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Using Streaming Media Players with a Mobile Hotspot

One of the questions I get asked occasionally is whether you can use a streaming media player using a mobile phone’s hotspot feature, usually by people who don’t have access to high-speed cable or satellite Internet service but do have an unlimited data plan from their cellphone service provider. I did a quick check on this once a while ago and provided this answer in the Streaming Media Frequently Asked Questions post:

If your phone has a hotspot feature, you may be able to use it as the Internet connection for your streaming media player. However, it can use up a lot of data quickly and even if you have an unlimited data plan, make sure that includes when you use the phone as a hotspot. A lot of times, it doesn’t apply to that situation.

Also note that cell service is often not as strong, fast, or reliable as Wi-Fi, so you may have issues with buffering and picture quality.

Recently, however, I received an email from T4L reader Sue who has run into problems streaming content from certain providers (Vudu and HBO) through her second-generation Chromecast, so I thought I’d do a little more testing with all of the Big Four streamers (Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, Google Chromecast) and report back on what I found. So that’s what this post is! 🙂

Before I get into the details, though, a few important caveats:

  • As I mention on the FAQ page, even if you have an unlimited data plan with your cellphone service, it may not apply to when you’re using your phone as a hotspot. Or they may allow unlimited data with a hotspot but at a lower speed, which will affect how it handles streaming. So make sure you know the full terms of your plan so you can avoid super high overage charges.
  • As with anything tech related, what works for me may not work for you, or may not work for you in the same way. For this situation, the variables include (but are not limited to): you cellphone provider, data speed for your plan, streaming content provider, resolution of the content you’re streaming, the TV you’re streaming to… Well, you get the picture.
  • I’m sure there are options I’m not mentioning here so if you have a good one, please share it in the comments below or shoot me an email so I can check it out.

Now, on to my findings!

Setting up a streaming player using a hotspot

Testing Environment

I set up the hotspot from my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone using a Verizon prepaid cell plan. The streamers I tested were the second-generation Fire TV Stick, current-generation Roku Streaming Stick and Roku Ultra Streaming box, second-generation Apple TV, and second-generation Chromecast connected to a 40″ Samsung 4K TV. For content providers, I tried Netflix and HBO NOW. Netflix lets you choose the quality you want to stream and I set it to High (which uses a lot more data). HBO NOW automatically adjusts the quality based on the download speed it detects.

The Fire TV and Roku are both pretty straightforward. You set them up just like you would with a Wi-Fi connection, and when you get to the screen asking for your wireless connection, you select your mobile hotspot.

I wasn’t able to set up the Apple TV at all. When I entered the login info for my hotspot, it tried to connect and then displayed a message that there was no Internet connection. Note that the Apple TV does let you change IP addresses and other settings that I can’t explain, so it’s possible something there would let you connect to a hotspot. But considering the Apple TV is much more expensive than its competitors for a worse feature set, I really don’t recommend it to anyone but a diehard Apple user anymore.

Chromecast Update, June 2017 With the release of Google Play Services 11.0.55, you can no longer connect a Chromecast to a mobile hotspot from your Android phone. This article has more information, including a link to where you can download an earlier version of Google Play Services to get back this functionality:

Latest Google Play Services seems to have broken casting using Android hotspot for WiFi (Android Police, 06/05/17)

If you do roll back to the earlier version, here’s my experience using a Chromecast through a hotspot.

I could connect the Chromecast, but the process is different since there’s no remote for the device. Also, depending on your phone, you may need to use a second device (computer, phone, or tablet) to actually do the setup. This is because although you can download the Google Home app to your phone, the app will not work unless the phone is connected to Wi-Fi. And as soon as you turn on the hotspot feature, at least on my phone, it turns off Wi-Fi. There may be phones that allow both Wi-Fi and mobile hotspot at the same time, in which case you may be able to do the setup with it alone, but I have no way of testing that.

So what I did was turn on the mobile hotspot and then connected my computer to it (you could also use a different phone or tablet with the Google Home app). With the computer, you need to go to chromecast.com/setup in the Chrome browser only to go through the setup process. Then when you get to the screen that asks you to select a wireless connection for the Chromecast, you can select the hotspot.

NOTE: When you turn off your hotspot, your Chromecast TV display will say it needs to be set up. But when you turn the hotspot back on and go to cast something to it, it will reconnect as usual.

Quality of video streaming through a mobile hotspot

Before I share my experience, please be aware that I have a pretty flexible definition of “good quality.” As long as the image isn’t too blurry, I can hear the sound okay, and there are no interruptions, I’m totally fine with it. Other people, especially those who have invested in top of the line TVs, may not find the quality acceptable.

Results

With the Fire TV and Roku devices I found the quality acceptable to good. I would say the Roku Streaming Stick video was slightly degraded compared to the Fire TV Stick, but the latter was as good as the Roku Ultra box.

The Chromecast quality was definitely lower than the other options, but still watchable.

I tried three different methods with the Chromecast. The first was casting like normal from the Netflix app on my phone and that wasn’t too bad. The second was casting from my Chrome browser on my PC. It was about the same quality as the first method—maybe a wee bit lower quality. The third way was using the screen mirroring option through the Google Home app on my phone, i.e. I started watching the video through Netflix on my phone and then mirrored it to my TV. That was the worst quality and the video actually stopped playing at points.

Alternatives to direct streaming

If none of the methods work for your particular setup, there are a couple of other options you can try.

The first is screen mirroring, where you’re duplicating everything on your screen to your TV. Although that was the least successful method for the Chromecast, some of the other mirroring options may work better.

Learn more about various ways to mirror your computer or mobile device screen to your TV in this T4L post. >>

Another option is to download the video to your computer or mobile device and then treat it like any video you have stored locally. Options include casting or mirroring it wirelessly to a device, connecting it via a USB cable to players that have that feature, or using a media server.

Some content providers let you download videos now. Both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video let you download some of their titles as part of your membership. (With Amazon Video, you can also purchase any of their videos to download them.)

PlayOn is a media server application you can use to both stream videos directly to your TV or record streaming videos and then stream them from your computer to compatible devices. I recorded and downloaded an episode of How To Get Away with Murder using it and tried casting that to my Chromecast and the quality was about the same as streaming through my phone or browser. I also tried streaming directly from PlayOn just to see if that was any better, but it was actually worse—frequent buffering.

Learn more about PlayOn in this T4L post. >>

Visit the PlayOn website to learn more. >>

Plex is another popular media server application and you can also record streaming videos with it. I haven’t used it myself to be able to comment on it.

Visit the Plex website to learn more. >>

So that’s how streaming through a mobile hotspot works for me. If you’ve had different experiences please share them below.

You may also be interested in:

How Many Gigs of Data Do You Need to Watch Streaming Movies and TV Shows?

Which Streaming Media Player Is Right for You?

Comparing Netflix, Amazon Video, and Hulu Streaming Video Providers

Elizabeth Kricfalusi

View Comments

  • So, I haven't had a tv in over a decade but recently got one more for the purpose of watching movies (Lg UHD 4K) we have iPhones which are also our personal hotspots. Most of the movies we've streamed from amazon prime to the tv come out distorted intermittently (on the iPad there is no problem) I was wondering how to fix this and if a signal booster would help (recommendations please).
    Thanks
    Aaron

    • One other thing: Your LG TV may have its own screen mirroring feature using Miracast, which works with computers and Android phones. You could test that out as well if you have a non-Apple laptop or phone. So, for example, you would start watching the movie on your laptop and then use its Connect feature to mirror it to your TV.

    • Hi Aaron.

      Unfortunately there are so many variables that it's really hard to know what might be causing the problem. It could be the version of your iPhone, the speed and reliability of your phone's Internet connection (for example, your provider may throttle data after you've used a certain amount).

      Also, in general I've found that smart TVs aren't as good quality for streaming as a dedicated player like a Fire TV/Roku, etc. Since you're using iPhones and iPads, you might want to try an Apple TV. It's more expensive than the other brands, unfortunately, but more likely to work well with the other Apple products. For example, you could use your iPad's AirPlay feature to cast your movies to the Apple TV, which may give you a more stable connection. I'm not even sure you need to have your Apple TV connected to the Internet itself to use AirPlay but I'm currently somewhere where I can't test this out for sure.

      - Elizabeth

  • Hulu now completely blocks access if you use a hotspot. We have no other internet options here. Very disappointed.
    Your questions ...
    Yes, both Live and standard service are blocked for us.
    It seems to work on the phone by itself because there it accesses your gps. But that is not useful to us.
    Hulu said it is because hotspots change IPs all the time. Hulu requires you log in with the same IP to confirm your location is the same.

    • As I said earlier, I was able to watch Hulu (not Live) using a hotspot. Maybe it won't work next time if the IP address is different, so I'll try that and report back.

      I know that Hulu Live has restrictions because they want to make sure you're not sharing your password with other people so they don't have to buy the service.

  • Hulu does not work with a hotspot, or if it does, it stops after a few weeks, max. Hulu support says it's not designed to work with hotspot, does not advise consumers in advance it will not work with hotspot, even with a dedicated mobile hotpspot device. Sometimes it won't let you even log in or start the Hulu app. But if I switch to my bandwidth-limited satellite service, Hulu works fine. Netflix and Amazon works just fine on a hotspot. Like others, I live in a rural area, without access to cable or dsl, and with bandwidth limitations on satellite Internet service. Hulu literally blocks a hotspot device from accessing your paid subscription service. It's happened to me and a tech support rep told me that's the way they designed it to work, then disconnected the chat before resolving my complaint or sending me to supervisor as I requested.

    • Hi Suzanne.

      Thanks for your comment. Are you talking about Hulu Live or regular Hulu? I've just watched an episode on regular Hulu using a hotspot from my phone (Samsung Galaxy S5 with Verizon Wireless) to connect to my Fire TV streaming player. There was some buffering at the beginning but after a few pauses, the episode ran straight through without any further problems. I don't have Hulu Live to test it out right now.

      I do see you've said it may work for a few weeks so I'm not sure if it will stop again after that time, but I'll try to check it again then.

      I don't know enough about the technology to know how Hulu would recognize that you're using a hotspot vs a broadband Internet connection (cable, satellite, etc.).

      - Elizabeth

  • I'm currently using my Galaxy phone as a hot spot because I have not internet connection where I'm leaving.
    I tried to use Sling TV but it doesn't work, I called them and they said it doesn't work with a hot spot.
    so just to let you know.

    Excellent article, though

  • Thank You!!! So much for your article! I now only have internet access via my cell phone. With out my phone & chromecast being on the same network i could not cast ANYTHING! No screen mirror option-i got error-device not supported even when both phone & chromecast were on the same network. My old android phone would cast but not the new one....
    I UNDID the google play services update in app store & WALLA! I can mirror my phone screen. Without being on the same network!
    I have searched and tried everything! Today i found your article.
    I have to have my hotspot on but i use my phones internet!!!!
    Jeez Google! Are they getting into selling internet ???
    THANK YOU!

    • You're welcome! I'm glad you found the post helpful, Cheri. Thanks for taking the time to comment! - Elizabeth

  • I was using my phone as hot spot to play YouTube on my tablet. It caused my phone to quit working. Now phone company says I need to spend another $20 /month on a jetpack to use my unlimited data and not destroy my phone.

    • I'm sorry that happened to you, Paul. Thanks for sharing your experience to warn other T4L readers. - Elizabeth

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