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Is Streaming CPU or GPU Intensive?

Have you ever started a stream only to discover your stream skipping or crashing while you stream? It could be your internet, but it could be your hardware as well. So, when upgrading your hardware, is CPU or GPU more critical for streaming?

Is Streaming CPU or GPU Intensive?

Streaming through software encoding is CPU intensive, where streaming through hardware encoding is more GPU intensive. Both streaming options offer benefits and drawbacks depending on the games you plan to stream as well as your computer budget. Still, hardware encoding is more common.

Read on to learn how CPU and GPU contribute to streaming and how each effect your streams.

Is It Better To Stream Using CPU or GPU?

If you can stream games using both CPU and GPU-based methods, which method yields the best results? As it turns out, whether you encode via CPU or GPU heavily affects the speed, detail, and performance of your stream. Still, the decision is not all that simple.

It’s better to stream using GPU if you plan to stream directly from your gaming computer; however, if you can afford a dual PC setup you can get formidable results through software encoding on a dual PC setup. This option is helpful for games that use a lot of processing power.

For streamers who can afford it, dual PC setups are ideal because they allow streamers to use one PC to run the stream and the other PC to run the game they are playing.

Most major streamers stream using a dual PC setup in order to achieve maximum quality on their streams. But as you could imagine this type of setup can be pricey.

Before moving forward, I should break down the differences between CPU and GPU in the first place. It will come in handy when I discuss software vs. hardware encoding.

CPU vs. GPU: What’s the Difference?

CPU, short for Central Processing Unit, is the task manager of your computer. This unit manages a broad spectrum of tasks across your PC at a fast rate. However, it’s limited in the number of calculations it can produce concurrently.

On the other hand, GPU, short for Graphics Processing Unit, can run repetitive calculations parallel to the main task running on the CPU.

In turn, the GPU often gets associated with video and images presented on your PC because of its ability to calculate and produce pictures quickly.

Additional uses for GPU include scientific computations related to machine learning, financial calculations, and risk modeling.

In other words, the CPU boasts more versatility and task management while the GPU runs high numbers of niche calculations. 

Your PC cannot function without the CPU since it is the brain of your computer. However, adding the GPU increases the productivity of the CPU because of its ability to take on more repetitive work.

CPU vs. GPU: Game Streaming and Encoding

Storing video footage on a computer or uploading it to the internet requires a process called encoding. Encoding takes the original video format and compresses it to as small a file as possible without sacrificing too much detail.

This compression allows the video to take up less storage space on your computer. Plus, compressing the video file will enable it to upload to the internet faster and decrease buffering time when played back online.

Furthermore, there are two ways to encode a video:

  • Software encoding solely uses the CPU to encode. Since the CPU makes highly accurate calculations, the resulting video quality is better. Unfortunately, this method is also relatively slow.
  • Hardware encoding still uses the CPU, but this method gives more responsibilities to the GPU. With the enhanced processing speed provided by the GPU, hardware encoding is much faster. Still, hardware encoding also results in less detailed images.

If you were encoding a prerecorded video, you could opt for software encoding as long as you were willing to sacrifice time. However, the circumstances of a live stream complicate this decision.

In this case, you need to reproduce and broadcast video in real-time so your viewers can keep up with you. Furthermore, your gaming computer needs to run the game so it remains playable.

Because of game streaming’s speed and processing requirements, most streamers opt for hardware encoding with GPU. However, this isn’t a catch-all solution.

Suppose you’re streaming a highly competitive, CPU-intensive game, like Starcraft II. In this case, even hardware encoding could affect game performance, making your gameplay less intuitive and your stream less enveloping. 

Instances like these benefit from a two-PC setup using software encoding. In this kind of setup, one PC handles gaming while the other handles streaming.

The video recorded on the gaming PC gets sent to the streaming PC via a high-quality capture card.

How Much CPU Usage Is Normal for Streaming?

Without GPU, one Intel core is an average amount of CPU usage for streaming. However, with the addition of GPU, this percentage decreases. For instance, a decent quality software-encoded stream would take 25% of a quad-core CPU. However, a hardware-encoded stream would only use 5% of the same CPU.

Game streaming uses CPU no matter which method of encoding you use. This detail means that correctly managing your CPU is vital. After all, you’re not only driving the live stream but the game itself at the same time.

So, if you need a better idea of how much CPU you need, let’s look at how a computer would manage its CPU when playing a game.

According to Game-Debate, most current-gen games require at least a quad-core processor to operate smoothly.

Considering that hardware-encoding only uses about 5% of the CPU, you can likely play and stream most current games with this setup.

However, these specs only pertain to streams running 1080p at 30 FPS. If you plan to stream at higher resolutions and frame rates, you will probably need more CPU.

What Are Recommended CPU Specs for Streaming?

So, now that you understand how streaming affects your computer, you must be wondering what you need for your PC build. In reality, different games will likely require unique specs for decent quality streaming. However, there are minimum requirements you can use as a guide.

The recommended CPU specs for streaming are, at minimum, an Intel Core i5-4670 or the AMD equivalent. Furthermore, you should have at least 8GB of RAM and a DirectX10 graphics card. Although, modern games will need a DirectX11 or DirectX12 card, and high internet connectivity is advised.

The specs above are courtesy of the tech website PCWorld. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all spec list for streaming. A lot of your setup will depend on what you plan to stream and at what quality.

On top of these requirements, you should know which GPU best compliments your CPU. For example, AMD GPU cannot encode well for streaming with an AMD CPU.

However, when paired with an Intel CPU, AMD GPU can better handle the job. 

NVIDIA GPU can work with AMD and Intel CPUs. However, you’ll get the most encoding options with an Intel CPU and NVIDIA GPU.

Also, a robust internet connection is another vital component, and Twitch recommends a bit rate of at least 3,000 kbps.

Although that requirement is only for streaming 30 FPS at 720p. As frame rate and resolution increase, the required bit rate rises as well. Optimal streaming specs require at least 6,000kbps.

For more info on how much data you will need for streaming check out my article here.

Streaming can become rather CPU intensive without the inclusion of GPU. Therefore, most streamers prefer hardware encoding with GPU to CPU-intensive software encoding. 

Still, there are exceptional cases when software encoding on a separate computer can improve your streaming experience.

At the minimum, your PC should have a quad-core processor with significant RAM. Furthermore, an internet bit rate of at least 3,000 kbps is required.

For even more streaming tips and how-to content check out my Youtube channel here. And if you want to check out my streams then stop by my Twitch channel here.


👋 Hey There, I'm Eric!

Since 2018, I've been making streams come true.

I like gaming, streaming and watching other people stream. I created this website to help streamers, viewers, and gamers answer questions they have regarding live streaming, gaming, and PCs. I am a Twitch affiliate and currently stream on Twitch 3 days a week. I also have a Youtube channel where I make videos about streaming. I hope you find my content helpful. Feel free to stop by one of my streams to say hi.