While preparing to start streaming for the first time, I found it difficult to get quick, accurate information all in one place. Now that I've been streaming for a while and gone through all of the headaches and research, I thought it would be useful to compile all the information I found! In addition to my streaming preparation, I've been building personal gaming computers for myself and friends for over 10-years. If you have any questions or feedback, leave a comment below or tweet @PrestonDvorak.
Your computer hardware is one of the main things that will dictate not only whether you can stream, but at what quality you can stream, with more powerful components generally allowing you to stream more easily and at a higher quality.
Note: Most items in this guide are Intel and NVIDIA focused. You can stream with AMD/ATI products, but at the time of my research, most people didn't recommend it if you have a choice. This may change with AMD's most recent CPUs, but I haven't had the time to read about and research them.
Streaming is CPU heavy because it's what handles the encoding of your video before it's sent to the streaming service. There are settings and programs that can move the load to your GPU, but these often result in significant quality loss when streaming and work much better for recording videos locally.
For a CPU, I recommend a 3rd generation Intel i7 processor or newer (i7-3770 or higher). The i7's include Hyper-Threading technology which gives you more virtual cores to work with and translates into more power when encoding video. With that being said, you can certainly stream on Intel i5 processors as well, but you'll be losing some encoding power which can mean a lower quality stream. If you go the i5 route, I again recommend a 3rd generation or newer processor (i5-3550 or higher). I have not done significant research on AMD processors for streaming, but the general consensus seems to be they're not recommended. If you go the AMD route, look for the newer CPU's to ensure as much power as you can.
If you're serious about streaming or creating video content, most of your budget will be spent on a CPU. You want something that can handle the video encoding at the quality you want while still having resources leftover to run the rest of your programs and the game you're playing. A newer CPU will almost always be better. Getting a "K" version of an Intel CPU (i.e. i7-3770k) is also a plus, as it opens up the opportunity for overclocking if you need even more power.
Another thing to keep in mind when buying a CPU is the socket type. You'll want it to match the socket type your motherboard supports. More information on this can be found in my PC building guide.
If you pick a new, i7 CPU, plan on spending $300-$400.
Most modern games make great use of GPU's, so you'll want a decently powerful one to ensure the game you're streaming looks good before it's encoded and sent off to the streaming service. If you plan on doing local video recordings alongside streaming, you'll probably use your GPU's power to do so, too. I recommend an Nvidia GeForce 700 series or newer, as these are the first GPU's with nearly full support for DirectX 12. If you're running multiple monitors, getting a GPU with 4GB of memory or more is the best option. Most newer GPU's are "VR-ready" and have more memory than you'll need to worry about when playing non-VR games. Much like with CPU's, a newer generation GPU will almost always be better.
While the GPU isn't the most important thing when it comes to streaming specifically, it's still important simply for playing games. This will likely be the second largest part of your budget, especially if you're going to be playing new, AAA games with lots of graphical frills.
If you pick a current generation, mid to high range NVIDIA GPU, plan on spending $300-$400
RAM is an interesting topic because there are a lot of small differences but they don't usually offer a noticeable difference with gaming or streaming, and tend to show up more when running power benchmarks. You don't want to skimp on your RAM choice, but it's also not something you need to use a large portion of your budget on. Some people swear by 32GB of RAM for streaming or gaming, however, in my own personal testing I hover around 8GB of usage when I have all my necessary programs open plus a game. This includes notoriously "heavy" programs like Google Chrome. With that in mind, I recommend 16GB of DDR4 RAM (or DDR3 if your motherboard doesn't support DDR4) unless you know for a fact you use more than 16GB at any one time (in Windows, you can check your usage in the Task Manager under Performance).
Other things to keep in mind when buying RAM are the Speed, Timing, and in rare cases Voltage. In the interest of keeping this guide focused on streaming, I will include more information on these things in the PC building guide. In short, you want to make sure your RAM is compatible with your motherboard when it comes to its base speed (measured in Mhz) and its Voltage (measured in volts). These can often be found under Specifications when looking at motherboards.
If you pick mid-range DDR4 RAM, plan on spending around $100 for 16GB.
The Motherboard is another somewhat debated topic, with boards available in a large range of prices and feature sets. The main things to look for in a motherboard are that it supports the CPU and RAM you have picked out with regards to the items mentioned in the sections above. For RAM, this means it supports either DDR4 or DDR3 RAM, the Mhz Speed of the RAM without the need for overclocking or underclocking, the amount of RAM (i.e. 16GB or more), and the voltage of the RAM. For the CPU, this means you want a motherboard that matches the socket type of the CPU as well as a motherboard with a chipset that matches the brand of your CPU (either Intel or AMD). Those are the easy items, now I'll try to cover the more complicated things in a universal manner.
Most new motherboards are put into standard categories based on the features they offer or support. A great example of this are the tables on the LGA 1151 Wikipedia page. Here you see headings like B250, Q250, H270, Q270, and Z270, as well as their differences and supported features below. In general, I recommend getting a "Z" motherboard because they offer the highest support for overclocking your components should you ever feel the need to do so. If you're not interested in overclocking, then an "H" motherboard will be the next best option. "B" and "Q" motherboards tend to be geared towards businesses and enterprise use, and unless you specifically use or need the features they offer, you're better off with one of the other letters.
Other things you should look for in a motherboard comes down to what you need personally. Check how many USB Ports it has, and whether they're USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 and if that matters for any devices you're using (USB 3.0 is faster if you use external hard drives, for example). Check how many SATA ports it has as well, and make sure it's enough to hook up all of your hard drives, disc drives, or other SATA devices. Check whether the SATA ports are internal or external as well. Motherboard manufacturers also like to package a lot of "features" in as well, and use a lot of buzz words to describe things that are supposed to make your computer faster or perform better. Trying to cover all of these would be nearly impossible, so I would defer to reading some user reviews or Googling any features that look interesting. In reality, if you pick a motherboard that meets the criteria above, it should perform just fine regardless of manufacturer-specific features. I personally tend to buy what are considered "budget" brands and boards, without a lot of frills, and have never had any issues.
If you pick a mid-range, no-frills "Z" category motherboard, plan on spending $100-$150.
The PSU is another area where people tend to get something much larger and more expensive than they need to. With that being said, you don't want to skimp on quality here as this is the piece that's sending electricity to all of your other expensive components. A decent indication of quality is the "80 PLUS" rating, which ranges from Bronze to Titanium; note that even a Bronze rating is quite good becase it means the PSU has been certified to begin with. From there, how big of a power supply you need depends a lot on your other components, because of that, I recommend using a power supply calculator after you've picked everything out. I tend to get a power supply that's slightly bigger than what the calculator says, and tend to settle around the 650W area. This helps "future proof" the power supply if I add more or newer items later.
Another thing to look for in a PSU is how many of each power connector it has. As a quick rundown: SATA connectors power your HDD's, SSD's, and disc drives. PCI-Express connectors power your GPU, and if you have older HDD's or disc drives, you may also need Molex connectors or SATA to Molex adapters (adapters can be bought separately). More details will be available in the PC Building guide.
For a 650W, 80 PLUS Gold PSU, plan on spending around $100. With higher wattage requirements being more expensive.
Storage drives are another area that mostly depends on your needs and expectations. There are two main types of hard drives, Solid State Drives (SSD's) and Hard Disk Drives (HDD's). While they have many differences, SSD's are generally faster and more responsive, while HDD's are slower but much less expensive. The most common setup is to have a SSD for your operating system and for games with a lot of load screens, and then HDD's for storing files and videos or for games that don't have a lot of load screens. In my experience, your hard drive has little to no effect on streaming or recording videos locally (besides the fact you need enough space to store any local recordings).
With SSD's being relatively more expensive, knowing how much space you need for the operating system and games is helpful. Something in the range of 256GB to 512GB is most common and will fit the operating system and at least five large games. With the price of SSD's being what it is, I don't recommend getting an SSD just to store static files like pictures, documents, or videos, even if you have the money in your budget. You could get a much larger HDD to store even more things without a noticeable performance difference.
SSD's vary greatly in price and quality, and I highly recommend reading user reviews and paying close attention to anyone reporting early failures that weren't covered under warranty. SSD performance is commonly measured in Max Sequential Read/Write speeds, with higher numbers being better. Also look for the MTBF rating, this stands for Mean Time Between Failure, and is a prediction of the length of time the drive will run before it exhibits signs of failure.
HDD's have been around for decades and are quite inexpensive. They're a great option for less loading screen heavy games as well as for storing more static files like pictures, document, and videos. If you plan on recording copies of all your streams or recording other videos locally, I recommend at least a 1TB HDD to get started. If you plan on keeping all of your streams archived locally, 3TB or larger will be an even better option.
The performance of HDD's is mostly measured by RPM, Rotations Per Minute, and indicates how fast the discs inside the drive spin, with higher numbers being better. If you plan on using the HDD only for storage of static files, 7200 RPM will be plenty. If you're going to put games or other programs on the drive, you may want to consider a 10000 RPM or faster drive. Keep in mind, as you get a faster drive it will start to cost more for the same amount of storage space.
Storage prices will vary greatly based on your needs. For a 256GB SSD, plan on spending around $125 for a high quality drive. For a 7200RPM 3TB HDD, plan on spending around $150.
You have all of your components picked out, now you need something to put them all in! The case has little to no effect on your streaming ability, but you'll want to pick something that allows for good cooling and easy cleaning. It's hard for me to make a definitive recommendation with so many cases out there, but my personal favorite is the Corsair Air 540 because is offers exceptional cooling potential and cable management space.
The most important thing to check when buying a case is that it will fit all of your components. The first thing to check is if it can accommodate the Form Factor of your motherboard. This information should be listed on both the motherboard's product page as well as the case's product page under "form factor" or something similar. The most common form factor is ATX.
It's also safe to double check that the case has enough PCI slots on the back to accommodate your video card and other components, however, if you get a case with the correct form factor you should have plenty of slots. Finally, take note of the dimensions of the entire case and make sure it will fit comfortably where you want it, preferably in an area with good airflow and a low amount of dust.
That's it for the streaming hardware guide! Stay tuned for the Software and Monetization guides to follow soon. As always, if you have any questions or feedback, leave a comment below or tweet @PrestonDvorak.
August 10, 2017 (Streaming Guide) - Hardware guide launched.