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Stream films and TV series: Guide

Once upon a time you were forced to visit a physical video shop when you wanted to rent a film. Now video shops are digital, and you can hire or buy films online and then watch them with the same high quality that you would expect from a physical disc. 

There are two ways of accessing digital content on streaming services. One is to stream the content. The film or TV series is located on a server somewhere else in the world and you pay to watch it, but don't need to download it. Streaming means that the content is played for you but is stored somewhere else in the world. The advantage is that you don't have to allocate your own storage space to the film (video takes up a lot of storage space on a hard drive) and you can start watching it immediately. The disadvantage is that you don't own the video and if the film service disappears, your access to the video also disappears – and you also need a quick, stable internet connection to watch it. The other way to access the content is to first download it. This is preferable if you are buying a film instead of hiring it, because you aren't dependent on anyone else for your access to it. It's up to you to store it safely so that you don't lose it. Many people choose to buy an external hard drive or NAS (network-attached storage - a connected, stationary unit containing an external hard drive). Another advantage is that you don't need an internet connection when you want to watch a downloaded film. The disadvantage of downloading is that you have to have a relatively large hard drive if you want space for many videos, because high-resolution video files take up a lot of space. Another disadvantage is that you can't start to watch it immediately; you have to wait until it's downloaded – in some cases completely, in others it needs to have started downloading before you can watch the content.

Streaming services today often offer both alternatives. You can both buy and rent films, and in the majority of cases when you buy it you can download it and when you hire it you can only stream it.

Film services are divided into two types: subscription services and on-demand. Subscription services mean that you pay a fixed sum every month and can access all of the content on the service freely over that period. This is suitable for people who watch films and TV series a lot. In the services where you pay on-demand, you simply pay a one-off fee for renting or purchasing the film. If you rent it, you normally have a month to start watching it, and once you've pressed Play you have 48 hours to finish it. If you buy the film, however, you can watch it as many times – and as often – as you want. This type of service is better for people who watch films and TV series more sporadically.

Quality and quantity

When you choose a film service, there are a number of factors to consider before making your choice. It's not only the payment model that is of interest – the range of films and programmes on offer is even more crucial. And the range available varies significantly. Some services only have a few blockbusters and a large number of "B-movies". Some primarily have series that they have produced themselves. There are also copyright problems to deal with. Some services choose to purchase the rights to the popular series you want to watch, while others don't. So if you're looking for a subscription service, you should test it for a month – they often have free trial periods – and make sure that the type of series and films you like are available. However, if you only pay on-demand, it can be useful to save bookmarks for more than one service so that if one service doesn't have the film you're looking for, others might have. 

The range also varies depending on the country you're in. This regional variation means that VPN services – services that conceal your computer's IP address and give you an address in another country – have become popular. However, film services attempt to prevent these techniques, for example by using different verification methods to guarantee that you are really in the country you claim and by blocking the addresses of VPN services. 

When you rent a film you normally choose between SD and HD quality, with the latter being a little more expensive. So if your internet is sufficiently good – 10 mB per second or more – you can stream the film in full HD quality. If you're playing the film on your TV, you can exploit the full HD screen to the maximum. The same applies on a computer, of course. When it comes to 4K, which is the successor to full HD (or Blu-Ray, if you like), there's not much material yet available in that quality. But a number of film services are rapidly expanding their range of films and TV series in 4K resolution. Netflix was the first to make the investment, but in a few years it will be the industry standard. However, if you want to watch a film of a particular image and sound quality, regardless of source, you must have equipment that can handle that quality. So if you're playing a film in 4K, your TV must support 4K to maximise image quality – and if you're streaming the film too, you must have a sufficiently fast internet connection.

Playback unit and speed

Film and play services aren't just available on computers these days. They can be found as apps on everything from your mobile phone and tablet to TV and media player. In other words, wherever you turn there is a digital video shop for those with a craving for a good film or for binge watching a TV series. This is known as video-on-demand, which means you can immediately get hold of a video to watch whenever you want. 

If your TV doesn't have a smart system, you can buy one, such as a Chromecast or Apple TV. Or you can simply stream everything from your computer or smartphone.