How to Set Up a Video Streaming System for Less Than $450

How to Set Up a Video Streaming System for Less Than $450This 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.

Hardware

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.

Software

Other than WebcamMax, the only Windows software I’d recommend using is a browser. There are some alternatives out there, but this is the closest one I’ve found to CamTwist for OS X.

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.

There are more expensive solutions out there like Wirecast and XSplit which can give you a wide range of features to help make your live stream shine.

Final Thoughts

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.

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.

  • Anthony Schulz

    Honestly building a system for about $450 dollars is fine. You could possibly build the streaming server for cheaper. By asking friends/family if they possibly have older computers, therefore you could get them free or cheap. Now for the keyboard and mouse, instead of purchasing these input devices why not use your existing devices to setup the system. Then run it using services such as SSH, VNC and other methods of creating a headless system. Now finally for the software, use some sort of linux distribution. I personally am comfortable with Fedora and CentOS which, are heavily based off Redhat linux, therefore they provide good security. Another recommendation for hardware is trying places that sell off lease PCs, for instance tiger direct. prices range from $126 dollars to about $1000 depending on what you want. In some cases they come with input devices such as keyboard and mouse if necessary. I currently run a sftp/ssh Dell Optiplex G270 which serves as my personal file server/external link to my home network.

    • https://plus.google.com/112301869379652563135/posts Ryan Matthew Pierson

      Good tips. I did mention VNC in the article as a solution for getting rid of the monitor. I tried Linux Mint, but webcam drivers just didn’t work out well enough. Any tips?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bharatkumargupta Bharat Kumar Gupta

    this is very nice, i would like to buy this pc anyday, nice specs too!

  • http://twitter.com/JoshuaNoyce Joshua Noyce

    I actually use an ipod touch that is docked on an ihome. I then stream out to ustream.tv via the ios ustream broadcaster app. This stream runs around 24/7. My router is old and fails often. I need a new one