Intro

Streaming software is the workhorse of a booming industry. Internet video streaming accounts for more than half of global internet traffic, and it continues to grow. With new streaming services showing up all the time — every social network has one now — sifting through the options and picking the best streaming software becomes difficult.

At Restream, we don’t want live streaming to be difficult. So we made this guide to demystify live streaming software and help you choose the best one.

🤓 Understanding the essential streaming setup

Before you’re able to decide on the best streaming software, you should know what makes up an average live streaming setup. Some variations are permitted, but the fundamental structure is rigid:

  1. An audio/video source — to provide material for the stream
  2. A capture card — to connect a non-USB camera to your computer
  3. An encoder — to package the input and send it to a platform, website, or network
  4. A stable internet connection — to transfer data to the destination
  5. A streaming service  — to act as the destination and provide output

This five-piece streaming setup has the basics of an online broadcasting system that you can develop at home or work. Streaming software is part of the setup, too — it’s an option for encoding data. Let’s take a closer look at encoding and why it’s so important.

🤔 What is live streaming encoding software?

When you turn your camera on, everything captured needs to be “packaged” in a more practical format. Generally, you want enough compression of the data to make it transferable via a connection with reasonable upload speeds. Also, the streaming platform (such as Facebook, Twitch, or YouTube) should support the encoding method.

This process takes place in the encoder — the liaison between the input and the output. Encoders come in two forms:

  • Hardware encoders are robust devices that encode video predictably and reliably well. They’re pricey, however, and they’re a one-trick pony — encoding is all they do.
  • Software encoders are programs that depend on the computer’s hardware to do the encoding. Some software encoders are free to use. They have features that allow you to  do switching, scene creation, and multi-camera setups.

Unless you’re a professional content producer, publisher, or someone with money to burn, you’ll most likely rely on a software encoder. Any broadcasting software you choose should take care of your basic encoding needs. But encoding isn’t the only thing you should search for when scouting out the best streaming software.

🙌 The main characteristics of live streaming software to consider

Most popular streaming software options have a few things in common. For example, you would have to look very hard to find a solution with no support for H.264 encoding, the most widespread video encoding standard in use today.

But there’s a lot that sets different streaming solutions apart. If you’re adamant about finding the best streaming software, look for a few main characteristics, such as:

  • Possible compatibility issues. Most stream ingestion happens over RTMP, or the Real Time Multimedia Protocol. You’ll be able to use most live streaming software with social networks and streaming websites. But if you’re using alternative content delivery networks, check the streaming software for server ingest compatibility issues.
  • Advanced or additional features. Live-streaming software comes in tiers, with different levels of complexity and features. You might fall in love with a solution only to learn that it doesn't meet your needs. Scope these features out before committing to one software.
  • Pricing. Some streaming software is freeware. In fact, the most popular solutions are available for no charge at all. Keep in mind, however, that some for-pay improvements in quality can go a long way in making your live stream more appealing.

Looking at these three characteristics will help you eliminate the streaming software solutions you absolutely cannot use. If they’re not in your price range, don’t support the platforms you use, or lack crucial features, then you shouldn’t use them.

Read Next: Fun Things to Do on a Live Stream 📍

🔥 The best streaming software in 2021

Good live streaming software should match most of your criteria and perform the core tasks you require. Great live streaming software gives you the tools to take your live streaming to a whole new level — if you’re willing to put some time and money into it.

The solutions on our list are some of the biggest players in the live streaming software market in 2021. They offer mixes of features, functionalities, and price points, and you’ll likely find a good fit with at least one of them.

1. OBS Studio

The Open Broadcaster Software Studio is like a gateway software for those new to live streaming. It’s free and compatible with a variety of platforms, including Windows, Mac, and Linux. You can also customize OBS as much as you like.

On the downside, OBS Studio is open-source, which means it offers no official support. There is a large and engaged community that can help you out instead, but that’s not the best solution for everyone.

2. Streamlabs OBS

The Streamlabs version of OBS, also known as SLOBS, performs like a more user-friendly version of OBS Studio. SLOBS is also free, offers support, and comes with features that make it especially attractive to gaming streamers.

But not everything’s gravy in the SLOBS camp. For example, the platform you want to stream to may not come with native support in SLOBS. Also, be prepared for the occasional bug.

3. XSplit

As you progress towards professional, high-end live streaming software solutions, XSplit is a common steppingstone. It’s easy to use, comes in basic (free) and premium versions, and offers decent support and the occasional feature update. You can also use third-party apps and plugins with it.

Even though XSplit is easy to use, you will need to have some knowledge about encoding, because it doesn’t come with presets. You can forget about using it on Mac or Linux systems, and you have to shell out some serious cash for the paid version to avoid watermarks and locked features.

4. vMix

vMix is a good option for pro streamers, but it does come with a basic, free plan. If 4k live streaming is what you’re after, vMix is a sound choice. It comes packed with many advanced features, provides great support, and is available at several pricing points, making it easy to upgrade according to your needs.

If your needs include live streaming from a Mac, however, vMix will be of no help to you — it’s only available on Windows systems. It’s also a drain on system resources, which is not surprising from professional-grade streaming software. vMix also has the biggest price tag on this list.

🦑 Multistream using encoding software

A great way to reach a bigger audience is to multistream, or live stream to more than one platform at the same time. You can easily multistream to as many platforms as you like via Restream, thanks to the following features:

  • Support for over 30 top platforms, covering the global networks, as well as the regional and niche ones. Streaming to YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Twitch, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more is as easy as logging into your account.
  • Easy to set up and use. You don’t need to download or install anything. Restream has an intuitive interface that makes adding channels a breeze.
  • It works with your encoding software, so if your encoder doesn’t have native support for a platform, Restream probably does.
  • It’s freemium. You get most of the features for free, but when it’s time to upgrade, Restream will have options for you.
  • It works on Windows and Mac. You can use Restream with any computer you have without investing in additional software or hardware.

All you have to do is connect your streaming channels (YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, etc.) to Restream, then connect Restream to your encoding software.

Learn how to connect your favorite live streaming platforms to Restream by reading our support articles:

And read how to connect some of the most popular encoders to Restream:

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👀 Do you really need an encoder to live stream?

Encoding software may only be essential when you need to have full control over your live streams. Nowadays, you can start live streaming by simply clicking a single button in your browser, using Restream Studio. In addition to multistreaming, Restream’s Live Studio lets you go live from your web browser — no encoder needed. It has tons of customizable features as well, so you can create professional broadcasts over multiple platforms in a matter of seconds.

Restream Studio’s arsenal of professional live streaming tools includes:

👉 Learn more about getting started with Restream Studio in our full guide to Restream Studio.

Conclusion

On your way to becoming a live streamer, you’ll have to go through the process of selecting the best streaming software for your needs. Even though your software of choice might change over time, it’s important to think carefully about the first one you choose so you can get off to a good start.

Understanding the key components of streaming software is crucial, including learning about the entire streaming setup and finding ways to expand your software’s functionality. Restream helps you get even more from every minute you spend streaming by letting you broadcast to a wider audience. That’s as important a feat as any in today’s crowded streaming landscape.