Transitions, custom logos, well mixed audio, high resolution – all of these can make the difference between a clearly amateur stream and a professional-quality production. Thankfully, the software you need to create a great looking stream doesn't have to be expensive – and some of the best is free.
It can be tricky to pick the right free streaming software for you. Streaming is a growing market, and developers are fighting for your attention with claims of better performance, ease of use and quick setup – so how you do choose?
Some of the key features to look out for are supported platforms, choice of input sources, user support, and supported games (some streaming apps make you choose from a list of titles, while others let you record anything).
With that in mind, here's our pick of the best free streaming software you can download today.
1. OBS Studio
You won't find a more powerful free streaming tool for any platform
Open source, powerful and flexible, OBS Studio is easily our top pick when it comes to free streaming software. It's available for Windows, Mac and Linux, and receives regular updates from an enthusiastic team of contributors.
It has something of a reputation for being complicated to set up, but if you're only interested in simple streaming then there's no need to plunge into the more sophisticated capture settings.
If you do want more granular control, it's all there. You can create scenes from multiple sources (windows, images, text, webcams, capture cards – the list goes on), mix audio and adjust pretty much every aspect of your streams. The options are extensive, but clearly laid out and explained.
OBS Studio can stream straight to Twitch, YouTube, Mixer, Facebook and many other platforms – a much wider range than you'll find in other streaming software. It's even possible to stream to multiple platforms at once.
OBS Studio is also our top pick if you're looking for a top quality free screen recorder. Other tools might be simpler, but whether you want to capture games or anything else on your desktop, you won't find a more flexible tool for the job.
A friendlier face for OBS Studio, but there's little to differentiate it otherwise
As the name suggests, Streamlabs OBS is built on the same foundation as OBS Studio, putting a friendlier face on the powerful streaming software. Streamlabs offers claims to offer improved performance via automatic optimization, though the difference in our tests was negligible.
Its cleaner interface makes Streamlabs a reasonable choice for first-time streamers, but if you're already happy using OBS Studio, there's little advantage in switching. It's currently in beta, so it'll be interesting to see if it diverges further from OBS Studio in the future, but for the moment there's little difference between the two.
It's worth noting that Streamlabs currently lacks a studio mode – a feature that came to OBS Studio two years ago. It's an advanced tool that many users won't miss, but worth bearing in mind.
Not up to OBS's standards yet, but worth a look if you're new to streaming
Bebo is a new kid on the streaming block, and is still very much a work in progress. It's pitched as a direct competitor to OBS Studio that differentiates itself by its lower system requirements, meaning less impact on in-game performance
It has fewer features than OBS, but depending on your requirements, that might count in its favor – its interface is simpler and less intimidating for new users. Bebo also scores points for its support, with live chat available in-app 24/7.
Some users will feel the effects of its more streamlined approach more than others. You can only stream to Twitch, not Facebook or YouTube, and you can only pick from a list of supported titles. The catalog of supported titles is pretty extensive, but with OBS you can stream any full-screen game you like.
If you're new to streaming, we recommend giving both Bebo and OBS a try and seeing which suits you best.
The game, the whole game and nothing but the game
If you have a GeForce graphics card, Nvidia Shadowplay is bundled along with the drivers. It has a major advantage over most streaming software: it encodes in the GPU rather than the CPU, meaning it has negligible impact on performance, but it's far less flexible than OBS Studio. There are no overlays or multi-sources scenes – just the game itself.
If you're only interested in streaming gameplay then Nvidia Shadowplay will get the job done, but if you want to create something more sophisticated then you'll be better off with OBS – particularly since you can set OBS to use Nvidia's NVENC encoding.
Shadowplay's video recording and screengrab tools are excellent, but streaming isn't its strongest suit.
Excellent quality software, but premium features come at a steep price
Unlike most of the free streaming software in this roundup, Xsplit Gamecaster is a free, cut-down version of a premium application. As such, it looks sleeker and benefits from premium support online, but several features are locked behind a paywall.
Gamecaster is a game-specific version of Xsplit Broadcaster, with a more streamlined interface. It supports streaming to Twitch, YouTube Live and Facebook Live, and is incredibly easy to use – just start your game and hit a keyboard shortcut to bring up the overlay and begin streaming.
The biggest drawback is that streams at 720px or higher will carry an Xsplit watermark – not ideal if you want your stream to look professional. You'll also have to open your wallet if you want chromakeying (green screen), in-game Twitch chat, console support via a capture card and custom logos. Commercial use also requires a license.
Prices start at US$4.17 (about £3/AU$5) per month for a 36-month license, through to US$199 (about £150/AU$250) for a lifetime license.