Game streaming is immensely popular right now. And with more than 2 million broadcasters serving approximately 100 million viewers a month, Twitch is unquestionably the leading platform for gamers looking to show off their skills.
Streaming is pretty easy to set up once you decide what you'll use to encode your content. There are several options, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Hardware-accelerated encoders, powered by Nvidia's NVEnc, AMD's Video Coding Engine, and Intel's QuickSync, all promise to wrap your gaming experience up in a good-looking and easy-to-stream package without hammering your CPU. But it's generally agreed that these encoders sacrifice quality and flexibility compared to software-based alternatives.
Conversely, software encoding with the x264 library is easy alongside utilities like Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and XSplit. It offers better stream quality than GPU-driven approaches, but at similar bit rates. That's important for services with defined bit rate limitations (like Twitch). Streaming can also chip away at bandwidth caps. Just one hour of streaming at 10 Mb/s equals 4.5GB of data, so you want the most efficient encoder possible.
A host processing-based approach offers more flexible configuration options. Better quality comes at a price, though. Software encoding is a CPU-intensive process, which obviously tugs the other way against our usual aim of running games at the highest frame rates possible.
Hitching, stuttering, lag, and generally bad performance curse gamers who try doing too much with limited software encoding resources. Thus, it's often recommended to use a secondary system for high-quality streaming. In fact, that's the best way to achieve an unencumbered gaming experience while also providing your audience a crisp video stream. That requires attaching your gaming rig to another computer via capture card or local area network to offload the encoding workload, though. Many casual gamers simply don't have the money for such a configuration.
Software encoding can have a huge impact on gaming performance. Until recently, if you wanted to stream and game using the highest-quality solutions on one PC, you almost assuredly had to buy a pricey CPU with lots of threads to throw at the problem. But now those high-end desktop processors are more accessible than ever. AMD's Ryzen 7 chips lowered the bar for getting lots of cores into affordable platforms, and most games can't fully utilize them. That leaves lots of horsepower leftover for streaming at a reasonable price.
Intel's Coffee Lake processors recently debuted with more cores as well, giving those Ryzen CPUs a run for their money in multi-tasked, multi-threaded workloads. Good thing, too. As we'll see, the previous-gen Kaby Lake architecture simply cannot compete against like-priced AMD alternatives. Today's story compares a number of different host processors in combined gaming/streaming workloads. Along the way, we developed test methodology you'll see used in our future CPU reviews.
MORE: Best CPUs
MORE: All CPUs Content