BUILD A STREAMING PC (CONTENTS)
Last Updated: August 17, 2018
Streaming video games has risen dramatically in popularity in recent years thanks to services like Twitch and SmashCast, which have opened the gates for any gamer to stream their gameplay live to other games around the world. Back in the day you could never really imagine that someday people would watch others play video games on a mass global scale, but it’s all the rage these days and only growing in popularity.
When upgrading or building the best streaming PC, there are some important extra considerations to know about compared to just building a standard gaming PC. Streaming and gaming at the same time requires a fairly good computer to do smoothly and in high-quality, and the higher the resolution (and the more serious you're taking your streaming) the more important your hardware selections become. If you want your streams to become popular and/or you care about your viewers’ experience, it's crucial that you have smooth performance with high framerates and minimal streaming lag, and ideally you want the highest quality resolution and settings as well if at all possible.
In this guide to planning the best streaming PC build you'll learn everything you need to know about building the best computer for streaming games (that also doubles up as a capable gaming PC), and we'll also cover building a dedicated streaming PC as well which is another option to consider as opposed to streaming and gaming on the single machine.
First we cover the basics of how streaming works, how demanding streaming is on your hardware components (and why for those who care about the details), and then you'll learn how to choose the best components and peripherals/accessories for streaming in 2018. We'll then finish up with sample streaming PC builds for different budgets that you can use as a starting point for your build. Let's do this.
How Demanding is Streaming on Your PC?
Streaming requires a fairly powerful PC to get nice and smooth performance, and even more so when it comes to the more demanding games. Compared to a standard gaming session, when you're also streaming your game there are added tasks your computer has to handle in real time.
Not only does it have to compute and render your game as usual, but it has to capture the raw video and audio data and then convert that data into smaller, compressed files that can be understood by the software on the other end.
This compression process is called encoding, and involves a lot of complicated mathematical calculations. Without this encoding process, the raw video and audio files would take far too long to upload to real time, as raw data is often huge and can require quite a few megabytes per second to capture. The goal of encoding is to shrink these files into their smallest form possible, while also minimizing loss in quality.
What is Hardware Encoding?
With hardware encoding, your streaming software will use specialized hardware features found in certain CPUs or graphics cards. This is the more efficient way, and results in faster performance as it takes the load off the CPU, but at the expense of slightly lower quality video. To use hardware encoding for streaming so you can keep your CPU's power for your gaming performance, you'll need to get hardware that supports it. For example, many Intel CPUs have a small integrated graphics card/GPU which can be used for hardware encoding via the use of an Intel feature called QuickSync.
Modern NVidia GTX video cards can also be used for hardware encoding with the NVidia Share feature (formerly NVidia ShadowPlay). AMD video cards are also able to perform hardware encoding but they aren't as well support as NVidia cards. Having a combination of an Intel CPU and a NVidia GPU gives you the most options for hardware encoding; you can use Intel QuickSync with the integrated graphics or you could use NVidia Share. But having an AMD CPU with a NVidia card still gives you the option for hardware encoding via NVidia Share.
What is Software Encoding?
If you use software encoding for live streaming your games to Twitch or other places, your streaming software will directly utilize your CPU to perform the encoding in as much detail as possible. The benefit to software encoding is that it produces the highest quality streams, with the downside being that it's more demanding on your system as it takes up a chunk of your CPU's overall processing power.
For example, if you're streaming a game in software encoding and you're using a dual-core CPU, the encoding processes might actually take up an entire core of that CPU meaning that you only have 1 left to actually run your game. With a quad-core CPU, that's one quarter of your CPU gone to streaming.
Taking away all this processing power for your streaming will result in worse performance when playing your game, and the more demanding the game the more performance hit you'll have. With hardware encoding, your CPU is still used for the streaming process, but far less than with software encoding meaning that your games can utilize almost all of your CPU grunt to help produce the best frame-rate/performance possible.
Hardware Encoding vs Software Encoding for Streaming
So the big question remains, which should you use? In general, if you're on a tight budget you'll want to use hardware encoding because your CPU likely won't be powerful enough to handle the extra demands of software encoding. Hardware encoding is faster and more efficient, and whereas many years ago there was a big difference in quality between hardware and software encoding, these days the difference is much less.
Remember software encoding directly uses your CPU, so if you have a low to mid-tier CPU in your machine, using software encoding will ask too much of it and therefore gaming performance is going to suffer. For hardware encoding we recommend a NVidia GPU so you can take advantage of the Nvidia Share feature; AMD cards have less support for hardware encoding.
On the other hand, if you're building a high-end system, you have the luxury of choosing software encoding for the best quality streaming because you can invest in a much more capable CPU with many cores. The more cores the better when it comes to streaming. With a fast, multi-core processor in your machine your gaming performance won't be as affected with software encoding enabled.
To use hardware encoding you’ll need to have it enabled on your system, however it should be activated already. The exception to this is using Intel QuickSync, which usually needs to be activated by going into your motherboard bios by pressing either ESCAPE, DELETE or one of the F keys immediately after you boot-up. Intel QuickSync is a feature that some Intel processors have and instead of using your GPU for encoding it dedicates a part of your CPU for it.
Choosing the Best CPU for a Streaming PC Build
The CPU is the star of the show when it comes to streaming, and so when building your PC with streaming in mind you'll want to aim for the best CPU you can get your hands on. While using hardware encoding instead of software encoding will help alleviate some of the pressure off the CPU, you'll still need a capable CPU either way.
Plus, remember that if you're building this PC for gaming as well you've got to take that into account as modern games require a fairly decent CPU for great performance anyway (and factor in your resolution too). Another thing to consider is the quality of live stream you're aiming for. If you're looking for a flawless 1080p stream (60 FPS) your requirements are obviously higher than if you're happy with say, 720p at 30 FPS.
While for gaming the amount of cores of your processor isn't as important, for streaming it most certainly is, and so you should aim to get one with as many cores as possible if you're aiming for a silky smooth high-quality stream. We'd recommend a quad-core at the minimum, with 6-8 cores or more being ideal.
Twitch mentions an Intel Core i5-4670 or AMD equivalent in their official minimum recommended requirements. So it would be wise to listen to them and stick to either an Intel Core i5 or an AMD Ryzen 5 at the minimum if performance and quality of your streams is important to you.
However, these CPUs are in the mid sort of range when it comes to streaming, and in an ideal world you'll want to go for the next step up in the Intel Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 series for the very best results. Intel has the slight edge here with its QuickSync hardware encoder so we recommend an i7 if possible, but AMD's are no slouch.
Processors in this high-end range have high clock speeds, many cores and many threads which all help immensely to game and stream simultaneously at high quality and with high frame-rates. Intel's Hyper-Threading technology also comes in handy for streaming, as it allows your processor to perform even more operations at high speed. For more specific CPU recommendations for streaming, check out our sample streaming builds in module 3.
Choosing a Graphics Card for a Streaming PC
While the graphics card isn't nearly as important when it comes to streaming as the CPU does most of the work, it's obviously still an important consideration depending on the games you want to play, the resolution you'll be playing in, and the frame-rates you're aiming for. As mentioned in module 1 in the section on hardware encoding, modern GPUs have hardware encoding features to take some of the load off your CPU. Ideally, you should get a NVidia graphics card because they have more options for this than AMD cards (such as the NVidia Share feature).
The exception to this would be if you're putting together a high-end system with a top-tier CPU in which you could use software encoding instead (and so you wouldn't need the hardware encoding provided by the GPU). In that case, go for either NVidia or AMD. But for budget to mid-tier builds; we'd recommend you stick with NVidia if streaming is important to you.
Choosing RAM for a Streaming PC
Your RAM is important for streaming because there are so many simultaneous tasks being performed at once. Like when building any type of PC, you should aim for as much as you can, with 8GB being the minimum. Less than that and you could run into issues such as stuttering streams, but if you have to make do with a smaller amount then make sure to close all open applications while you're gaming and streaming to reduce the workload on your RAM.
That covers the actual hardware components to think about when building a PC for streaming live games. Your other hardware such as the motherboard, storage, case and PSU weren't discussed because they have no relevance to streaming performance, but it goes without saying that you should aim for reliable, quality picks for these parts to balance out your system.
Internet Connection Considerations for Streaming
Now let's get into something just as important as your hardware; your internet connection. The upload speed of your connection will dictate the resolution and quality of your stream, so aim to use the fastest connection speed possible. You can't expect to smoothly stream HD video, sound and commentary over a slow internet connection despite what fancy hardware you might have. Poor upload speeds lead to low quality, unstable streams which ain't no fun for your viewers.
The resolution you're streaming in also matters; if you're streaming full HD / 1080p you should make sure your upload speed is at least 3.5 mbps (megabits per second). For 720p you'll want a minimum of 2.5 mbps, and for 480p no less than 1.2 mbps. If your internet connection's upload speed is less than the minimum recommended for each resolution, you'll have to lower your streaming resolution or suffer low quality streams that ain't no fun for viewers.
Also, you'll want to ensure the bitrate you're streaming at, which is a measurement of the quality of the video stream, is no higher than your internet connection's upload speed. You can change the bitrate of your stream in the settings within the streaming software you're using. It's generally recommend to set your bitrate slightly below your upload speed to be safe.
Twitch has a maximum bitrate of 3000-3500 kbps (kilobits per second), however only those with super speedy fibre connections will reach those levels. If you're using a typical ADSL2+ connection, you'll have to stream at 500 kbps or less as you want to save some upload to transfer any chat audio. One last thing about internet connections; while it is possible to stream over a wireless connection, it's highly recommended sticking to wired to avoid any potential slowdowns or instability.
Is It Worth Building a Dedicated Streaming PC?
In this guide we've assumed you're building a PC for both gaming and streaming, but there's also another less common option of having two separate PCs; one for gaming, and one solely dedicated to streaming. For the vast majority of gamers and streamers, having the one system for both will do just fine if you put together a decently powerful setup. Building a dedicated streaming PC is unnecessary and not very cost-effective.
But if you're a professional looking for any performance edge you can muster for the absolute fastest, highest quality live streams possible without any slowdowns, and you're willing to invest more time and money, building a dedicated streaming PC to use alongside your gaming machine is something you might want to consider.
How a Dedicated Streaming PC Setup Works (Dual PCs for Streaming)
This is how a dual system setup works in a nutshell; your gaming PC plays and renders your game to both your gaming monitor (as usual) and to a device known as a capture card. Your streaming PC then takes the stream data from the capture card and uploads to the streaming service (such as Twitch) as well as renders the stream to your streaming monitor so you can check how the stream is looking in real time while you game on your gaming monitor.
Cheap jokes aside, for audio recording you can either use your capture card if it comes with a 3.5mm input by getting a hardware audio splitter connected with a male to male 3.5mm cable, or alternatively you could get a virtual cable using software such as CrownSoft's software called Audio Repeater. A dedicated streaming PC is going to be a lot different than your typical gaming PC. Because its sole purpose is to encode and stream, you'll want to focus most of its budget on a good CPU to handle software encoding for the highest quality stream.
All you really need is a solid i5, because all its going to be used for is streaming. You don't even need a graphics card unless you plan on also using the streaming PC for gaming too; you could simply get a CPU with integrated graphics which will allow you to output to your streaming PC's monitor. As for RAM, 4GB is all you actually need. Then put in a simple no-frills motherboard, a decent power supply, a small HDD (or bigger if you plan on saving footage or have other uses for it), a basic case that can house all your parts, a basic monitor, and that's basically it. A streaming PC doesn't have to be fancy, and the only important component is the CPU.
Capture Cards for a Dedicated Streaming PC
For a dedicated build for streaming, you'll need a good capture card, which will relay information from your gaming PC to the streaming PC. This is actually a fairly important choice, because if you simply get a cheap capture card you'll end up with similar (or even worse) quality than if you simply streamed with your gaming PC which kind of defeats the purpose of the dedicated streaming PC in the first place.
You should stick to well-known, quality brands such as Blackmagic, AverMedia, Razer and Elgato, and try to avoid portable capture cards as they can be lower quality. Also keep in mind that when using a capture card there will be a delay between your gaming PC and your streaming PC but it isn't a big deal as it doesn't affect the quality or smoothness of the stream.
Choosing a Microphone for Streaming
While you don’t need studio quality audio when streaming games, you still want your voice coming through nice and clear when speaking to your stream viewers, so you’ll want at least a decent microphone. The most economical choice is to simply use the mic that you may have on your gaming headset, however these aren’t usually too good unless you invested in a high-quality headset with a great mic.
The best option for streaming is to get a standalone mic as it will yield far better quality than most gaming headset mics. One of the most popular mics for streamers on the market that doesn’t cost a fortune is the Blue Yeti. Not only does it have great quality for the price, but it’s flexible in that it still delivers good quality even if you don’t speak directly into it and you don’t have it placed at the exact recommended distance and position.
With a USB mic such as this you don’t need a sound mixer, but if you want better control over your audio and you want the very best streaming setup possible, get a mixer. If you don’t have the room or the budget for a good standalone mic you also have the option of an attachable mic, with the AntLion ModMic being a solid-quality, popular choice among streamers and gamers.
Choosing a Webcam for a Streaming PC
Another thing to consider is of course a webcam so your streamers can see the priceless reactions on your face when playing your favorite games and connect with you more. Webcams vary in price from 10 bucks all the way to over 100 and so it all depends on your budget and what quality you’re after.
Choosing Monitors for a Streaming PC
For streaming you’ll ideally want a dual-monitor setup so you can see the game on one screen and the streaming tools and chat on the other. Your monitor selection obviously doesn’t affect your streaming but aim to get a good quality display with a 5ms response time or less for good gaming performance without any visual lag during fast gameplay.
Blueprint for a "Cheap" Streaming PC Build
If you’re on a real tight budget you're limited with the streaming power you can wield with your system, but the below setup is what we'd suggest as an absolute minimum starting point. It'll do fine for older, less demanding games, but for streaming more demanding titles you’ll have to turn down the graphic settings and/or lower the resolution to 720p, and so if streaming performance in modern games in 1080p is important to you then definitely consider the next "mid-range" streaming setup if you can.
For a live example of a build like this see our current suggested best $400 cheap gaming build which includes these specs.
Blueprint for a "Budget" Streaming PC Build
Moving on up and we have this fairly solid streaming PC that’s enough power to game and stream most titles well at the standard 1080p, or 720p if the speed and quality in 1080p with the most demanding games lets you down a little. Unlike the budget streaming PC build above, this one has a dedicated graphics card which really is ideal for streaming (when using hardware encoding).
The Ryzen 5 1600 CPU is an affordable yet fairly capable 6-core CPU and you could theoretically stream using either hardware or the more demanding software encoding with a setup like this, but with the more demanding games you’ll want to make full use of hardware encoding to take the load off your CPU and tap into your GTX 1060 6GB which is both a capable streaming and gaming card that can handle 1080p real well on maximum/ultra settings.
Our closest current build to this would be our recommended mid-range build. Simply add more RAM to it to make 16GB instead of 8GB, add in an SSD if you can, up the GPU if you want, and you're there.
Blueprint for a "Good" Streaming PC Build
Moving on up we have our next sample streaming build for those looking for a lot less compromises with both gaming and streaming performance, such as those who are more serious about building their streaming audience and perhaps becoming a professional in this cool new field.
If you want to stream any game with maximum graphical settings in 1080p (or 1440p in decent quality) nice and smoothly, a build of this calibre will be right up your ally. With this kind of power you also have the choice of using either hardware or the most demanding yet high-quality software encoding (as explained earlier in this guide). Plus, this setup is a very solid gaming rig capable of playing the latest games very smoothly in 1440p, and playable performance in 4K.
Blueprint for a "Great" Streaming PC Build
With the powerhouse i7-7820X processor, a mighty 1080 Ti, and a massive 32GB of RAM, this extreme type of setup is recommended for gamers and streamers who wish to play games very well in 4K (or any other resolution), and stream flawlessly in 1080p or 1440p with maximum in-game settings. If you’re looking to broadcast the highest quality, smooth and lag-free streams possible for your viewers, parts like these won’t let you down.
With a machine like this there’s not much need to build a dedicated streaming rig unless you really want to and you know you would benefit from it, as this build will allow you to play and stream simultaneously without any hiccups in the majority of cases, making you and your viewers happy. Don’t forget to get a quality mic so your audio doesn’t let down your good-looking stream.