TV & Movie Streaming with Mobile Internet
RVing and boating don't mean giving up Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime or HBO - you can still stream video while traveling using mobile internet sources like cellular data.
While nomads do enjoy getting out and exploring our new locales, hiking in nature, and visiting with friends – when travel is a lifestyle, it’s all about finding balance.
There’s no shame watching some television after the hike - or bailing on yet another museum to stream a good flick.
For a nomad, this is life on the road and water - not an endless vacation.
We aren't spending all of our days playing tourist and evenings roasting marshmallows over a campfire.
There will be bad weather days, blood-sucking bugs, days you’re not feeling well, or days you’re just bored of exploring (yes, it happens) when you'd rather just Netflix and chill at home.
So do it.
Unwinding after a day of work, exploring, or socializing by plopping down in front of the tube (errr.. OLED screen) is part of modern-day life!
With life in constant motion, many of the old ways of staying entertained just don't work like you might be used to.
The cable is cut, satellite TV is hit-or-miss through trees or masts, local over the air channels are unfamiliar, and online streaming can leave you fighting with poor signal and living in fear of data caps.
And let's face it - nothing consumes data more quickly than streaming video!
Enjoying glorious HD (and even ultra-HD 4K) video requires astronomical amounts of data.
If you have a fast and unlimited cable internet hook-up, then these data demands are no big deal. You might not have ever thought about how much data streaming a Netflix original series requires.
But once you start trying to manage mobile connections with confusing limitations and variable speeds - you quickly start running into the challenges.
But never fear - you don't have to give up your favorite shows to live a life on the go.
If you learn a few tricks and the ways to avoid the worst pitfalls, there are actually still plenty of options to keep you entertained no matter where you roam!
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Video streaming allows watching live TV or specific shows on-demand over the internet anytime you like.
Just click from your computer, smartphone, tablet, Smart TV or streaming box.
Because video streaming has become very common and affordable - we often forget that the technology behind the scenes that makes this possible is near magical. And the amount of data and resources required to provide and receive it are mind-boggling.
We so often hear from RVers and cruisers that they have just basic mobile internet needs - just e-mail, web surfing and video streaming.
Even though video streaming is commonplace, there isn't a simple mobile internet solution.
It's one of the most bandwidth intensive things you can do online, and is the area where you will experience the most variety of quality of connection to achieve.
So just what does it take to stream successfully - particularly when relying on mobile internet?
How Fast of a Connection Do You Need?
Simple answer: the faster the better
Particularly if you want to watch in HD.
Here are the current speed recommendations for watching content through Netflix. Other video services have similar needs:
- 0.5 Mbps- Required minimum
- 1.5 Mbps - Recommended minimum
- 3 Mbps - SD resolution, aka "DVD Quality"
- 5 Mbps - HD quality
- 25 Mbps - Ultra HD / 4K quality
If your connection is barely fast enough for the resolution you have selected - you may encounter pauses for buffering, or lengthy delays when you jump to a new location in a show.
If your connection is particularly fast, you may burn through way more data than intended.
Some video streaming services will automatically adapt to deliver as much resolution as your connection will allow. And some services allow you to manually pick a quality setting.
TIP: Keep in mind that some mobile internet connections restrict video speeds to limit resolution and control data usage. You can check to see if your service is throttling video by comparing a speed test using Fast.com (run by Netflix, so it uses a video file to test) with a more general speed test service like SpeedTest.net.
How Much Data Does Streaming Use?
Lots. And if you are watching in HD or Ultra HD - MegaLOTS!
Again using Netflix as an example, here are Netflix's estimates of how much data an hour of video will consume:
- Lowest Resolution - 0.3 GB per hour
- Medium (SD) Resolution - 0.7 GB per hour
- High (HD) - 3 GB per hour
- Ultra HD - 7 GB per hour
Netflix sets the gold standard for video compression - equivalent resolutions on other services often burn through data even faster!
Streaming over Mobile Internet Data Sources
If you're used to video streaming over a hard-wired internet source like cable or DSL, you likely have an unlimited and fast data plan. You probably never had to even think about how much data you were using or how fast & reliable your data was.
Mobile internet connections make video streaming a new challenge.
Here are some specific considerations for two of the most popular mobile internet sources: public Wi-Fi and cellular data.
Public Wi-Fi Streaming
Many people assume that they will be able to stream all they want over campground or marina Wi-Fi networks, or by tapping into neighboring public Wi-Fi networks at a nearby coffee shop, store, or restaurant.
This may occasionally work out.
But don't count on it.
While more and more campgrounds and marinas are specifically designing their Wi-Fi networks to provide the capacity for their customers to stream video - this is still somewhat rare.
Most public Wi-Fi hotspots only have enough bandwidth to allow guests access to email and basic web surfing. Just one or two video streams over a shared connection can sometimes bring the network down for everyone.
Many marinas and parks limit how much data their guests can use daily to more fairly spread out the bandwidth, and some just simply do not allow video streaming.
Without guidance to the contrary, please be a good neighbor by limiting nonessential high-bandwidth usage to off-hours – such as late at night, or mid-afternoon while everyone is at work or out sightseeing.
As unintuitive as it seems, even when there is campground Wi-Fi, cellular is very often a better option!
Cellular Data Streaming
They realize the demand for consumers to want to watch video on their sweet high-resolution smartphone and tablet screens when they're away from home and have been scrambling to increase capacity while managing their available resources.
Many are even partnering with or buying up video streaming services realizing the future is in being a content provider too.
All carriers now proudly promote "unlimited" data plans, as the old tiered data plan model no longer make as much sense in a video-rich world.
Consider - a 90-minute high-definition movie on Netflix can easily eat up 4.5GBs of data!
If you’re paying by the GB at $10/GB - that movie would cost you $45 to watch!
This means their data plans are specifically designed around temporary use away from a normal home internet connection.
So "unlimited plans" come with restrictions intended to make it unappealing to rely on your cellular data plan for all of your video streaming and internet desires.
Most smartphone and tablet unlimited plans provide unlimited video streaming - but only on the device screen. And there are very often restrictions on video resolution, limiting you to SD or HD quality.
This presents a problem for nomads who's primary home internet connection is cellular data.
RVers and cruisers don't want to just watch video on their smartphone - they want to use their SmartTV or streaming device (AppleTV, Chromecast, Roku, etc) to watch their favorite content on the big screen.
To achieve this, you have to either adapt your viewing needs or think outside your carrier's default plans.
There are data plans available, usually via third-party resellers, that can provide for unlimited, unthrottled video streaming on whatever device you like.
Check these guides below for leads on the current best options:
For our current top pick data plans: :
For the current unlimited plan options we are tracking:
Or, if you're willing to adapt your viewing preferences, read on for some additional ideas on using your carrier's direct plans to scratch your streaming itch.
Streaming To The Big Screen from Smartphones & Tablets
When it comes to movie night - bigger is better.
After all - who wants to watch blockbuster movies and epic shows on a tablet or a phone screen?
You naturally want to use your mobile connection to watch on your larger TV screen, but a lot of the best options for streaming via cellular unlimited data plans are limited to "on device data" - meaning that you can't just create a hotspot and share the connection with your Roku, Apple TV, etc.
Doing so will blow through your personal mobile hotspot data limits in a heartbeat!
A great way around this is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the big screen directly.
Tip: A lot of nomads actually dedicate a tablet or smartphone to be the streaming heart of their entertainment center, permanently wired to their TV.
The overall experience may be nowhere near as nice as directly using an Apple TV, Roku, or the built-in smart TV apps, but at least you can watch all you want without running into limits placed on hot spot data.
There are several ways to do this depending on the equipment you have, and several important gotchas to be on guard against.
Keep in mind that not all streaming apps will support the methods below, or may only support it for specific types of content depending on content licensing and other agreements with content producers. As with other aspects of mobile internet, flexibility is key, and you should ideally have a "plan B" if your favorite show or app won't let you stream from your phone or tablet to a big screen.
Hard-Wired HDMI Out Adapters
The simplest way to get your video up on a big screen is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the screen directly via a hard-wired HDMI video cable.
When doing this, the video content on your smartphone or tablet screen is transmitted through the cable to one of the TV's HDMI input ports. The HDMI out adapter essentially just mirrors the image to the larger screen. The advantage of this method is that the data used for the video stream is still considered 'on device' and therefore does NOT tap into your hotspot data, which likely has a cap.
For those with unlimited on-device data, this can be a great option - just keep in mind that any video resolution limits that come with your plan are still in force.
Here's a quick video going over some of the wired-output options:
Here are the options for different types of mobile devices - read on to be sure you pick something suitably compatible.
With Apple iOS devices it is easy - Apple's Lightning Digital AV Adapter works with all current iPhones and most iPads and is directly supported by many streaming apps to give you dedicated video output over HDMI, enabling a separate view of the control panel on your phone or tablet.
Apps that are not designed for HDMI output instead run in screen-mirroring mode, displaying exactly what is on your device on the connected screen.
Keep in mind that Apple iOS enables this function by default, but app developers can choose to block it. Some streaming apps have specifically blocked output via the adapter and other screen mirroring methods like Airplay.Click to Purchase on Amazon Click to Purchase on MacMall
TIP: Do NOT be tempted by discount knock-off adapters - they usually will not work for copy-protected content, which means almost all commercial video streaming services will be incompatible.
Going for the Apple-branded option is well worth the extra cost over a third-party adapter.
NOTE: New iPad Pro models, released after October 2018, have a USB-C port that can use any USB-C to HDMI adapter, including the one from apple:Click to Purchase on Amazon Click to Purchase on MacMall
In the Android world, HDMI output compatibility is hit or miss, and there are multiple incompatible output adapter standards.
You will need to do your homework to find out what is compatible with your particular device - if there is even an option at all. Some devices simply do not support any HDMI output capability.
Mobile High-Definition Link - If your Android device has a Micro-USB or USB-C charging port, check the specs for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) compatibility.
MHL is usually compatible with affordable Micro-USB to HDMI interface cables. For many older Samsung phones - the official Samsung HDMI adapter is a solid way to go. There are also options that integrate the MHL adapter into a long HDMI cable, perfect for leaving your phone accessible while plugged into the TV.
Newer devices and adapters with MHL 3.0 support allow for up to 4K output resolution. One example MHL 3.0 device is this official Samsung MHL 3.0 adapter.
NOTE: Check compatibility carefully - some MHL devices use 5-pin cables and others use 11-pin, so be. sure to check that your phone is listed as compatible with the adapter you purchase.
SlimPort (Micro-USB) - SlimPort is an alternative competing standard to MHL for connecting to HDMI. It was first used on the Google Nexus 4, and became very common on LG devices as well as with some other manufacturers (Here's a list of compatible devices). If your device is SlimPort compatible, the Slimport Nano Console can act as a docking station for your phone with its own wireless remote control.
NOTE: SlimPort also defines a standard for USB-C connectors, so make sure you get the right one.
USB-C to HDMI - Many recent Android devices that have moved to USB-C charging connectors, and many of these support widely available USB-C HDMI output adapters. The Samsung USB-C to HDMI Adapter reportedly works great with the Galaxy S8 and S9, and the SlimPort USB-C to HDMI Adapter is a slightly cheaper alternative. Even generic USB-C to HDMI dongles designed for laptops often work great with many models of USB-C phones and tablets.
WARNING: Many Android phones (including the Google Pixel line and the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7) have no support at all for wired HDMI output. So be sure to check to determine what is compatible with your particular hardware. Also be sure your selected output option provides for a way to charge your device while streaming, otherwise you might end up with a dead phone battery right at the worst possible cliffhanger moment.
AirPlay & Chromecast Casting
Plugging in a cable is awkward.
Simple and easy, right? But be careful - there is a catch!
AirPlay and Chromecast are capable of displaying video from your mobile device to a connected screen, but whenever possible they try to be smart - and instead of playing back the streaming video on your phone, your phone just hands off the video request to the Apple TV or Chromecast.
The stream then uses whatever data source the Apple TV or Chromecast is connected to for internet access and not your "on-device" data.
This means that even though you may have started the playback on your "unlimited" mobile device - the data being used could very likely be your capped mobile hotspot data!
Unless you have unlimited hotspot or tethering data, it is best to avoid using AirPlay or Chromecast for streaming videos.
Miracast Screen Mirroring: Cordless HDMI
One alternative to using a wired HDMI adapter for some Android devices (and Windows laptops) is to use a technology called Miracast, which is essentially a "wireless HDMI" signal for screen mirroring, broadcasting exactly what is on your mobile device screen to your TV over an automatically configured peer-to-peer Wi-Fi channel.
If you are using Miracast - you ARE using on-device data, and not hotspot data. This is a great way to avoid those data limits.
Some recent smart TVs have Miracast Screen Mirroring receivers built in - or you can plug in a generic Miracast receiver into an HDMI port on the back of any TV.
Amazon is full of other off-brand alternative Miracast dongles, for as little as $15.
All the latest Roku devices also have Miracast built too.
To mirror your screen to a Miracast receiver, a transmitter needs to be built into your mobile device.
Many recent Android phones and Windows laptops have added this support, though no Apple devices have or are likely to.
To enable the screen mirroring broadcast, just go to the Android Display Settings, and find what the (sometimes hidden) setting to turn it on. Any nearby powered-on Miracast receivers will then be presented as an option.
But Miracast support is still very hit-or-miss, and even some flagship devices lack Miracast support. Check compatibility carefully to see if Miracast is enabled, though it may be called something else, like "wireless screen mirroring" in the specifications.
TIP / WARNING: Miracast is poorly implemented by many devices, and while some people love the quality and experience many others have reported substantial dropouts and glitches and compatibility issues. For best results, it helps to match the brand of transmitter and receiver - for example, using a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to cast to a Samsung TV.
Hybrid Wired / Wireless HDMI
If your streaming phone or tablet only supports wired HDMI output (and not Miracast) and you can't bear having a long HDMI cable tripping hazard running from your couch to your TV - one alternative to consider is an HDMI Wireless Transmitter & Receiver.
With this sort of setup you would still have a wired HDMI cable from your tech on the couch to a small transmitter box that you can discreetly hide nearby, but then the receiver can be plugged in behind your TV with no long cable across the room necessary.
There are many receiver / transmitter options available - with a wide range of costs, claimed ranges, and some even support multiple receiver outputs in case you want to stream to both a living room and a bedroom TV simultaneously. Here are a few leads to start your research:
- IOGEAR Wireless HDMI TV Connection Kit
- J-Tech Digital Receiver / Transmitter - Supports Two Receivers
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Streaming Over Satellite Internet
Cellular Data Plan Guide for Video Streaming
For each of the four major carrier's, we cover the general carrier policies for video streaming throttles, bundled streaming services, and data usage policies.
Video Streaming Services
We overview the features of major video streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AT&T TV and YouTube for how mobile compatible they are.
Optimizing Video Streaming Data Usage
We share tips for fine tuning your video streaming services to deliver the best quality for the lowest data usage.
Alternatives to Video Streaming
We touch on alternatives like downloaded content, streaming recorders, traditional cable TV and satellite.
Streaming Video Overseas
US based streaming services might be blocked when you cross borders. This section shares some tips for getting around it.
Summary: Video Streaming While Mobile
While video streaming is one of the biggest data hogs there is, there are a variety of tricks to making streaming video content over a mobile internet connection work for you.
From dongles for utilizing on device data, to plans that offer media streaming that doesn't count towards your monthly data allotment, with a bit of research you too can be watching hours of media when you just don't feel like trekking out of your RV or boat to explore.
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