Seeking out a new hobby is always a great way to put your free time to good use. While it’s important to relax and do nothing from time to time, it’s also important to fill your days, and therefore your life, with fulfilling activities that you enjoy.
Recent years have seen a huge boom in one such hobby — livestreaming. While commonly associated with videogames, livestreaming content can be anything from makeup tutorials to ‘Just Chatting’ streams where you speak to a live and interactive audience about specific topics.
People begin streaming for many different reasons. You may want to show off particular skills like speedrunning and glitch exhibitions, or maybe you want to perform tasks or provide tutorials in an environment that encourages live questions.
Whatever your reason for starting to stream, you’re going to need to find the best streaming software before you really get off the ground. If you’re a complete beginner to live streaming content, you may be surprised to learn that it’s not as easy as pointing a camera at yourself and pressing Go.
What Does Streaming Software Do?
While most streaming platforms allow you to stream directly from the sites themselves, this is akin to ignoring all the ice cream flavors available and instead opting for the water in which they clean the spoon.
Streaming software provides customizable overlays, live notification alerts, sound effects, and many other features that make your streams livelier and more animated. These features help to get and maintain viewership, which is especially important if you’re looking to turn livestreaming into a source of income.
Regardless of why you’ve chosen to start streaming, there will always be the opportunity for monetization if you’re popular enough, so you’re going to need to pick the best streaming software available to you. We’re going to look at some of these, from free to paid, to help you get a good idea of what direction you want to take your new outlet.
What to Look for in Streaming Software
Not all streaming software is created equal, and many newcomers to the world of livestreaming find themselves unsure of what they’re doing. Picking from a list without knowing why could mean the difference between a professional-looking stream and a stunted mess.
Because of this, it’s important to keep these simple things in mind when perusing your potential software.
While reliability is important for any software, it is especially important when choosing your streaming software.
Because you’ll be using this software live and online; crashes, glitches, or slow performances will make viewers turn away, and comes across as unprofessional.
Of course, no software is perfect, and problems will occur no matter how sure you are of your software and internet stability. But ensuring your streaming software is generally reliable will help you avoid problems from which less professionally coded options suffer.
While livestreaming services like Twitch are popular enough to be compatible with most software, smaller or lesser-known streaming platforms like Vimeo and DaCast may not be compatible with your preferred software.
While screen recording is common in most streaming software, compatibility issues will become apparent in a livestream, and that can affect how you appear to your audience.
As well as ensuring your chosen software works well with your streaming platform, you’ll also need to take your computer’s compatibility into account. While most programs these days work with a lot of the most popular operating systems, those that are designed with one or two in mind may not be as reliable as they could be if used elsewhere.
Streamlabs runs into problems with Windows updates, for example, and popular streaming software vMix will be useless to you if you’re using a Mac.
Ease of Use
If, like me, you were watching streamers for a while before deciding to give it a whirl yourself, you’re probably thinking that there’s no way you can pull off the kinds of things they can.
Overlays, screen transitions, camera, and chat placement, and alerts are all features that each streamer seems to have customized to perfection looks like an art form that would be impossible for a beginner to replicate.
Some streaming software is more complex than others, and many are designed for people who seem to know what they’re doing. Going for such software as a newbie will feel overwhelming and could even scare you off streaming entirely.
But don’t be discouraged! When I first started streaming, I found myself spending quite a few enjoyable hours deciding how I wanted my stream to look and sound, and I was a total newcomer at the time.
Looking into how beginner-friendly streaming software is could mean the difference between a great stream you’re really proud of, and an endless uncertainty that will likely be noticeable to your viewers.
Best Free Streaming Software
As is the case with most software, a lot of the more advanced features found in streaming software do come with a price tag. But that’s not to say that free streaming software isn’t worth your time, especially if you’re completely new to the world of live streaming and aren’t sure what kinds of features you need.
Be advised, however, that while the base software is free, many of the following do have optional paid features.
Beginning with what is probably the best-known streaming software around, OBS Studio is a very popular streaming software for both casual and professional streamers, especially due to its compatibility with Twitch software.
OBS (short for Open Broadcaster Software) is a screen recorder as well as streaming software, this means that you can record content on it whether you’re live or not.
This feature is very handy for those of you who would like to also upload videos to platforms like YouTube and DailyMotion, which OBS Studio can connect to directly. The ability to automatically record and save your livestreams is especially useful since platforms like Twitch tend to delete unarchived broadcasts after a month or two.
As useful as OBS is, it’s not the most beginner-friendly of streaming software choices. With little by way of a tutorial, newcomers may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices and features available, and may not even recognize half the words.
I myself tried to use OBS when I first started streaming and found myself looking elsewhere as I was unfamiliar with many of the terms. My more experienced friends, however, swear by it, and happily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of extra searching to learn how to effectively use it to stream.
My personal pick for the best free streaming software is Streamlabs. It functions very similarly to OBS, but is a lot more beginner-friendly and easier to use, though at the cost of some more complex features that dedicated streaming professionals may not want to do without.
Streamlabs allows you to create your own overlay from the get-go. This overlay will decide how your stream looks to your viewers. The software is loaded with presets made by both the company and other users that are free for you to take, modify, and customize.
I myself have had a lot of compliments about my overlay, even though I must admit I did very little to make it my own. As someone who approached Streamlabs as a complete beginner to both livestreaming, Twitch, and streaming software in general, I found these customizations extremely easy.
Within a couple of hours, I had my overlay set up and my volume settings to a good level. From there, I connected Streamlabs to my Twitch account and was ready to start streaming.
Streamlabs communicates with its website, where you can design your own custom overlays from scratch, and set up alerts for donations, followers, subscribers, and many other Twitch features with only a GIF and a sound effect uploaded from your PC.
Many streamers, however, will argue that Streamlabs isn’t reliable enough when compared to other streaming software. Windows 10 updates in particular tend to mess with settings and I’ve found myself having to look up fixes for sound issues and alerts failing to play.
All in all, I love Streamlabs, and will be personally using it for a long time to come.
XSplit Broadcaster Software
XSplit is something of a cross between standard livestreaming software and Zoom. It incorporates background customization, free community-made overlays, and screen recording and broadcasting, all in software compatible with Discord, Twitch, and Zoom amongst others.
Like Streamlabs, it’s beginner-friendly and has a very intuitive interface, making it ideal for newcomers. The downside to this, however, is that XSplit wasn’t designed with only streaming in mind, so it doesn’t offer Twitch- or livestream-specific features in quite as much detail as other streaming software.
XSplit is praised for its compatibility with older machines, with many users complimenting its high performance without overloading or slowing down their computers.
For gaming, it’s a great way to inject more personality into your streams with the extensive library of backgrounds that are free to use. These backgrounds are quite set, however, and the customization options are limited.
That’s not to say that XSplit isn’t still ideal for streaming on platforms like Twitch, and stream tags, titles, and alert settings are all still included and easy to set up for yourself.
XSplit also benefits from a community-based support system. Many other users are on hand for questions or discussions on how to get the best streaming experience from this limited but impressive software.
Best Paid Streaming Software
While the best free streaming software choices offer great features that are all necessary for getting your first streams up and running, there are some great examples of paid streaming software that provide extra support and options to perfect your performance.
Most beginners will opt for free streaming software at the beginning, but if you’re looking for an upgrade that you don’t mind paying for, then take a look at these two picks for the best paid streaming software available.
vMix is a Windows-only streaming software that many streamers will tell you is worth paying for due to its incredible versatility and performance.
Allowing for HD streams that don’t put too much pressure on your PC, vMix has been compared to professional broadcasts and can be used for anything from Twitch streaming to live remote performances like those seen in sporting events, Fringe festivals, and community projects like plays.
For those of you with especially limited hardware, vMix does allow you to stream in standard definition if you need. Though it is capable of streaming live content in 1080p and even 4K definition, meaning combining it with the right hardware could have you competing with even the highest budgeted television performances.
vMix isn’t designed solely for Twitch, and is compatible with Facebook Live, YouTube, and many other streaming platforms. With the right setup, you can even stream to each of your chosen services simultaneously, expanding your reach and furthering your streaming career.
vMix’s price depends entirely on the services you require from it. While it can cost as little as $60, you will need to pay upwards of $1200 as a one-time fee if you want to stream in 4K.
They also offer a ‘Maximum Package’, which costs only $50 a month and gives you access to every feature and all definition options. On top of this, vMix offers a 60-day free trial, which means that even as a beginner, you can give vMix an in-depth test run before deciding whether or not to break out your wallet.
Formerly known as Ustream Producer, Telestream Wirecast is designed for those who want to add a level of professional production quality to their streams. This includes creating and implementing scene transitions, intros and outros, and personalized theme music like those you’d see in a TV program or YouTube show.
While this may not seem like usual things for the average gaming streamer to use, those of you looking to create a podcast, tutorial show, or dramatized series with your streaming channels will find these services indispensable.
Making personalized intros and outros add to your brand and make you more recognizable, adding to viewership and giving your viewers a professional experience.
Wirecast is on the more expensive end of the paid software line, however, and starts at $599 for the most basic features, and $799 for full access to their services, which includes instant replays, round the clock customer support, and 7 remote guest compatibility for podcasts and interviews.