The internet has made entertainment an all-day affair. Especially when it comes to movies, TV shows, and other clips, the web has produced a number of platforms that let you get your video fix from almost any device with a screen and an internet connection.
But there’s a problem with that: Not every place has an internet connection, and how does one watch Netflix offline? YouTube, Hulu and many other nifty streaming services might not be available to you if you’re on the go or in the air, either.
Thankfully though, there are a few ways around being completely connection-less when you want to watch online streaming videos. Some of them are easy. Some of them are not. But either way, they’ll at least give you some chance at taking your online video to the offline world.
So to help, here’s a rundown of how you can circumvent some video services’ pesky online requirements. Please note that this isn’t a recap of every service out there — everything from the BBC iPlayer to Slingbox has similar ways of letting you watch videos whenever — but rather a guide to some of the more widely used programs.
How to download Netflix and Hulu
(Update 11/30/2016: You can now officially watch Netflix offline! The option is limited to the Android and iOS apps, running on iOS 8 or Android 4.4.2 devices or later. Downloads are available for viewing only through the app, and there is no official option for moving them to the desktop.
Download sizes vary, with standard definition set as the default, and high definition options available on some devices. Expect a 2 hour standard definition movie to take up about 355 megabytes of capacity, with an HD version taking up about 700 megabytes. Remember, 1000 megabytes equals 1 gigabyte, or 1GB.
In terms of data, downloading and streaming consume roughly the same amount, so we recommend sticking to Wi-Fi. Downloaded items expire after a few days, with the term varying depending on the content.)
For years Netflix has categorically dismissed the idea of adding an offline viewing feature. However, during its most recent earnings call, CEO Reed Hastings hinted at a possible reversal in this position when he said they “would keep an open mind” regarding offline viewing. Before we get all excited though, Netflix would most likely make this feature only available in global regions where broadband access is inhibiting users from signing up.
Netflix, Hulu, and any of the other streamers mentioned below are still subject to a few completely legal tricks. The first is to use a software program like PlayOn. PlayOn is a complete digital media manager and streamer which acts as a central hub for all your streaming content providers. By itself this is pretty handy but upgrading to its plus service enables the recording feature in this software. This feature was previously available separately as PlayLater. Once you have it set up, you can queue up whatever stream you’re watching and have PlayOn record it in the background.
The software works in real time so recording a 2 hour movie takes 2 hours. Once the stream is completed, PlayOn will create a nifty DRM free MP4 file that can easily be transferred to other computers, memory sticks, mobile devices, or burned onto a DVD or Blu-Ray disc. The service normally costs $30 for a yearlong subscription, or $40 for a lifetime one, so it isn’t the cheapest of solutions. But if getting your Netflix (or any other streaming service) videos offline is important to you, PlayOn is simple and functional enough to justify its price.
The second offline solution here is to simply record your screen while your video is playing. This method is admittedly clunky, as you won’t be able to do much else on your PC while you’re recording, but such are the lengths you’ll have to go to if you want to get around Netflix’s tight video control.
There a dozens of free screen recording programs, but as with PlayOn, you’ll be better off if you shell out a few bucks to get the best of the best. We recommend going with something like Audials, which is a tried and true solution that has been used by plenty of webcasters over the years. Setting it up is a breeze — just enter in your stream’s URL and let it do its thing. Audials One is $50 and it is a suite of several apps that can be used to record streaming music and movies from a variety of sources.
These recordings will take up a good chunk of space on your computer’s hard drive, but that’s to be expected, and Audials does give you the ability to tweak with file sizes so that they don’t reach outrageous levels. Either way, Audials makes screen capturing cleaner and easier. And most importantly, it gives you the ability to watch online videos at your own leisure.
Download your DVR
Now here’s something that Comcast gets right. Through its X1 DVR with Cloud Technology, users can download content from their DVRs for offline viewing. On top of that, a lot of its OnDemand titles can be downloaded for offline viewing as well. The big catch is that downloading is only enabled for mobile devices. Content from the DVR can be downloaded via the Xfinity TV app. OnDemand shows are downloaded with the Xfinity TV GO app. Why these apps are not combined into one defies logic but for now that is the case.
There are other limitations as well. Devices need to be authorized to download content, and Comcast limits that number to five. Also, each device is limited to 10 downloads at a time. Downloaded recordings last for 30 days, and are considered “checked out” of the DVR. If users want them back on TV, the recordings need to be checked back in first. Downloading to devices is definitely is faster than real time recording, but it does take more time than expected. A 33 minute episode of Archer took about 15 minutes to download to an iPhone. The lesson here is to take some time the night before your 6-hour flight to download a few movies as in-flight entertainment.
There are also some content restrictions, so pay per view, Music Choice, and adult channels are off limits.
That said, this is a great feature. The files aren’t overwhelming large either. A 30-minute Parks and Recreation episode recorded in HD comes in at about 320 MB, and two-hour HD movie would be about 1.5 GB.
Can you watch YouTube offline?
There is no shortage of sites that let you download YouTube videos to your computer, and while the majority of them are pretty simple and self-explanatory, just about all of them breach YouTube’s terms of service. We’re not going to advocate anything that’s kind-of-probably illegal, so for now, we’ll suggest you stick with online only.
There is an exception for YouTube Red subscribers. The monthly subscription service that officially replaces the now-shuttered YouTube Music Key, YouTube Red costs $9.99 per month and provides a 30-day free trial. In addition to offering entirely ad-free videos, YouTube Red lets users save individual videos or entire playlists of videos for offline viewing, provided they download the content first. Videos remain available for offline viewing for 30 days. Like Xfinity, offline viewing is restricted to the official mobile apps for both YouTube and YouTube Gaming, provided the user is logged into their Red account. YouTube has all the details on its Help channel.
Vimeo’s more open approach
Vimeo takes a different approach than the other sites on this list by leaving the offline decision to the content creators themselves. If they want their video to be downloadable, you’ll see a simple Download tab underneath it, which can then be used to snag an SD or HD (if it applies) MP4 file. If they’d rather you stay online to watch their stuff, well, there’s not much you can do about it. Vimeo’s isn’t a wholesale solution, but relatively speaking, it’s much more open than most of its streaming competitors. And that’s refreshing.
Read our Vimeo review to find out how it differs from YouTube.
How to save Amazon Prime streaming video
There’s a difference between Amazon’s Instant Video buying and rental service and its Prime Instant Video streaming service. They’re very closely related, but think of the former like an iTunes Store and the latter like a Netflix.
Amazon Instant Video is the one that’s friendlier to offline viewing, provided you’re not on a Mac. If you buy or rent a flick through there, you’re given the option to download it to your computer and watch it offline without much hassle. Amazon has discontinued its Amazon Unbox application for offline viewing on PCs, but Windows Media Player works just fine. Apple iPad/iPhone owners can also download and stream purchased Amazon Instant Video content.
Things used to be a little hairier with the Prime Instant Video streaming service, but Amazon has made great strides in leapfrogging the competition when it comes to offline support. Today, a good chunk of its catalog can be downloaded straight from the app just by clicking the Download button within the Details section of a given movie or TV show. Amazon is the only major service that lets you watch online streaming videos offline, and it’s a great perk for those willing to dive into the company’s ecosystem.
Thankfully, Amazon no longer restricts this feature to its Fire devices and you can now download eligible videos in the iOS and Android apps but you still need an Amazon Prime subscription to use this feature. Once again, desktop users don’t get the (official) love. Only select programs are available for download on top of that, and you’re usually only be able to keep downloaded content on your device for anywhere between 15 and 30 days at a time. And once you start watching a downloaded video, you’ll have just 48 hours to finish it.
Check out our review of Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Google Play Movies: Android’s version of iTunes
Speaking of all-encompassing ecosystems, Android users and those who are big into Google are plenty familiar with its Google Play Movies app. Like Amazon Instant Video, it isn’t a streaming service a la Netflix, but rather an online purchase and rental market for movies and TV shows.
But unlike Amazon Instant Video, downloading your purchases isn’t so straightforward. Laptops and Desktops are excluded from with the exception of the Google Chromebooks. You will have to keep your PC online and stream your content, making Play Movies something of a hybrid between Netflix and iTunes in execution.
But Google Play is designed to be the Android version of iTunes, so if you use Google’s mobile OS, you can access your Play Movies library across your PC, phone and tablet. On those latter two devices, or on a Chromebook laptop, you’ll be able to take your content offline much more easily.
Downloading movies and TV episodes from Play Movies to your Android or Chrome OS device is very much similar to the way you’d download tracks from Google Play Music All Access. On the Play Movies mobile app, there’s a little grey icon on each video file. Tap it, and that particular file will download to your device’s local storage. And that’s it.
These downloads might take a decent amount of time to process, and downloading a few movies is a surefire way to eat up all of your storage space, but those are small complaints given that you’ll be free to take your videos offline. It would be ideal if this functionality applied to the desktop, but considering that Google is a very staunch proponent of the cloud, it’s an alright compromise.
Read our review of Google Play Movies and TV.
iTunes downloads by default
This one is simple. Millions of people get their movies, TV shows and other content from Apple’s digital marketplace juggernaut, and thankfully iTunes makes it easy to watch it all offline. Anything you purchase or rent from the iTunes store gets downloaded to your device by default, which means you’ll naturally have the ability to watch your videos without an internet connection.
If you do rent something, though, just remember that you’ll have 30 days to watch it, and that you might need to be online to activate your 24- or 48-hour viewing period. That means you may have to start up your rented flick at home before you head onto that red eye flight, but once you do, you’ll be able to enjoy your movie without any finicky connection issues. It’s also important to note that you can’t access or download iTunes on Android or other non-iOS mobile devices.
Read our review of iTunes’ movie and TV service.
Download from HBO Now and HBO Go? That’s a no-go
There is no official way to download HBO Go and HBO Go movies or TV shows. HBO Now and Go are popular services, but watching Game of Thrones on your PC or mobile device is still an all-online affair. However, now that HBO has started sharing many of its series on Prime Instant Video, the aforementioned tips for Amazon’s streaming service will get the likes of Boardwalk Empire and Eastbound and Down offline in a snap. Also, for those who are Xfinity X1 Cloud DVR subscribers, HBO shows can be recorded to the DVR then downloaded to mobile devices.
Read our review of HBO Go and HBO Now.