How to Build a Budget Streaming PC

January 11, 2016 | By Mason Dunlap | PCDIY

I recently finished my very first budget streaming PC build. I designed my computer for live streaming to Twitch, as well as for gaming, graphic design, and a little video editing. While my final configuration ultimately ended up costing somewhere in the ballpark of $1200, I originally set out with the intent of creating a more wallet-friendly design — it definitely didn’t end up that way due to my deliberate part selections (RIP wallet).

I learned many things during the planning phase of my build, and I’m here to pass my findings on to those who are looking to save more coin on their budget streaming PC!

I strongly recommend using pcpartpicker.com to design your system build. It’s a great resource for finding the lowest prices on individual components, product reviews, and even calculating your build’s power supply needs.

CPU Matters

How to Build a Budget Streaming PC

Your PC’s Central Processing Unit (CPU) will be shouldering the majority of the work when you are attempting to live stream to any platform like Twitch. It handles the strenuous task of encoding your video signal, and as live streamers, we typically have multiple applications and windows open during our streaming sessions (automated chat bots, voice chat apps, music players, etc.). For this reason, give a lot of careful thought to your CPU selection when planning your budget streaming PC build, as this component is a vital factor in your computer’s ability to broadcast.

I advise that you first try to answer the following question for yourself:

How great of video quality do you desire from your live stream broadcast?

HD Quality (720p and Higher, 60fps)

If you are setting out in the hopes of producing high-definition live streams in resolutions like 1080p or 720p at 60fps, be prepared to spend a more significant portion of your budget on your CPU! A more powerful CPU will allow for a live streaming experience more akin to an “easy mode,” granting you the freedom to input higher settings into your streaming software while bypassing more time-consuming optimization and load balancing efforts.

Powerful CPUs are typically characterized by greater core counts and clock rates. Without getting into a lengthy post about actual CPU construction and operations, suffice it say that while browsing for a processor, you want to shoot for a greater number of physical cores if your end-goal is a silky-smooth, HD-quality video stream. Video encoding used in live streaming demands a lot of your processor’s resources, and more cores allow your CPU to perform this task with greater ease and faster rates. The Hyper-Threading technology of Intel processors is an added bonus, allowing your computer to perform even more operations at high speed – I definitely recommend looking at the Intel Core i7 series for a good number of cores, threads, and not-too-crazy price tags.

In exchange for glorious HD live streams, the CPUs capable of their production are going eat a lot more of your money. However, if you really can’t go without HD broadcast capabilities, I have a couple of tips for shaving costs elsewhere in your build, which I cover at the end of this article.

Everything Else (Below 720p and 60fps)

If you’re shooting for a more budget-friendly build, then you can get away with a less-powerful CPU by combining it with my tricks for fully optimizing your broadcast settings. Heck, I spent a number of months live streaming with an i5 460M and could still produce marginally acceptable 720p/30fps live streams after optimizations (this was either capturing video from my console or casting very low-motion games). In other words, take care not to fall into the builder’s trap that bigger and costlier is always better. We’re looking to stretch our dollar in this article!

By also making efforts to reduce the number of applications you are running while live streaming, you can take advantage of lower-end (and less expensive!) CPUs. Reduce your CPU’s overall load by closing any unnecessary apps during your streaming session, and look to cut more superfluous ones. For example, while music is an attractive feature to have on your broadcast, it might be worth shelving your music library in order to squeeze out a little more encoding power for crispier-looking video. Hitting your CPU’s load ceiling will result in dropped frames and a really choppy, unpleasant viewing experience, so avoid this at all costs.

These days, you aren’t likely to find many streamers broadcasting with anything less than an i5-series (or competitor equivalent) CPU. These typically offer high enough clock rates and enough cores to produce quality streams at resolutions less than 720p. 30fps is likely going to be your frame rate ceiling with these lower-end CPUs as well, but thankfully with low-motion games, this shouldn’t be much of an issue to begin with!

Having used a CPU with a clock rate of just 2.53GHz and no Hyper-Threading, I can say that live streaming is definitely possible, but I would also recommend that you avoid venturing below this threshold. Given your individual budget, see just how far you can stretch it to purchase a CPU with the greatest number of cores, threads, and clock rate. Beware of CPU-intensive games, as they will compete with your broadcast software for resources, further lowering your ability to cast at better resolutions and frame rates.

RAM Also Matters (Most-Original Paragraph Header Award Winner)

How to Build a Budget Streaming PC

RAM also plays an important role in how easily you can live stream on a budget-built PC. Greater amounts of RAM will safeguard you from stuttering and other broadcast-killing issues.

Using NZXT’s CAM software, I can tell you that I frequently creep into the usage range of slightly more than 4GB while simultaneously running broadcasting software, voice chat, music player, two chat bot applications, web browser, Steam, and my game. Something close to this number of apps is pretty typical for many live streamers, and it might be true for you, too.

Based on the above, I recommend shooting for 8GB of RAM in your streaming PC. This should safely keep you from load-related broadcasting issues. However, if you really are looking to shave more costs from your build, you can opt for a smaller amount of RAM while also reducing the number of applications and tasks you run while streaming. Any efforts to keep overall load levels low translate to less-expensive hardware requirements.

Other Tips for Saving Money When Building a Budget Streaming PC

How to Build a Budget Streaming PC

Below are just a few other ways you can build a streaming PC on a budget.

Forego a Discrete GPU

If you plan to cast undemanding games (like Magic Online, for example), have a dedicated gaming PC, or a console from which you will capture gameplay video, then you should consider foregoing the purchase of a dedicated graphics card. Doing so can free up a good chunk of change that you can allocate towards a more powerful CPU! While you’ll be unable to play and live stream more graphically intensive and beautiful games on your streaming PC, you will be able to encode video captured from an external source or the CPU’s onboard GPU (if it has one) at greater rates and better quality. Consider this tip when planning your build. Plus, you can always add a discrete GPU down the road when you have the money!

Use a Non-Modular PSU

While fully modular power supplies are excellent for things like cable management and even airflow, they are accompanied by higher price tags that can easily make any budget builder cringe. If you don’t mind the spaghetti mess of cables, non-modular PSUs present a much more budget-friendly option. While you should never skimp on the actual quality of your PSU, you can give up on the nicety of modular cables to save some coin.

Air Cool Instead of Water Cool

Using a water cooling loop to keep your CPU and other components cool is highly effective for keeping temperatures inside your case down, but it’s a costly performance option. Since we’re looking to build on a budget, air-cooling is your friend. Aftermarket air-coolers will be more cost-effective, freeing up your budget for a better CPU or more RAM. Just be sure to spend time researching the efficacy of your desired air-cooling components, as well as the typical temperatures that your selected CPU produces under load. As long as your air-cooler can keep up, use this option to save some money!

Budget Forth and Build

How to Build a Budget Streaming PC

I hope that these tips help you identify the areas in which you can trim costs while building a streaming PC on a budget. Take care to prioritize your CPU before splurging on other components, as this often affects your broadcast quality the most.

Feel free to contact the NZXT support team any time with your questions.  If you’re curious about what an Intel Core i7-6700K is capable of producing at 720p/60fps on Medium preset (in OBS), you can check out this fun Rocket League highlight from one of my past Twitch broadcasts.

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Mason Dunlap

Mason Dunlap

Mason “MasonRL90” is a Social Media Specialist, Rocket League Ops, and Influencer Program Manager at NZXT. His goal is to grow the Rocket League community through great content and personal involvement in the scene.