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Illustration in purple and magenta colors featuring various elements from streaming Illustration: Ollie Hoff for Polygon

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What’s the best free software for your livestream?

We look at the pros and cons of XSplit, OBS, and Streamlabs

I quit my job at the start of 2020. Two months later, the U.S. went into lockdown and everyone glued themselves to their screens. So, like many avid gamers, I started streaming on Twitch. After deciding what to stream and when, and acquiring a webcam, I had to pick my broadcasting software. When you’re starting out as a streamer, your budget, or lack thereof, is going to be a major factor. And to this day, I haven’t felt the need to move to a paid broadcasting platform because so much can be accomplished with free options.

After a casual Google search, I initially settled on XSplit. The setup process was fairly straightforward, which took a lot of the guesswork and scouring the net for guides out of the equation. XSplit is probably best known for allowing users to stream content to multiple platforms, like Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube. It also boasts the ability to tweak video settings for resolution up to 4k and frames per second well above the standard 60fps.

The XSplit logo Image: XSplit

That said, XSplit requires you to either create an account or sign in with an existing social media account. And unless you pay for an XSplit subscription, you’ll only be able to stream to a single platform, and quality levels will be capped at 720p and 30fps.

It’s also important to note that the features differ on each platform. For example, Twitch does not support 4k resolution in streams while YouTube, on the other hand, does. Also, while XSplit allows for higher framerate settings, Twitch, Facebook Gaming, and YouTube all recommend streaming at no higher than 60fps.

When I first started, I got set up on Twitch, then decided to maximize my potential audience by creating a Facebook page and streaming to both sites simultaneously, though not with XSplit, as streaming to multiple sources is a premium feature. Then I qualified for the Twitch Affiliate program.

Without getting too off-topic, I’m going to remind everyone of the importance of reading contracts. One of the stipulations that many streamers miss in the Twitch Affiliate contract is that Twitch owns the exclusive rights to every one of their streams for 24 hours, which means that everything, including clips, cannot be uploaded or streamed on another platform. I promptly stopped dual-streaming to Facebook.

The OBS interface Image: OBS

I had a lot of success using XSplit. It’s a solid piece of software and has received numerous updates since I first tried it. But, in my search for the best combination of options and features from free software, I decided to move on to a different program: Open Broadcaster Software.

Aptly named, OBS is open source, which means that power users can code their own plugins and casual users can download and use them. This also means that bugs are usually caught and fixed quickly, and it’s usually the first program to get new updates.

The setup process for OBS is both simpler and more complicated than the setup for XSplit — while the initial download and run installer work in its favor, OBS requires much more tweaking to ensure the best stream quality for your audience. The manual setup can take some serious time and research.

On top of that, OBS lacks a chat overlay and customizable themes out of the box. These stream theme overlays must be separately downloaded and manually installed, which isn’t terribly difficult but takes more effort than other options.

But it isn’t all bad. OBS has plenty of advantages, too. Unlike XSplit’s free version, OBS allows for livestreaming at 1080p and 60fps, taking full advantage of the recommended limits. It’s also less resource-intensive, saving your CPU for more important things like your game. OBS also supports multi-platform streaming.

OBS was good to me, but I never felt like it clicked. The options available for making my stream look and feel the way I wanted just weren’t available. Instead, my strongest recommendation for a free broadcasting software goes to Streamlabs’ platform.

Streamlabs is a company built for livestreamers. Because OBS is open source, users have been able to build out their own versions on top of it, enabling streamers to choose from all kinds of premade tools, like chat monitoring bots and overlays. But that’s not all Streamlabs does. It also has tools for building your community and editing your clips.

The Streamlabs alert box shows how to adjust alerts Image: Streamlabs/Ben Gonzalez for Polygon

Streamlabs’ setup process is the easiest by far, taking advantage of Open Broadcaster Software’s plug-and-play approach. The key difference, however, lies in the built-in optimizer. Rather than having to manually select the best settings for your stream machine, the optimizer takes care of everything for you.

Where Streamlabs really shines, though, is in its customization options. Both OBS and Streamlabs have adjustable user interfaces. Simply click and drag the various informational boxes around the window to suit your needs. But Streamlabs makes personalizing the layout and design that your audience sees and interacts with much more convenient.

Streamlabs also has a bunch of free overlays available on its site. Instead of hunting for a stream overlay that matches your style and vibe, then downloading and going through the trouble of integrating it into OBS, you can simply install it directly with the click of a button. Remember to keep your hardware limits in mind, though, as every additional tool running on top of Streamlabs will take more power from your CPU.

How you set up the streaming experience and manage the backend can greatly impact your audience’s first impressions, as well as make watching the stream more enjoyable. Animated backgrounds, chat management bots, and sound alerts create a more engaging experience. And it will take time to curate the perfect blend of immersive and meta features that make your stream unique.

You’ll also want to be comfortable working with the settings and tweaking your stream’s visuals and sound effects. While Streamlabs is the clear winner of the big three free options, some companies that offer sponsorship deals will be partnered with another company’s platform, like StreamElements OBS.

(While I was writing this article, controversy rose surrounding Streamlabs’ new premium service. Despite feeling conflicted about recommending Streamlabs, I still believe that their free broadcasting software is the best choice for streamers. I’d encourage you to look further into the situation and weigh the options for yourself.)

Whether you are starting to stream as a hobby or hoping to turn it into your next career move, livestreaming requires some serious legwork. The best thing you can do is be informed of the pros and cons of each option, and choose the best fit for your streaming needs.