What is a software encoder?

A software encoder is, as the name suggests, a piece of software that performs the same task as a hardware encoder. While some people believe that using a software encoder provides inferior quality video when compared to a hardware encoder, I can tell you from personal experience that this isn’t necessarily true. It all comes down to the encoder software that you’re using. For example, Adobe’s Media Encoder CC has been shown to produce excellent results.
That said, software encoders are often cheaper than their hardware counterparts. They’re also easier to use, require less setup, and can be used with any standard computer. If you already have a fast computer that’s compatible with the software you want to use, then there’s no need to spend hundreds of dollars on a new machine.

Nowadays, most live streaming services use proprietary software for encoding and (usually) packaging the stream into an RTMP file. This is why you usually have to wait several minutes before you can start streaming to your viewers after going live on services such as Twitch.tv or YouTube.

What are the pros?

The main benefit of using software encoders is that they’re  cheaper than hardware encoders. Hardware encoders are expensive, difficult to set up, and (in the case of the more powerful ones) require a great deal of power, which can be difficult to find in the average home.

Multi-threaded software encoders, on the other hand, are easier to set up and can be run on a wider range of systems.

Software encoders are more than enough for beginners and can be run on a variety of devices, even smartphones. The processor in a modern smartphone is more than enough to encode in real time at 1080p with a bit rate of 5Mbps.

Some encoders can also take advantage of a technology called Intel Quick Sync to offload some of the workload to dedicated hardware on your computer’s processor.

This technology has been built into Intel processors for a few years now, and provides a boost in performance, without a huge increase in power consumption.

Because Quick Sync is proprietary technology from Intel, you’ll need an Intel processor to use it. 

What are the cons?

Software encoders are only as efficient as the hardware you run them on. They also require a degree of technical knowledge to configure and optimise to get the most of out of them.
They are also more dependent on the local internet connection quality as you can’t use a bonded connection with them unless the hardware you’re running on supports it.
Even the best spec computer is still vulnerable to impromptu system updates and viruses which there is zero tolerance for when you are due to go live any second.
If money is no object, software encoders are objectively inferior to hardware encoders. They are often the choice of the beginner or an individual with limited time or money to invest in hardware encoders.

what are the minimum device specifications?

The minimum required specifications for software live streaming encoders are as follows:
  • Streaming to a single platform (such as Twitch) requires a 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM.
  • If you want to stream to multiple services (such as Twitch and YouTube), 2GB of RAM is required.
  • If you want to stream online games a quad-core processor is recommended.

what are the top top 5 best options?

1. OBS Studio

OBS, or Open Broadcaster Software, is a free and open-source software for streaming and recording. It’s designed to be fully integrated with Xsplit, but it can also be used independently. OBS supports a wide range of configurations and has a simple user interface.

The Elgato Game Capture HD is a popular option that’s often recommended for Twitch streaming. You can also use the device to record your screen or stream directly to services like YouTube and Facebook.

As an added bonus, you can use the capture device with any other program you choose, like OBS or XSplit. That means you have the option of using OBS as your streaming software and still getting the quality benefits of a dedicated encoder.

The Cam Link is a little different from most other dedicated encoders in that it relies on your computer’s processing power to do the encoding. This can be good for streaming on the go, as you don’t need to lug around a laptop or computer to handle the encoding. It also has some downsides, though, like a resolution limit of 720p and a minimum system requirement of a quad-core CPU.

The Integrated Web Screen ENC is another option that you can use with OBS. It plugs into your computer’s USB port and allows you to stream through a server run by the manufacturer. This means you don’t need to worry about streaming software, but it also means you have less control over your stream and what appears in the player.

The NVENC option is only available through NVIDIA graphics cards, so this may be an option for PC gamers out there. It leverages the power of NVIDIA’s dedicated video encoding chip to encode your video in H.264 format.

This will result in a much higher quality output than you’d get with your computer’s CPU or GPU, but it isn’t free. You’ll need to buy an NVIDIA graphics card if you don’t already have one to take advantage of this option.

  • Supported Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
  • Supported Codecs: MPEG-2, MPEG-4 Part 2, H.264, HEVC
  • Supported Audio: AAC, MP3, Vorbis, AC-3, FLAC
  • Supported Video: VP8, VP9, AVC, JPEG
  • Multi-bitrate streaming, with support for adaptive bitrate streaming
  • Support for screen regions and chroma key (green screen) backgrounds
  • Plugin system for expanding functionality
  • Customizable scenes for frequently used configurations
  • Up to 4K 60FPS support with high-end hardware
  • As stated above, the primary issue with OBS is that it doesn’t have multi-bitrate streaming, which can make it difficult to maintain a quality stream.
  • Price: Free

Minimum specifications:

  • A 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM is required to run OBS. 2GB of RAM is required to stream using multi-bitrate encoding or higher.
  • Multi-view requires a 2GHz processor and 4GB of RAM.
  • OBS also requires a GPU that supports OpenGL 2.

2. XSplit

XSplit is a separate streaming and recording program that is designed to pair with OBS Studio. It has fewer features than OBS, but it does boast some useful tools and functionality.

XSplit is a great streaming program that’s easy to use. The downside is that you’ll be limited to using their in-house Encoding Service, which only supports up to 720p. If you want to do any higher-quality streaming, you’ll need to look at another program.

You can get around this by using a different program as your video encoder and using XSplit as your streaming software. This will let you use a program like OBS or NVENC while still making use of XSplit’s easy-to-use interface. If you want to get really fancy, you can even stream to Twitch using their new HTML5 player. 

  • Multi-bitrate streaming, which is useful for low-bandwidth connections or high-quality viewers.
  • Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
  • Encoding format: H.264
  • Price: Free
  • Multi-view, which allows you to stream to multiple services at once.
  • Encoding format: H
Minimum specifications:
  • Graphics card: GeForce GTX 460 or Radeon HD 4850
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 or AMD Athlon64 X2 4000+
  • RAM: 2048 MB
  • Sound card: DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • Operating system: Windows 7 or later
  • Internet connection: 256 kbps or higher
  • Wireless network adapter: 802.11 a/g router
  • Free hard drive space: 20 GB

3. Vmix

Vmix is among the most powerful software encoders that are popular among streamers. 

If you want to stream but don’t necessarily want all the extra work of setting up and learning a new piece of software, Vmix may be the tool for you.

It’s a simple streaming option that lets you broadcast straight to Twitch, but it also has some downsides.

Unlike most of the other streaming software out there, you’ll have very little customization options with Vmix. You’ll be working within their framework as opposed to building your own.

This makes the software very easy to use, but it also limits you in some ways.

You’ll need to host your own server if you want to get around the resolution limit, but this is a simple process and something you can do even if you aren’t very tech savvy.

The choice is ultimately up to you, but Vmix is a great option for anyone who wants something simple yet effective. 

  • Multi-view allows you to stream to multiple services at once.
  • Multi-bitrate encoding allows you to stream to a wide range of devices.
  • Platform: PC
  • Encoding format: H.264
  • Price: $200 one time fee with no recurring charges
  • Multi-platform, which is useful if you want to stream to a console.

Minimum specifications:

  • Graphic card: GeForce GTX 460 or Radeon HD 4850
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E4400 or AMD Athlon64 X2 4000+
  • RAM: 2048 MB
  • Sound card: DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • Operating system: Windows 7 or later
  • Internet connection: 256 kbps or higher
  • Wireless network adapter: 802.11 a/g router
  • Free hard drive space: 20 GB

4. Wirecast

Wirecast is another popular premium choice. You’ll need to get your own streaming server to use this software, but that is the only major restriction.

It’s also worth noting that the layout of the program can be a bit confusing at first, but you’ll get the hang of it after putting in some time with the software.

  • Multi-view allows you to stream to multiple services at once.
  • Multi-bitrate encoding allows you to stream to low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth users.
  • Platform: PC, Mac
  • Price: $799
  • Multi-channel video mixing 
  • Capture and combine multiple video sources into a single live video stream.
  • Multi-view video mixing 
  • Easily expand your on-air talent and production capabilities with multi-view mixing.
  • Multi-bitrate streaming
  • Deliver high and low bitrate streams to save bandwidth and device resources.

Minimum specifications:

  • CPU: 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • RAM: 2 GB
  • Graphics card: GeForce 8600 GT or Radeon HD 2600 XT
  • Sound card: DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • Operating system: Windows 7 or later
  • Free hard drive space: 1.8 GB

5. Shoflow Studio

Shoflow Studio is the best live streaming software for podcasters, YouTubers, and other online video personalities.

Showflow Studio is another good streaming option. It boasts a fairly easy setup and low CPU usage, which can be a real bonus if you’re on a computer with limited processing power.

It may not be as powerful as other options out there, but if you’re just looking for something simple to get started with, Showflow studio is worth a shot.
It’s also free, which is always a plus.
  • Shoflow has a powerful multi-streaming encoder that can be used with any website, not just YouTube. 
  • Multi-channel live video mixing 
  • Shoflow Studio allows you to mix together multiple video sources in real time.
  • Multi-bitrate encoding
  • Allows you to stream at multiple bitrates, which is useful for high-resolution and low-bandwidth users.
  • Price: $100 per year

Minimum specifications:

  • Graphic card: GeForce GTX 650 or Radeon HD 7790
  • CPU: Intel Core i3-2105 or AMD FX-6100
  • RAM: 8 GB
  • Sound card: DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • Operating system: Windows 7 or later
  • Free hard drive space: 1.2 GB 

Final Verdict

You can use any of the above software encoders for your live streaming, listed in order of recommendation
If you’re just starting out with live streaming, go for OBS or XSplit. They’re free, have the lowest hardware requirements and are easy to get up and running in a few minutes. Both also offer multi-platform support and natively connect to a wide range of streaming services, including YouTube, Facebook, Mixer, and Twitch.
If you’re looking for the best possible quality, a hardware encoder is your best bet.
This is because they offer higher quality at a fixed bitrate (as opposed to a software encoder, which can use more bandwidth when needed).
The downside is that you will need to buy a piece of dedicated streaming hardware, such as the Elgato HD60.
For most people, software encoders will be more than adequate because they’re convenient, customizable, and are much cheaper.