servers for online movie streaming purposes.

Real-time Streaming Protocol (RTSP)

Flash, ActiveX, Silverlight, and HTML5

Silverlight is supported by every major modern web browsers in the desktop market. It can play audio and video content protected by Digital Rights Management (DRM) and will automatically check for, download, and install DRM components when playing protected content.

Both big players Amazon and Netflix are currently using Silverlight with their movie streaming products, but Netflix has indicated it is likely to transition to HMTL5 video in the near future.

Content Delivery

At peak times, it is estimated that Netflix alone accounts for approximately 60% of all US internet traffic - an unbelievably vast amount to bandwidth is required to simultaneously stream HD video to (presumably) hundreds of thousands of connected devices.

In a slightly unexpected twist, it actually turns out that Netflix utilises Amazon Web Services Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) for its global content delivery. Odd when you think that Amazon offers the largest rival service to Netflix!

Video Compression


Bit-rates, Buffering, and Adaptive Streaming

Video playback needs to be smooth in order to provide a decent viewing experience.

We don't care how it works, just along as it works quickly and allows us to get on and do what we want to do - in this case watch an exciting movie!

Buffering is often characterised by a loading icon, typically a small spinning disc in the centre of the screen. We've all been there. And it's frustrating.

Legal Considerations

It is very easy to accidental stumble upon illegally uploaded content on the internet. Even legal, heavily regulated services like YouTube contains user-uploaded videos which violate international copyright laws.

Use of copyright protected works of art is permitted under fair usage clauses. However, the definition of what exactly qualifies as 'fair use' is open to debate. Generally speaking, works created to parody or critic movies are allowed to sample parts of the original work.

The legal arguments for and against these issues is very complex and varies from country to country. There are huge grey areas where various laws are vague and open to interpretation. Often cases are debated and judged on an individual basis where the circumstances and intent are taken into consideration. As such, this section is not intended as legal advice and the issues involved here are far beyond the scope of this article! Far, far, far out of range!

The Future

Peer to Peer Movie Streaming

The phrase 'peer-to-peer' (or 'P2P') has a bad reputation because it is almost always associated with illegal downloading programs such as bit torrent software.

But P2P movie streaming could be utilised by legal providers to deliver large amounts of data worldwide, much in the same way as Spotify uses a P2P setup to simultaneously stream music to millions of users.

In a conventional setup, users download a file from a single server. The factors which impact the download speed you get depend on the bandwidth and latency between the user and the server. Latency is usually not much of a problem, but bandwidth is limited and expensive. In a P2P setup, the video stream is downloaded from multiple other users simultaneously rather than a central server. Essentially, users with a 'more complete' download share parts of the file with you.

The illegal movie streaming service known as "Popcorn Time" works this way with no centralised servers.

External Links

A collection of links to relevant third-party websites.

Further Information

More movie streaming facts from around the web.

Free Movie Streaming Trials

Please note: most of these services are only available for residents of the United Kingdom.


This guide was published on 14th Aug 2015 and last revised on 12th Nov 2015.

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