Few things tax hardware to the extent that video encoding and rendering tasks do; H.264 encoding (soon to be superseded by H.265 - which is incredibly promising) is one of the best-optimized, multithreaded encoding methodologies and scales predictably with increasingly-advanced hardware. Still, with all this optimization, it's easy to want more. Always more. Rendering is an arduous task that beats up the processor, RAM, and storage heavily, and so expedition of such intensive tasks demands specialized hardware for the objective at hand.
This high-end DIY gaming PC build is intended for those looking to get into game streaming (see: Twitch, YouTube, etc.) and video production with a focus on playing games; everything herein is spec'd toward someone who sees professional streaming or video production as a future (or current) career path, and will help in completing your goals efficiently. As we'll discuss below, the biggest bottleneck in rendering and video content production is time -- it may not be a piece of hardware, but losing time to the hours spent rendering means less time to produce the next video.
An alternative to the setup we've compiled below would be to build a dedicated box to act as an encoding interface between your PC and the uplink, but that adds an extra layer of complexity (and cost) that we see as unnecessary for this article. This build will instead aim to assemble an enthusiast-class system that is capable of both playing and live-streaming games on elevated settings without need for an intermediary processing rig.
Before listing the components and diving into the choices as we usually do, we'll first dedicate a section that discusses the processing philosophy used in video encoding and streaming. This should hopefully offer some perspective on the admittedly high-cost recommendations
Hardware Requirements for Game Streaming (with XSplit, FME, Twitch, etc.)
Aside from obvious uplink bandwidth requirements (which we'll also briefly touch on), live video encoding and post-edit rendering both operate on a similar enough level to be mashed-up in one focused build.
Most streaming software is computationally-heavy and lacks notable GPU acceleration (like XSplit and OBS), and so tends to be integer-intensive and CPU-bound. This isn't news to anyone. It's the nature of the tremendous amount of number-crunching and data movement involved in encoding, regardless of whether that data is being streamed or written to a file for later playback. Some software packages (like Premiere) can use nVidia's proprietary CUDA programming language for GPU acceleration (this dictates our GPU selection, explained below), but for live-streaming, you're mostly going to rely upon the CPU to keep up with the dataflow.
Fortunately, encoding tasks scale cleanly with available system resources and will consume just about anything made available; if you've got more cores available, hyperthreading, and blocks upon blocks of cache, rendering will find a way to saturate all of that. The same is mostly true for memory allocation.
Your system is effectively crunching two very heavy tasks when streaming game content: the game and the stream itself. The game will obviously place some demand on the CPU and normally heavier demand on the GPU, depending on the game, with some minimal load on memory (though this will soon change). The stream's quality and effective "settings" are mostly going to be dictated by the software interface between your game and your uplink—XSplit, FME, and OBS, in many cases—which will in turn govern the demand placed on your bandwidth and components. If you hope to stream at 1920x1080 resolution and upload at a relatively standard HD-quality bit-rate of 5Mbps or higher, your system's going to be crunching all 2,000,000+ pixels through the stream while maintaining a high bit-rate and hopefully 30 FPS or higher framerate.
Simply put, the bit-rate is how much data you're packing into each second (units often in either Kb * s or Mb * s). In our example, your system uploads 5 megabits (0.625MB/s) of data each second, which effectively determines how clear the quality of the broadcast is. Obviously a higher resolution will demand a higher bit-rate to ensure a clear picture (you need to pack more data into the packets to fill-out the resolution), and at some point this becomes throttled by upload speed. In the real-world—the world dominated by Time Warner Cable and other equally-dismal suppliers—we're lucky to get more than 1Mbps up on connections, so it's very possible that this will be the largest limiter of stream quality. Part of the reason we see so many professional YouTubers move to Californiais their accessibility to FiOS optical internet connections, sometimes offering a 25/25 connection. We'd suggest you contact your provider and inquire how much data you're supposed to get going up. Keep in mind that most representatives do not understand that a megabit is different from a megabyte... cross-check their data with any one of the multiple speed testing sites, like speedtest.net.
When rendering a static, non-live video, we have a lot more flexibility and suddenly become limited primarily by time. Most of the videos we render-out for GN's YouTube channel are either 14Mbps, 20Mbps, or 24Mbps, depending on the length of the video (and thus the resulting filesize). If I edit together a 7-minute-long review of a product and render it out at 14Mbps, the resulting filesize should be in the range of ~735MB (other complications notwithstanding, like frame depth and audio quality); this was calculated pretty simply with (seconds * bit-rate) / 8 = filesize, in this case that's (420s * 14Mbps) / 8 = 735MB. We divide by eight to create a more legible number in Bytes. As an uploader / YouTuber, you have to make the trade-off between quality and time required to render and upload the content. With my medieval-era upload speed, a 735MB file will take me about 98 minutes. That's survivable, but had I rendered out a longer video, say 12 minutes (which would take me 168 minutes @ 14Mbps), I might make the executive decision to drop the bit-rate to 12Mbps or 11Mbps to shave half an hour off the upload duration.
And that's just uploads. Rendering the videos requires significant time, too, which will be heavily scaled based upon the CPU and RAM available. Premiere, Vegas, and other editing software does a good job of pre-buffering the encoder with all of the cuts you're rendering, but the speed with which these are accessed will be dependent foremost upon memory and secondarily upon storage. Caching-out of your memory means hits to storage, which means slow seek/fetch times for files (even on SSDs, though these resolve much of that issue). If an entire sequence can be prefetched and loaded into the memory buffer, the encoder will almost never need to hit storage (other than for the sequential write transaction that it's enduring) and can reference the significantly-faster RAM for incoming video cut/file encoding.
Just to put things in perspective, our render rig has 12GB of triple-channel memory (Nehalem generation) and actively uses all of it for large renders. The extra channel helps, too. Here's a look at a recent render operation:
This also verifies an earlier-made point on CPU core allocation: the encoder we use for our video output is heavily multithreaded and has maxed-out all eight threads (4 physical cores) of the Nehalem chip we utilize. This is contrary to the performance we often see with games, which tend to place a significant amount of load on the first core and maybe 20%-30% on the subsequent threads. And that's where we see the emergent reason for differing video rendering hardware requirements from a gaming PC; a gaming PC can get the job done, to be sure, but a professional, efficient environment demands enthusiast-class or server-class hardware.
We've opted for the enthusiast side of things.
Let's hit that build list -- each component will contain a bit more depth than our builds normally receive, but that's because this topic has (frankly) not been adequately explored on the web. We'd like to change that by offering more content to think about.
$2038 High-End Video Editing & Game Streaming PC - DIY Build
OS & Optional Extras / Add-Ons
Normally we list the video card component first, but this build's a bit different from the norm -- with efficient post-edit rendering and livestreaming beholden to the CPU, it makes sense to explore those requirements first. There's a unique mix of FPU and INT demand from simultaneously running games and encoding software -- not to mention heavy multithreading optimization on the part of video editing software and XSplit -- and it makes good sense to use one of Intel's higher-grade chips for this reason. AMD's FX-8350 has fantastic INT capacity and competes closely with Intel on a dollar-for-dollar level in pure gaming on CryEngine 3 (and other heavily-multithreaded games), but when throwing XSplit recording in the mix, the stability of the CPU under high settings is threatened.
Because we want to ensure "high" or better (ideally, near-max) settings for game streaming, we're opting for this hexa-core, hyperthreaded 3930K; the 3770k would admittedly operate reasonably (though obviously on a different chipset), but "reasonable" isn't enough if you want to play high-settings at a high FPS while spitting out frames to the 'net. The 3930K has massive stores of cache to handle repeat instruction requests and reduce demand from repetitive decode cycles, but that's not all it has. The SB-E chip is on 32nm manufacturing process, and despite the SB branding, it "won't be going anywhere any time soon," according to our ASUS contacts who are still engineering new boards for the socket / X79 chipset.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the 3930K—obvious six-core advantages shelved momentarily—is its quad-channel memory support. Rather than utilizing the somewhat standardized dual-channel DDR3 memory that most other chips use (Nehalem excluded), SB-E can run two additional channels at a sustainable, high frequency, effectively doubling the data-rate. You'll need to purchase RAM in multiples of four modules to take advantage of quad-channel memory, but we've accounted for that in our memory selection.
It's noteworthy that this CPU has a relatively high TDP of 130W, and with our overclocking plans, will be boosted even higher (~170W+). The PSU has been selected with these demands in mind.
NOTE: This CPU does not ship with a cooler. You'll need the one we list below or another CPU cooler that is compatible with the LGA2011 socket type.
For the purposes of this build the GPU will primarily be responsible for sustaining a fluid FPS under encoding duress while simultaneously gaming. Not so easy. Luckily, encoding is mostly CPU-bound, but running screen-cap programs do tend to increase load on the GPU slightly.
There is a very real possibility for dual- or triple-SLI with this rig, and honestly it's not a bad idea, but it does add considerable expense (~$350 ea.) to the final price-tag and is something that can very easily be tacked-on as needed.
Intel currently is offering combo deals on their high-end CPUs when bundled with the GTX 680, GTX 670, and AMD 7970 GPUs; the GTX 680 is tempting at only $100 more than the 670, but performance is similar enough that we dismiss the expense as unnecessary. A quick overclock on the 670 should bridge the minor gap in performance for most games. The card selected is MSI's GTX 670 OC edition 2GB card, shipping with $150 in credit for F2P/P2W games like Hawken and World of Tanks and a (more tangible) $20 rebate. The card has an impressive 1344 CUDA cores and an insanely fast 6GHz effective memory clock and 256-bit interface, ensuring a wide memory bandwidth for movement of massive texture files and other large clusters of pixels. Investing in a 4GB card is difficult to justify at the moment, seeing as its primary advantage will be in heavily-modded games that have aftermarket texture packs, but even still, 2GB is enough for Crysis 3 on elevated settings, so it's enough for us.
Purchasing a Quadro or Tesla GPU from nVidia will result in tremendous gains (several times over) in video rendering power within Premiere due to GPU acceleration by CUDA programming language, but the expense is really not something justifiable for anyone not producing videos and making money from it.
A fair note on SLI/CrossFire promises, though: It is often best to add the second card prior to the stabilization of the following generation of GPUs due to EOL and halted production.
G.Skill currently holds the world's memory overclocking record with its Trident X memory (OC'd to 4GHz, which we wrote about here) and have announced their devotion to high-performance RAM going forward. The company uses high-frequency die bin-outs for its upper-crust Trident X modules and our selected Sniper memory modules (a standard practice, really) and has historically had very stable modules at high voltages and frequencies. This makes it ideal for quick, tangible overclocks that yield results when moving massive chunks of data around during the render-out.
We've opted for 32GB of the Sniper series RAM—just a step below the Trident X memory, but saving us $70—and it's clocked natively at 1600MHz and should easily hit 2400MHz (or at least 1866MHz) with a bit of tact in BIOS. The native timings are 9-9-9-24, and despite the Trident X operating slightly better (8-9-9-24), it's generally not worth the money unless you're doing something that very specifically throttles on memory.
This kit is quad-channel, of course, and we'd highly encourage overclocking to 1866MHz or higher (preferred 2400MHz if stable; do so in increments). The frequency boost will not really impact your gaming performance at all, but will have a calculable impact on rendering performance.
Oh, and 32GB should be good enough to start with. I do think it's worth it for anyone seriously looking into video production.
We generally advise purchasing high-quality core components over all else for any new system. The motherboard, CPU, and power supply tend to be at the top of our list for quality control, and for good reason: everything else is mostly modular and easy to swap-out later for cheap, but with the iterative approach to socket types and pin-outs on Intel boards/CPUs, it makes sense to start with a strong CPU and reliable board initially, then invest more heavily in GPUs later if necessary. A reliable power supply is just a smart purchasing decision at all times; something power-efficient and relatively surge-resistant will do wonders for your bills and component preservation.
The ASUS P9X79 LE board we've selected definitely fits the high-grade requirement we self-imposed. It's equipped with a DIGI+ power control module and ASUS' dual-intelligent processor design that uses multiple on-board, dedicated voltage controllers and energy processors/controllers for maximized energy efficiency and allocation under load. The voltage regulation helps guide overclocking stability when on borderline frequencies/voltages. A high-capacitance power design theoretically enhances the board's ability to tweak for DRAM and CPU overclocking and maximize the frequency of the components with very precise tuning tools.
The board is also capable of running triple-SLI at x16/x16/x8, so SLI is certainly an option if it becomes necessary (or money materializes).
With a 130W TDP CPU on stock settings (and roughly 170W at 1.3V/4.2GHz overclock) and a fairly powerful GPU, the system will likely be consuming in the neighborhood of 500W when under load -- more if being 100% utilized, though the only likely scenario for 100% CPU and GPU utilization would be synthetic benchmarking. So we'll need some power, but not an insane amount; this is in-part thanks to the more power- and heat-efficient future in semiconductors, something that changed permanently for GPUs around the GTX 480 era (nVidia was famously slammed for running hot, loud, and power-hungry) and has been trending in CPU architecture for a while now.
750W will be enough for the system as-is, but if you intend on configuring some sort of SLI/CrossFire setup, please post below and ask for our recommendations on whether you'll need a larger PSU or not. Rosewill's Capstone series PSUs have surprisingly high power efficiency and reasonable components across the board; modularity is a plus for cable management (and frankly expected at this price), active PFC is present, and the connectors are all fairly standard. An 80 Plus Gold certification ensures excellent power efficiency and a somewhat normal efficiency curve means our system will run at nearly peak efficiency with its current load-out.
If you feel like spending more money, NZXT has their Hale 90 V2 series PSUs available now (which we use in our official test bench), though they are expensive.
SSD & HDD
At this point it would be certifiably insane to ignore the relevance of SSDs - especially in a system of this price-point. Storage is the single, most atrocious bottleneck in the system, and with 32GB of volatile quad-channel memory for video processing/encoding, the next biggest throttle would be storage; writing a large file to NAND flash will far-and-away exceed the speed capabilities of a spindle disk drive.
OCZ's Vector drive performs incredibly well when used for heavy workload and video production environments with its high sustained read rate and bursted write speeds for large file transactions. 128GB or 256GB are both fine choices and will primarily come down to cost-benefit analysis on your end. Another option to consider would be 2x128GB drives in RAID 0, though obviously risk of volatility is present (so keep backups), but it will increment the read/write speeds nearly two-fold.
For the hard drive, we've opted for a simple, large storage 2TB Seagate drive. It's a low power-draw and should be a bit quieter than the faster drives of its make, but will serve well for storage of raw media and cutting room floor material. We'd suggest storing your editing software, streaming software, OS, and most important games on the SSD. If space permits, store video files (i.e. from a camera or Fraps) to the SSD pre-edit, render it out, then move them to archival storage on the HDD. This will speed up the rendering and editing processes significantly, especially if you like to run previews within editing software prior to render operations. The effect will be most notable when dealing with filters or other post-processing FX.
This is just a simple CD/DVD RW drive for your basic reading and writing purposes. Blu-ray readers are available for around $40 these days, so if you'd like the option to play Blu-ray media (but not burn it), post below and we can help you with recommendations. It is not necessary for this build, though.
Having just tested four liquid coolers this weekend -- the Kraken X40 & X60 and Corsair H90 & H110 -- I can comfortably recommend NZXT's Kraken X40 for a relatively quiet, tunable closed-liquid-cooling loop. It uses standard Asetek-supplied materials and cooled well on our bench (review to be published shortly) in a quiet enough fashion; this unit is reasonable for our overclocking intentions and should keep the volume below the annoyance threshold. Software controls allow fine-tuning of the cooler to determine noise and temperature thresholds.
NZXT's Switch 810 case faired well when we reviewed it on the bench -- it's large enough, solid, easily expanded, and is fitted with a large window for showing off the internals. Personally speaking, and I can't speak for all of GN, I do prefer a glass panel on my cases - ideally centered on the CPU cooler or VGAs; if you'd rather not see the internals and would prefer a 200mm+ fan in its stead, consider Rosewill's Thor V2, NZXT's Phantom 630, or high-end Corsair cases (the Corsair 650D, for example). The Phantom 820 is a damn nice case, but it's expensive -- do put it on your list of things to check out, though. We reviewed it here.
All this noted, the Switch 810 does exactly what we need it to do and will mount the CPU cooler comfortably in either the top or rear position. Additional liquid cooling can be purchased for the VGA and mounted elsewhere if desired.
Continue on for a discussion on streaming software recommendations, headset/mic options, and a brief overview of streaming software.
Other Game Streaming Software/Hardware Recommendations
A frustrating amount of research can go into setting up a proper recording and video production environment -- believe us, we know. Everything from selecting the best streaming mic/headset to capture-card selection or best live streaming software for gaming stands to further disorient start-ups.
Luckily, we've had hands-on time with a number of these products and can comfortably recommend solutions for the unique situations that present themselves to content producers. We'll kick off the ancillary section with peripherals.
Recommended Streaming / Gaming Headset
Different streams demand different audio recording capabilities, but for the soloist or someone who just prefers the psychological security provided by a pair of circumaural earphones, a headset is a must. Standalone mics (below) and speaker sets are also options, of course, but we recognize that not everyone wants that configuration.
Having gone through innumerable headsets in the past year from an equally innumerable count of companies, the entire team at GN strongly agrees that Plantronics' GameCom 780 headset has the best microphone quality and audio quality available on a gaming headset of its price-point. Hands-down. We originally used Razer's Carcharias headset for our video content, but were off-put by its (admittedly horrid) microphone quality. Since April of 2012, we've been using GameCom 780s for all video-cast content. The clarity speaks for itself -- here's a sample of what the mic sounds like, from our recent Neverwinter Online preview & gameplay video:
Pretty solid. Not bad for a headset mic, that's for sure. You could get a bit more clarity out of a studio-grade condenser microphone, but if a headset is what you want, this is where the buck stops. I got the stupidest grin when I heard the sound quality of games, too, though that's extremely subjective. Some of the Audio Technica headphones will put out a better kick for music, but again, this is for a gaming-class headset with a quality microphone, and headphone specifications for music are much different than those in gaming. It's different engineering and a non-linear comparison.
Recommended Streaming / Gaming Standalone Mic (Group Casting)
That's all great, but not everyone wants a headset.
For gaming shows, traveling content producers, live team/group broadcasts, and those who are often joined by commentators during a stream, we turn to MXL's 180-degree AC-404 standalone conference mic.
Conference room-style microphones are advantageous insofar as their discretion, portability, and surround input capabilities—and though they can't compete with a decent studio microphone for audio purity—conference mics do offer an affordable solution for startup game casts. The preeminent advantage of the AC-404 mic (and others like it) is one of portability and endurance: The mic feels like a solid block of metal, it's shielded well by a sturdy mesh, and doesn't have any phallange-like extrusions as would be found on mic-equipped headsets. We've never trusted our headsets to airport luggage given their fragility, and so lately we've been taking table-bound conference mics to most tradeshows for live broadcasting; they're easy to transport and can withstand the abuse sustained from being on the move, but also provide better quality than the stock mic found on your laptop.
Aside from remote broadcasting and hotel-based videocasts, conference mics make for an easier and cheaper alternative to configuring an aftermarket soundcard for dual-3.5mm audio input (two headsets simultaneously). If you're planning to be joined by friends for podcasts or gameplay streaming and don't want to be throttled by the quality limitations of a webcam mic, nor do you want each person to wear a headset (which gets expensive, becomes inefficient, and is generally awkward), a conference solution is likely to be the best all-around choice.
Speaking specifically to the AC-404 and why we're comfortable recommending it, MXL has a history of manufacturing studio-grade microphones for production environments (to include mics for vocalists) -- they know what they're doing, and it shows in the component selection of the products. MXL's AC-404 has a 180-degree coverage arc and above-average 40Hz - 16,000Hz input frequency response, so if you've got Michael Clarke Duncan's voice - perhaps deepened many times over - there's no need to worry about being picked up by the mic.
Not every atmosphere is suitable for a conference mic, of course. We wouldn't recommend conference mics like the AC-404 for environments that exhibit a lot of undesirable background noise (i.e. being on the actual show floor of a convention), but they work excellently in confined spaces, dedicated press rooms, and private environments. If you want something for the show floor -- and that's out-of-scope for this article -- we'd probably point you toward a standard reporter mic, boom, or lapel mic.
If you're the only caster and you won't be joined by others, but you also don't want a headset, look into standing condenser mics or omnidirectional studio mics instead; they'll yield higher-quality audio than the AC-404 (the nature of being built for someone sitting directly in front of it) and will cost roughly the same, maybe $30-$40 more for a mid-range mic.
Recommended Video Rendering, Streaming, & Encoding Software
Software is easily the most challenging aspect of any streaming configuration. It can be frustrating to learn the ins-and-outs of codecs and encoders, but the job is made easier with a well-supported, heavily-documented tool. We won't go into the deep details of configuration for this post (and there are many fantastic guides written by the providers of these tools), but we will point you toward some of the more common tools for the job.
For live streaming, specifically for streaming games/replays with some sort of overlay, XSplit is easily the most referenced commercial utility out there. There's a "basic" version for non-commercial broadcasts, but if you're planning to expand things or make money, you'll need the pro license. That's first-and-foremost. One of GN's resident streaming enthusiasts -- Francisco "DrGong" Fantl -- has commended XSplit for its straight-forward nature and handheld configuration, whereas open source competitors take a bit more understanding of codecs/encoding and may not have as immediate support. XSplit is equipped with overlay tools (so you could overlay a webcam stream on top of your game stream, like many SC2 pros do), is heavily optimized for multithreading, and supports most encoding standards (to include DivX and H.264, which is what we prefer).
OBS is one of the rising XSplit alternatives out there. OBS, or Open Broadcaster Software, is an open source (free in both versions of the word) software solution for video streaming and recording. The software is supported with an API that makes for easy plugin development by independent programmers and modders, so if you'd like to plug into the streaming utility for custom features, this makes that easy; the software is also marketed directly toward gamers, so we know it's been tested to appropriately handle the abnormally heavy workload placed upon it. OBS can also act as a Fraps replacer if you'd rather stick to one software solution (or if you'd like to record video with overlays and a custom layout), making it universal in its applications.
We haven't had as much hands-on time with OBS as with XSplit, but the project is new and extremely promising -- we're excited to see how it grows to accommodate community requests. Definitely give this one a try first, if only because it's free.
As with all of our articles, we find the technical aspects of the topic the most intriguing: It's not so complicated to just start livestreaming on most gaming-grade PCs, but to do so with professional-grade quality does require a bit of effort (and if you hope to go commercial, a bit of money). We're here to help aid the transition and support enthusiast endeavors when it comes to the hardware, and are happy to help with software / codec configurations as well, so please post questions in the comments below or on our forums.
If you're hoping to just stream gameplay as a casual hobby with a cheaper machine that's more standard for gaming, we'd recommend a Z77 chipset board with a 3770k or FX-8350 (and 990X or 990FX chipset). You'll have more difficulty with live encoding at high-settings/res and post-edit rendering will be slower, but if it's for hobby or friend-only purposes, the money saved is worth it. As far as getting into this sort of thing professionally, well, the above setup pretty much covers all the basics and introductory questions.
Please let us know if you have any questions about the content -- I'd be happy to explain things in further depth if there are specific questions.
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.