This past weekend, I decided to try something I had only dabbled in before: setting up a 24/7 video streaming system. This dedicated computer streams video from my webcam, filtered through WebcamMax, and sends it directly to Ustream. The experiment came with a few rules. I had a very limited budget (around $400 in total material costs) and it needed to deliver exceptional video quality and consistent performance.
To my surprise, I was able to secure a Windows computer, webcam, extension USB cable, keyboard, mouse, and monitor for under $400. Here’s how I did it, and a few alternative strategies you can take with your project.
- Dell Optiplex 760 Workstation ($250)
- Core 2 Duo 3.00 GHz Processor (E8400)
- 2 GB DDR RAM
- Windows 7 64-bit
- Logitech C920 HD Webcam ($70)
- A4Tech KL-5 Slim Keyboard ($15)
- Microsoft Mouse ($12)
- Used Monitor (Free – $50)
- WebcamMax ($25)
Choosing the Right Computer
The workstation is actually overpowered for what I’m using it for. You can get away with an old system sporting a Pentium D for perhaps even $100 less. With a 3.0 GHz Core 2 Duo, I’m able to run the stream, music software, and WebcamMax at a steady 20% CPU with no visible stutter or lag.
You can even use a low-powered nettop box such as the Lenovo Q180, though that one will run you just over $300. Atom processors aren’t the most powerful things in the world, but I’ve successfully streamed from them on Ustream and Justin.TV with minimal issues.
Choosing the right computer means finding out what your needs are first. Are you streaming in HD? Will you require more than just a browser and webcam software running to get the job done? If you’re considering streaming your screen in addition to your webcam, you might find the demands this places on some older hardware are significantly greater. The setup I outlined above handled screen sharing and webcam streaming at SD just fine, with plenty of CPU overhead to spare. Additionally, I believe it could easily handle 480p or 720p HD video, though it may be more unstable in moments where a lot of activity is happening on the picture.
Keyboard and Mouse
Your keyboard and mouse choices should be extremely frugal. You can find keyboards and mice for less than $5 a piece these days, especially at good discount refurb stores. Remember, the only thing you really need these devices to do is occasionally interact with your streaming system. You can even borrow the keyboard and mouse from your primary desktop to get it done if need be.
I am a fan of wireless all-in-one keyboard/mouse solutions such as the Lenovo Multimedia Remote with Keyboard. These little gems allow you to control your streaming system, even when it sits across the room from you. I’ve even worked with someone who opted to install a remote desktop client to control the streaming system from their primary desktop. This type of software can add to the overhead of your machine, but not as much as you might think. Ultra VNC is a popular solution.
Choosing the Right Webcam
Logitech makes terrible software. That is a given, but it doesn’t mean you should feel stuck using Logitech drivers to take advantage of the truly impressive and cost-efficient hardware Logitech produces. I’m running a C910, which is capable of HD video, though I’m only really using it at 320p. The drivers I’m using are baked right in to Windows 7, so I don’t have to look at a single Logitech application at all.
Microsoft makes some great webcams as well. Though not consistently as powerful as their Logitech counterparts, I know quite a few people who swear by Microsoft’s hardware.
You can use a camcorder as a webcam, though this isn’t exactly a budget solution for many. Still, it is a possibility given your camcorder and computer have the right components.
Most streaming services out there allow you stream directly from your browser without any monetary investment required on your part. You can use Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder to direct a video stream to services such as YouTube Live, though it isn’t always necessary.
Having a live stream doesn’t require a large investment. Many of you reading this probably already have the hardware you need sitting in your closet. Live streams have been going on for quite a long time now, and the demands of streaming software haven’t increased greatly as far as SD video goes. It isn’t until you hit HD that you really need to consider what kind of hardware you’re working with.
As long as your CPU load doesn’t get over 80% during the stream, you should be fine. Keep windows with video in them minimized as often as possible. This will drive your CPU load down even further. An optimal CPU load should maintain at between 15-40%.
Whether you’re hosting a camera over your shoulder or sharing your screen with the world, it doesn’t take a fortune to produce a live stream from the comfort of your home. Why not give it a try?
You can see the results for yourself by visiting Live.Pirillo.com and clicking on my live stream. Chris Pirillo’s stream has been running nearly non-stop for years and is currently being run on a Mac mini through CamTwist and an HD camcorder.
Do you host a live video stream? Tell us about it in the comments below, and share your hardware/software configuration.