These days, anyone with access to a smartphone can connect with fans and friends from all over the world. However, the more complex your stream, the more gear you’ll likely need. Each set up has advantages and disadvantages, and each can be customized to suit your specific needs.

Let’s take a look at the best live streaming tools in several categories. Then, we’ll talk about how these pieces come together in a complete live streaming setup.

The Editors’ Choice award recognizes exceptional video production equipment, software and services. These products must help videographers be more effective storytellers while being affordable, easy to use and dependable. The products must also deliver a superior user experience.

Best streaming software

Streamlabs OBS

Streamlabs OBS is a free streaming app built on the opensource OBS (Open Broadcast Systems) app. The software provides a streamlined user interface and claims to have the fastest set-up process on the market. The all-in-one application is designed to make streaming simple, and it comes with built-in tools that will be especially helpful for streamers looking to build a consistent audience on platforms like Twitch or YouTube. These include tools for engagement, growth and monetization. Streamlabs also offers a mobile app, allowing users to access Streamlabs tools while streaming from a mobile device.

While some larger live productions may run into limitations with Streamlabs OBS, it’s accessibility and ease of use bump it up to the top of our list.

Best switcher

Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro

The Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro is a live production switcher that allows for direct streaming via its Ethernet connection. The new Pro version retains all of the features found on the original ATEM Mini. However, it sports a few new extra features for recording, streaming and monitoring. Most notable, the ATEM Mini Pro allows you to switch and stream up to four HDMI inputs directly to platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. Or, you can connect to a computer via USB to use the ATEM Mini Pro as a webcam input.

Each of the ATEM Mini Pro’s four HDMI inputs features its own dedicated standards converter. This means that the device will automatically convert 1080p, 1080i and 720p sources to the video standard of the switcher. There’s also added support for recording to USB flash disks in H.264 and recording to multiple disks. This should allow streamers to continuously record their streams without running out of storage space. Also, the new model features a multiview on the HDMI video output. That allows all inputs to be monitored on a single monitor, along with the live status of recording, streaming and the audio mixer.

However, if you don’t need the stream encoding capability, consider the ATEM Mini, priced at $295.

Best I/O device

The Blackmagic DeckLink Quad HDMI Recorder is a PCIe card that adds four HDMI 2.0b inputs to your PC. These sources can include any combination of SD, HD, Ultra HD, 4K and even computer formats. The card is designed for software live switching between cameras and other video sources, real-time computer game capture and live streaming. In addition to its four HDMI inputs, the card supports eight audio channels embedded in SD/HD/UHD/4K. It uses the PCI Express 8 lane generation 3 interface and is compatible with 8 and 16 lane PCI Express slots.

If you just need to add more camera inputs to your computer-based streaming setup, this is a good choice.

Best live streaming encoder

Datavideo NVS-33 H.264 Video Streaming Encoder and MP4 Recorder

The Datavideo NVS-33 allows you to stream HD or SD video directly to the platform of your choice. This live streaming encoder and recorder can encode incoming video to H.264 in real-time for live streaming while simultaneously recording to an SD card. That means you can easily save each stream for archive or later upload. The web-based user interface allows users to configure settings and upgrade firmware.

The NVS-33 accepts video with embedded audio from SDI or HDMI sources, but it also offers a dedicated L-R RCA audio input. On the front, you’ll find the status LEDs, power switch, and an SD card slot. Cards formatted with FAT, exFAT, or NTFS file systems are all accepted.

The device also offers scaling and deinterlacing for any video input. To preserve video quality, this processing is done during pre-encoding.

Because of its simplicity, recording functionality and reasonable price, the Datavideo NVS-33 is a good choice if you need a standalone live streaming encoder.

Best streaming box

NewTek TriCaster Mini Advanced HD-4

The NewTek TriCaster Mini Advanced HD-4 provides everything you need to conduct a pro-level live stream at a reasonable price. This is a good choice if you want a stand-alone, turn-key solution for multicamera live stream production.

With the TriCaster Mini, you can stream directly your platform of choice, with presets for popular platforms includes Facebook and YouTube. The TriCaster Mini also comes with a 750GB internal hard drive and can record up to four simultaneous video input or output signals at full resolution. You can also record to external drives via USB 3.0.

This streaming solution allows you to switch between four HDMI or eight NDI video sources. Additionally, you can mix audio, and add titles and graphics. There are also built-in tools for effects like virtual sets and animated transitions. Two HDMI outputs allow for sending the Program output to external devices or monitoring the multiview output and user interface.

The setup includes a wireless keyboard and mouse. Or, you can also add the optional TriCaster Mini Control Panel with T-bar and illuminated buttons.

Essential live streaming gear

There are many paths to a successful live stream. Let’s break down each component to see how it fits into the overall setup.

The foundation

First of all, whether you’re streaming from your phone or a dedicated live streaming system, you’ll need a reliable internet connection. The bandwidth requirements will vary based on resolution, frame rate, encoding method and scene complexity, but most standard hardwire or cellular connection will be enough to support some level of streaming. You may need to experiment to see what your connection can support.

While a smartphone provides an all-in-one solution, it’s likely you’ll eventually want more flexibility.

Next, you’ll need to decide how you will get the camera signal or signals streaming to your destination of choice. With a built-in camera and network connectivity, the modern phone is an all in one device perfect for live streaming. You can take it with you and stream anywhere you have an internet connection and most streaming platforms make it easy to stream through their mobile app. But while a smartphone provides an all-in-one solution, it’s likely you’ll eventually want more flexibility.

Streaming with a computer

If you choose to stream from a computer, you’ll also need appropriate live streaming software in order to send your video and audio to the web. It’s the job of your streaming software to manage your video and audio inputs, encode them to the proper specs and then send your stream to the streaming server according to the correct protocol. Options range from simple and free to complex and extremely expensive. Choose the right option for you based on the complexity of your stream and its destination. 

Bringing your camera feed into your computer

A capable computer and the right streaming software are really all you need to start streaming. You can stream gameplay and other screen-based activities to the web without any additional hardware, but you won’t be able to show your viewers anything else. If you want to appear on screen as a host, you’ll need some kind of camera.

When it comes to camera choice you have a few different options. The most convenient cameras to use for a live stream are USB webcams or the built-in camera on your computer. Most live streaming platforms and software will identify these cameras without any issues, making them easy to set up. However, they provide mediocre video quality and are more limited in terms of placement and camera movement.

If you want the absolute best quality and the most control, you’ll want to use a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera. But connecting your camera to your computer can pose another challenge. Some cameras allow for USB live view tethering, but not all. If your camera doesn’t support this feature, you‘ll need to buy an internal or external I/O device to connect the camera to your computer via HDMI, VGA or SDI.

Multi-camera live streaming

What’s better than one camera? More than one camera! Multi-camera live streaming is the most complex setup and will almost certainly require additional gear. However, adding multiple camera angles is an excellent way to give your stream a more polished look. 

As soon as you add a second input, you’ll want to be able to switch between them. It’s possible to use streaming software on your computer to switch between inputs, but the tactile control of a switcher can make directing your stream easier. A dedicated switcher also allows you to connect multiple camera inputs while sending the output signal to either a computer or standalone live stream encoder. From there, it can be sent to the web.

Some switchers even combine the functionality of a switcher and streaming encoder. That means you can use a device like the Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro to stream, even without a computer or encoder nearby.

Streaming without a computer

We’ve mentioned the option of using a live streaming encoder, but so far, we haven’t explained what that is. In this case, live streaming encoder refers to a device that accepts a video input and encodes it for live streaming. The device then sends the stream to your destination of choice via an Ethernet, Wi-Fi or cellular data connection. If you already have a switcher and just need to get your signal to the web, a live streaming encoder can fill that gap. These can also allow you to stream a single camera feed to the web without having to connect it to a computer first.

Turn-key streaming

If you want all of this functionality in a turn-key solution, look to a dedicated streaming box. Streaming boxes will have a number of HDMI or SDI input and come pre-loaded with streaming software that allows you to switch between inputs as well as add graphics and effects.

You can control the stream through the software interface, but if you plan to stream often and want to use a more complex multi-cam setup, you may want to invest in a control surface made specifically for live streaming and switch. This control surface will give you more tactile control when switching between inputs, which helps ensure smooth transitions between different inputs. 

Developing your live streaming setup

Your equipment needs will scale with the size and complexity of your production. Our best advice is to start simple and build up your set up as you get more experience and figure out where your pain points are. Poor quality audio? Upgrade your microphone or add a mixing board. Want to add another camera? You may need to get a capture card or streaming box that supports a larger number of inputs. There are plenty of fancy, eye-catching streams online, but many streamers attract a loyal audience with nothing more than a webcam. The important thing is that you are using the live format to engage with your audience in a way not otherwise possible.

Got everything you need to go live? Read Going live, step by step.