The best streaming computer is the computer you have right now!
Ok, I know every article on getting started streaming says this, but really... If you have a modern laptop or desktop from the last 4 years you probably can stream SOMETHING! Likely, if you can game on it right now you could probably stream to some extent.
Suggestions for streaming on low powered PCs, laptops, and even Macs is the subject for a whole different post. This is the trenches I come from actually. Before having a dedicated gaming machine, I streamed from my kitchen counter using OBS, my Macbook 13" (that's the one with no GPU for those keeping score at home), a set of headphones, and a 1mbps connection. But, this blog post is for people looking to upgrade their PC or buy/build a new one.
Note, all links are Amazon affiliate links that help me keep making more guides, streams, and content.
Price Points and Grouping
The following builds aren't really recommendations based on getting crazy framerates at 4k ultra-wide like some gaming guides. For the following guide I am mostly worried about stream performance using a single machine. In terms of what you can expect, here are the general games you might be streaming with these different levels (prices here are based on pre-built PCs and ideally MSRP for GPUs and RAM)
- Budget ($700-900): 720P 30FPS - 2D Indie Games, Emulators, Capturing Consoles, DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, CS:GO/Overwatch on Low Settings, Creative Streams
- Mid Range: 1080P 30FPS - Cities: Skylines, Fortnite, PUBG, CS:GO/Overwatch on High Settings, Destiny, H1Z1, Light VR (depending on GPU)
- High End: 1080P 60FPS - Above plus VR games plus playing at high FPS while streaming 60fps or 30fps (depending on the game)
I know PC building might be one of the most opinionated topics on the internet. So, I think it's important for me to tell you my background for giving these tips. I spent over a year looking up the best parts to build a new rig and trying to stretch my 12 year old tower to its limits. A lot of this time was actually spent worried about differing opinions (remember what I said about opinions). In this time I watched and read up on streaming, gaming, and overall performance benchmarks (I work in software development and used to work in motion graphics and audio engineering).
So with the background out of the way, let's get to the recommendations.
There's a lot of recommendations below and things can get pretty technical. The recommendations below also assume that you are ready to build your own PC. If that's scary to you or if you are turned off by recent GPU and RAM prices then here are a few prebuilt recommendations. Based on individual part costs and the cost of Windows, these builds are REALLY great deals and do a good job of offsetting the prices of GPUs and RAM right now.
- Budget: Cyberpower 1300x + GTX 1050Ti + 8GB RAM $756
- Mid Range: Cyberpower 1600x + GTX 1070 + 16GB RAM $1,296
- High End: Cyberpower 1700x + GTX 1080Ti + 16GB RAM $2,139
To be honest, these prebuilt PCs will have cheaper motherboards, power supplies, and hardrives/SSDs than what I recommend below (they have to make up for prices somehow). This means that you may not be able to reuse the motherboard or power supply for future expansions, but in the long run, these are relatively cheap parts to replace or upgrade. I also chose these Cyberpower PCs because they are based on stock parts and cases (the mid range above uses the Phanteks P400s, a popular PC case for builders) meaning many pieces can be resued at least to some degree. Some of the old big name OEMs (like ones that rhyme with "Smell") usually use custom motherboards, cases, and power supplies. So if you are in for a turn key deal, builders like Cyberpower are the way to go in my opinion if you don't have existing parts or experience building PCs.
Timing and General Recommendations
You're pretty crazy to be building a new streaming or gaming computer right now. Graphics cards are hard to find and up to 2-4x more expensive than their launch prices (over 18 months ago for some cards) because of crypto mining. DDR4 RAM prices are also up to 2x what they were last year and almost the same price as launch (over three years ago). But! Not everything is bad!
At the heart of every PC is the CPU (Central Processing Unit). If you've looked at gaming PC building guides you've probably seen that the CPU isn't that important for most games, since the CPU is really mostly used for loading assets into memory and making AI decisions (these days even most physics is handled by your graphics card). This is relatively true, any quad-core CPU over 3.4Ghz will work pretty well in most games, and even some dual-core CPUs can work for gaming. But, for most streaming builds a solid 4, 6, 8, or even 12 core CPU can really help to deliver a great quality stream with no interruptions for you or your viewers. There's also some good news here! While shortages and demand have been killing GPU and RAM prices, there's no better time to make a CPU upgrade than right now in 2018!
Ok, so you want to upgrade your CPU? Well, what do you pick? For streaming high core and thread counts can really pay off. Luckily with the launch of AMD's Ryzen processors, higher core counts (with stable results) has never been cheaper and easier. So, here are my suggestions for a new CPU:
- Budget: AMD Ryzen 3 1300X with Wraith Stealth Cooler $119
- Mid Range: AMD Ryzen 5 1600 with Wraith Spire Cooler $199
- High End: AMD Ryzen 7 1700 with Wraith Spire Cooler $289
I picked AMD across the board because for the price range these CPUs give you more cores and the ability to overclock with almost any motherboard. Even though I personally went with the 1600x for a bit more overclocking headroom and base speeds, I'm not recommending the "X" series Rzyen here (for the Ryzen 5 or 7), mostly because after CES the non-X chips saw an even more drastic price cut and they come with a cooler while the X series requires an aftermarket cooler. I also like AMD for futureproofing because of the AM4 socket and chipset. Based on what AMD has promised, history, and what they showed at CES: A4 chips and motherboards should be compatible for a few years into the future. This is especially important for you if you're looking at the "Budget" 1300x since you slot in a new 1700 or even some of the upcoming 2800x CPUs down the road for more performance out of the same motherboard and RAM.
If your heart is bleeding blue for Intel, there's good news for Intel too, since AMD's competition has also made Intel move on their prices and core counts. Here are my two picks for Intel:
I didn't include a budget Intel chip here because for the price Intel just doesn't have a great offer for streamers in my opinion. The i3 8350k crossed my mind, but the price per dollar for streamers isn't great for a 4 core, 4 thread. I also chose these new Coffee Lake processors over the older Kaby lake 7xxx series because for the small increase in price, you get a lot more cores and threads. Also with Coffee Lake, this likely is the last generation from Intel to use the LGA1151 (and it's a special FCLGA1151 socket at that), which means that you probably won't be able to use a current motherboard with a new processor in the future.
Ok, now that you have your CPU picked out, it's time to get a motherboard to match.
For AMD I'm choosing to go with the X370 motherboards because they are a bit more customizable with options like M.2 drives, SLI, and more. If you want to save a few bucks, you can go for a B350 which gives you a few less PCIe lanes, but that's ok since there's really only ports and PCIe slots to fill up the available lanes. For all of the Ryzen processors any of these motherboards will be fine, but I think the selected motherboards match the different price brackets based on features and creature comforts (more M.2 slots, front USB 3.1 support, and sweet sweet RGB):
- Budget: MSI B350 Gaming Pro $79
- Mid Range: MSI X370 Gaming Plus $119
- High End: MSI X370 Gaming Pro Carbon $159
For Intel, it's tricky because I recommend an overclock compatible motherboard to go with the unlocked and boosted "K" series processors. This is a lot trickier since not all LGA1151 motherboards support Coffee Lake. At the time of this blog, you'll need a Z370 motherboard for any 8xxx series Intel CPU:
For motherboards there really isn't a budget option here since the Z370 is pretty expensive across the board. There are a few manufacturers that offer cheaper options than these MSI boards, but I've had bad experiences in the past so I don't feel right recommending them here.
If you went with any of the AMD options above, CONGLATURATION you don't need to buy a separate cooler! But if you still want to add a cooler (or if you went with Intel and need a cooler), I recommend the Coolermaster Masterliquid series:
Right now with Amazon prices the 120 and 240 versions of the MasterLiquid Lite are the same price. Check what radiator mounts are available for your case (more on that below) when choosing between these coolers.
I didn't include air cooled solutions for two reasons. First, right now most of the air coolers I've found only come with LGA 1151 and AM2/3 mounts so they won't support Ryzen without another mounting bracket that has to be ordered separately. Second, since the emphasis is streaming, I went with a AIO (all in one) liquid cooler to avoid sudden jumps in CPU fan speed since liquid coolers have less drastic changes in temperatures.
RAM is important for streaming especially if you are using software encoding. Like CPUs, we have to ignore some of the general cost savings for traditional gaming builds. Unfortunately because of a global shortage in flash chips, RAM prices are still really high right now. At a minimum I would recommend 8GB for streaming, and it should be noted that for all of the processors listed above, you'll need to be running dual channel RAM (this means two DIMMs full of RAM). If you do want to save a bit you can get 8GB now and then wait and get another 8GB when prices hopefully eventually settle down. Without any more commentary, here are my recommendations:
- Budget: Corsair Vengeance LPX 2666Ghz 8GB $120
- Mid Range: Corsair Vengeance LPX 2666Ghz 16GB $204
- High End: Corsair Vengeance LPX 2666Ghz 32GB $381
Here I chose to go with 2666Ghz RAM across the board. You can choose to get a higher speed RAM (especially if you are overclocking on Intel), but it doesn't give much better results for streaming day to day. Ryzen also has a bad history with some RAM speeds over 2666, and even though these have been fixed in firmware and BIOS updates, I am still a bit on the cautious side of things.
I hope you're ok with doubling your build costs for one part, because sadly that's the world we live in right now for graphics cards. Usually I could recommend AMD cards when Nvidia supplies are low and prices sky rocket, but sadly that's not the case right now. So... What's to blame for all of this sadness? Cryptocurrency mining. Because of the rise in crypto mining (which uses graphics card processors for heavy calculations), the stock for gaming style graphics cards is almost gone. This has lead to a crazy bump in price. For example my card: an MSI 1060 6GB was $240 last June (still more than original MSRP), today on Amazon there is only one available for $699 from a reseller and it won't arrive until late February or March.
If you want my advice: DON'T BUY A GPU RIGHT NOW IF YOU CAN HELP IT!!!!
Really at this point. I don't feel right putting affiliate links for these graphics cards because of price gouging. Use a site like B&H which only sells for MSRP.
- Budget: GTX 1050Ti
- Mid Range: GTX 1060 6GB
- High End: Titan XP
So, I hear you in the comments yelling about me recommending a Titan XP. Yes... I will admit, this card is really overkill. But, right now with price gouging and availability if you want silky smooth frames and high resolutions, the Titan XP is more available and almost the same price as the 1080 or 1080 Ti that I would have recommended.
The choice of case really comes down to preference, but I will recommend a few things. Try to find something with good room and ventilation, if there's glass around all four sides and only small vents at the corners your fans are going to be going into overdrive and making more noise than on a more open case. Speaking about noise, the Phanteks P400 (recommended below) comes in a P400S edition where the S is for "silent", this means it comes with sound deadening panels which can be great for small environments and builds that run a bit on the hotter/noisier side of things.
- Budget: Phanteks P400S Black with Tempered Glass $69
- Mid Range: Phanteks P400S White with Tempered Glass $69
- High End: Phanteks P400S Anthracite Grey with Tempered Glass $89
But wait! That's the same case three times!?!? You got that right! Really I love my Phanteks P400S:
- There's room for cable management, with room in the back to hide mistakes
- It comes with Tempered glass side panels (to show off your build) and sound dampening (to make sure it runs quiet even during long streams and games)
- Case fan speed control
- It looks good, no really... Look at it...
- RGB!!! It has a front light and RGB controller built in, so you can even get more Phanteks RGB strips to light up the inside (or if you have an X370 board with RGB headers you can use those and sync up everything!)
The one downside to the Phanteks P400S is that it still is a Mid Tower case. This means if you really want to run a 240mm radiator like the MasterLiquid Lite 240 I recommended earlier, you will need a different case (or you would need to run it with the radiator in the front which limits hard drive space).
So, if you need more drive space or room for a 240mm radiator I would recommend the Phanteks Enthoo Pro M with Tempered Glass $90. I'm recommending this case because of the upper radiator support (along with 140mm fan support up front to get better airflow to support the intake for a 240mm radiator), I'm also recommending this case because I've helped a friend build in this case and it has a lot of the same features as the little brother Eclipse P400.
Alright now were getting down to the second to last part, the power supply! Nothing too exciting here really. I'm recommending that you go with a simple solution of "get enough juice from a reputable source". So for that, I'm recommending EVGA Gold across the board:
- Budget: EVGA 650W Gold Semi-Modular $64
- Mid Range: EVGA 650W Gold Fully Modular $109
- High End: EVGA 850W Gold Fully Modular $149
Here you'll notice the budget and mid range use the same power rating and wattage. You can mix and match these based on prices and how much you care about cable management (for me this is a big deal and I went with the fully modular power supply). Really the draw on this depends on what GPU you end up going with (and if you got two to run in SLI) and if you went with the i5 or i7 Intel. If you have a 1080 or Titan GPU or if you went with the higher end Intel CPUs, you'll want to go with the 850W power supply. When streaming with Intel, you'll want to overclock your processor a bit more to make up for having fewer threads than the AMD equivalents.
Remember! More Watts will run cooler and quieter for longer! Don't skimp here, running a power supply that doesn't supply enough wattage could drop out and shut down during a stream, or worse: it could hurt your components.
Hard Drives and SSDs
Another section, another shortage and price hike... SSD storage has been expensive because of a shortage of NAND flash chips.
Are you ready to increase your read and write speeds? Are you ready to get up to 4TB on a single SSD?
Well... So is every OEM, corporate IT department, and phone manufacturer...
The shortage here isn't quite as bad as RAM or GPU prices, but I would have liked to see a price decrease in some of the larger storage capacities. Sadly, this isn't the case right now. So, if you are on a tight budget, the pure speed of an SSD might not be the best bet. So the recommendations are:
- Budget: Firecuda 1TB SSHD 7200RPM $75
- Mid Range: Crucial 525GB SSD $139 and Firecude 2TB SSHD 7200RPM $99
- High End: Samsung 512GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD $299 and Firecude 2TB SSHD 7200RPM $99
So this was a weird choice. In reality if you are going for a mid range or high end rig, you will want to use the SSD for your windows install, streaming software, and popular games that you stream. But, if you are spending a good chunk of change on a PC you probably have a library to go along with it. Plus, as you get in to streaming I recommend backing up your streams (either directly recording while streaming or from the Twitch/Youtube archives), this will take up a lot of drive space.
I went with the Firecuda here because the hybrid drive gives good performance for games and light workstation use. For the budget build this hybrid drive has enough room to optimize for common tasks like launching Windows, running OBS, and loading some textures. If you buy a traditional hard drive that isn't the one linked above, do make sure that you get a 7200RPM and check the internal cache. The rotation speed limits how fast you can read and write off the disk and the cache gives you a little bit of buffer room for fast access storage in your current app.
Oh? That's it? You're probably out of money at this point, but there is one last important step that too many people forget about... Buying a license to Windows!
While OBS and steam games can be played on Linux, a lot of the streaming software tools like Stream Labs Chatbot only work on Windows. Plus, OBS works best on Windows too sadly...
So remember to save an extra $119 for a Windows 10 license. I recommend getting it directly from the Microsoft Store which allows you to quickly and easily get your software key any time if you need to reinstall or upgrade later.
Whew! So, did you pick the parts to your PC? Did you get a pre-built above? Did you do something different?
Writing this article, my current streaming PC is basically each piece of the "Mid Range" PC with the only exception being a Ryzen 5 1600x and a few extra hard drives and SSDs from an old work machine. I hope you liked this first part of my series on getting started streaming.