QuickSync Box (QSB) on a Budget: Hardware Transcoding

Hardware-accelerated encoding and decoding have come a long way. Since the release of 7th generation Intel processors, the onboard GPU & QuickSync technology is now fiercely in competition with Nvidia (NVENC) GPU en/decoding. QuickSync-equipped Intel’s are bountiful, easy to get and can be found in low-power, cheap setups. This makes it super interesting to create a mostly-for-transcoding small-form computer.

The cost to use a QuickSync-enabled CPU rather than a video card is an excellent ROI. In our tests, we found our video cards added 30w+ to our machines at idle and could skyrocket during load. The reality is, using video cards for media transcoding in small volumes doesn’t make sense. We define small volume as less than 15 to 20 simultaneous transcoded streams & direct streams.

Whether you make it a Plex Server, a Tdarr box, or something else(Blue Iris), we’ve got a list of suitable machines that you can then install Ubuntu on and get up and running. We mostly use Plex and Tdarr and so we will focus on boxes that benefit those use-cases.

Primary Use Cases

  • Plex Media Server w/ Ubuntu 20.04. Achieve >15 parallel streams w/ transcoded media while maintaining very low power consumption.
    Requires a Paid Plex Pass
  • Jellyfin Media Server.
  • Tdarr Media Transcoder. Run Tdarr, or something similar, to continuously scan, clean, and transcode your media however you like.

QuickSync Versions

Our recommendation is to stick with Kaby Lake and Coffee lake as they are the most cost-effective and give you the highest assortment of options.

  • Version 5 (Skylake, aka “6th Gen”) brings us HEVC, 8-bit support with partial 10-bit. Partial VP9 support.
  • Version 6 (Kaby Lake aka “7th Gen”, Coffee Lake aka “8/9th Gen”) brings full HEVC, 10-bit support as well as full support of VP9 8-bit and 10-bit.
  • Version 7 (Ice Lake aka “10th Gen”) a lot more good stuff including HDR10 Ton Mapping, more profiles.
  • You can learn more on Wikipedia
Only showing Braswell+. In general, it’s not suggested to use anything lower than Skylake and more realistically, for performance, Kaby Lake.

What you’ll need

  • QuickSync Box
  • Intel-equiped with QuickSync
  • 4GB ram or more (we suggest 8GB+)
  • 128GB SSD/NVMe drive if you are planning on hosting Plex and/or Tdarr w/ parallel streams. If your only use for this box is to transcode media, a spinner would work just fine. 256GB+ storage is suggested if you have higher volume streaming or have a very large Plex library due to thumbnails and other extras.
  • Ubuntu 20.04; QuickSync works best on Ubuntu.
  • Dummy Plug to activate QSV

QuickSync Box Examples

There are many great boxes out there. And surely you can build your own. But we’re collecting some “good suggestions” below as price comparisons. Some of these boxes are versatile w/ PCIe expansion slots, handy to one day repurpose a machine into a pfsense box or add 10g cards, etc. One of the most interesting pickups is the laptop; they usually come with sufficient ram, SSD storage, have a built-in monitor and don’t require a dummy plug, and have their own built-in UPS. Due to the changing nature of these deals, we won’t update this table; monitor our #teach-deals channel on Discord for live deal flow.

MachineForm FactorPriceOBO?CPUCPU Code Name / GenDummy PlugRamStorage DrivePCIe Expansion SlotsAdditional Cost for Parts
HP ProDesk 400 G4Small Desktop$89NoPentium G4560Kaby Lake / 7DisplayPort8GBNone$50
HP Slim 270-p013wbSmall Desktop$167YesPentium G4560TKaby Lake / 7HDMI8GB500GB HDD$50
HP ProDesk 400 G4Mini Desktop$189NoPentium Gold G5400TCoffee Lake / 8HDMI4GB500GB HDD$50
HP 270-p013wbDesktop$190YesPentium G4560TKaby Lake / 7HDMI8GBNone$50
HP 14-df0023clLaptop$299Noi3-8130UCoffee Lake / 8HDMI4GB128GB SSD0$0
Lenovo ThinkCentre M720Mini Desktop$350NoG5400TCoffee Lake / 8HDMI8GB128GB SSD00
Dell Inspiron 14″Laptop$350Noi3-1005G1Ice Lake / 10HDMI4GB128GB SSD00
HP Notebook 15.6″Laptop$365Yesi3-1005G1Ice Lake / 10HDMI4GB128GB SSD00

RAM & Storage

In some of the boxes listed above, you’ll want to upgrade RAM or Storage. Each box has different requirements based on your needs and, more importantly, varying compatibilities. Some boxes support an NVMe drive while others support only SATA. Please check for compatibility before purchasing anything; if you need help, just ask!

Use CaseSuggested RAMSuggested Storage
  • In all of the above scenarios, we are assuming this box is dedicated one of the three use cases. We strongly suggest keeping your QuickSync Box focused as most of these CPUs are not very powerful.

You can find specific NVMe/SSD suggestions in our parts suggestions section.

Dummy Plugs

QuickSync activates when a monitor is plugged into the machine. To fake that, so you can run your QuickSync Box headless, pick up the appropriate dummy plug. These should not be necessary if you go with a laptop.

You can find dummy plug recommendations in our parts suggestions section.

Head to our forums to discuss our QSB article!