Capture cards have become quite the hot commodity over the last decade. As platforms like YouTube and Twitch skyrocketed gaming content creation, the capturing of gameplay required specific hardware. That’s where capture cards come in. Want to know all there is to these neat little pieces of hardware? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about capture cards.
A capture card is a piece of hardware that converts raw digital signals (such as those pumping out of a gaming PC or a console) into a a stream of data that most devices can understand. From there on out, that digitized signal can either be stored or streamed online.
As capture cards became more widespread, many modern models are also neatly integrated into popular streaming software. Gaming oriented capture cards often excel at ease-of-use when it comes to recording your highlights or getting a live stream going.
If you’re talking content creation from just your PC, recording gameplay footage can be a very CPU intensive process. Running games with demanding graphics, while also streaming or capturing, can result in lower framerates and choppy video output. This is because your CPU struggles to encode video, and simultaneously run an intensive game. Capture cards can help your CPU offload some of that hard work.
Capture cards basically take an incoming video signal, and in conjunction with a CPU, convert audiovisual streams into digital files. The CPU does the heavy encoding, and the capture card allows the PC to easily interpret the incoming footage. For the best streaming experience on PC, you can opt for a secondary system with a capture card. This ensures your PC can focus on purely gaming performance, while your streaming PC merely converts those signals into content.
Additionally, capture cards can record and/or stream the output from gaming consoles. While passing the HDMI signal through to your monitor or television, a capture card can stream the data over to your PC — or sometimes even record it internally.
Many operating systems and consoles offer their own ways of capturing or even streaming gameplay, but solid capture cards prove more versatile. Their video quality is usually way greater, while they often aren’t limited in video length. If you’re serious about creating gaming content, a decent capture card is definitely the way to go.
Capture cards come in two formats: external and internal. You either plug the device into over a USB interface, or fill up one of your internal PCI(e) slots with a new piece of hardware.
An external capture card is usually small, easy to use, and mobile enough to travel around. This mobility comes with a drop in cost, and often a drop in quality. As they’re capped on power and/or USB bandwidths, some might compress their video quality heavily, or opt for lower framerates. Do note that external capture cards sometimes require specific interface standards (like USB 3.0, or even Thunderbolt 3), to function properly. Other than that, they are incredibly plug-and-play.
Internal capture cards usually offer the highest quality recording available, as their PCIe interface grant them incredible stability and higher bandwidths. This of course comes at higher prices, and hardly any mobility. On top of that, they can also feature more complex requirements. Not only should your PC be somewhat modern, you might also need a couple of spare PCIe lanes.
Quality-wise, internal is always better than external. But that’s only the case for more static and permanent set-ups. If you intend on creating content anywhere you go, an external capture card should be in your arsenal.
As we head towards what makes a truly good capture card, we should go over some basic terminology. Capture cards are quite specific pieces of hardware, so they might come with their vocabulary. These are some helpful terms (and less helpful marketig language) we’ll use in discussing capture cards.
Encoding: Turning raw video and audio data into a file that can be read. Usually, it means converting a audiovisual feed to MP4, often under the H.264 format. Encoding can be done through a combination of software and the CPU, or through specialized hardware.
Bitrate: The rate per second that data is produced by the encoding process. It’s usually measured in kbps, meaning kilobits per second. Take your kbps and divide it by eight, to get the kilobytes per second. By knowing how much data your stream will churn out, you can come to a pretty reasonable estimate for how much bandwidth you are using.
For example, 2000 kbps divided by 8, is 250 kilobytes per second. 250 kb x 60 seconds is 15,000 kilobytes — or 15MB per second. Throwing some maths on your bitrate can be very useful if you have a capped data stream or bottlenecked bandwidths. This isn’t exact though, as many factors change the amount of bytes streamed. This post by Oremm goes into the details, should you want to dive deeper into bitrates.
Full HD: Mostly a marketing term for native 1080p.
Ultra HD: A marketing term for 4K, otherwise known as 2180p.
HDR: Refers to the support for High Dynamic Range. This will usually mean the capture card can pass-through or capture at at least 10-bit color depth, otherwise known as HDR10. The Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) tops out at 8-bit.
Framerate: The amount of frames that a video signal spits out per second. Your PC might be able to run at 120 frames per second (fps), but you’ll only see half of that if your capturing gameplay at 60 fps.
Downsampling: Downsampling is where you render something at a higher resolution and then convert it to a lower resolution. The most common example is switching between 1080p and another lower resolution such as 480p on YouTube. The highest resolution is the original, but through special processes it is converted to a lower resolution. It can look a bit messy, if it’s really harsh.
Passthrough: Most consoles have one HDMI port. So plugging that into a capture card means you can’t simultaneously plug it into a monitor or TV. To get around this, you traditionally would buy an HDMI splitter. Nowadays, many capture cards offer HDMI passthrough, which means the capture card has both HDMI input and output. Some capture cards that capture at, say, 1080p resolution are still capable of passing through 4K signals.
Single System Set-Up: A computer set-up with one PC. Capturing content with “only” a singular PC is simple and effective for consoles. It is not recommended for higher quality PC streaming, as it can cause drops in performance and video quality. If that’s the case for you, consider the next term.
Dual System Set-Up: A two PC set-up where one PC runs a game, while sending over a HDMI signal to a separate capture card equipped PC that records/streams the incoming footage. Minimal strain is put on the PC running the game, so maximum graphical fidelity is maintained. In addition many technical conflicts between streaming software and specific games are minimized. Even a hard crash on your gaming experience won’t immediately kill your stream.
First of all, don’t go too cheap. A poor quality capture card will struggle to produce quality audio, increase stream lag, occasionally drop the signal, overheat, and even refuse to operate with modern hardware. Take the time to seriously consider a high-quality capture card, because a low-quality one adds very little to your content creation, and can even be worse than no capture card at all.
A good capture cards nets you reliable capturing, at the lowest possible latencies. Below are some major features to consider when choosing a card.
While beefy PCs and next-gen consoles easily spit out 4K gameplay, 1080p is still considered the golden standard for most online content. Streaming in 4K requires incredibly high bandwidth, and many members of the audience won’t even be able to enjoy the enlarged resolution. If you’re not serving content to the most demanding of viewers, 1080p should still be your go-to.
Being able to capture at 4K is always nice, though. If you want to take your content to a higher production level, aim for 4K all you want. Just know that it also comes with higher requirements in hardware to pump out and convert into (live) content.
Frames per second matter with the most in competitive gaming. Common capture devices fall between 30 and 60 fps, because realistically, that is what most content platforms support. If you are casually creating on content on less high-end hardware, 30 frames per second is perfectly fine.
Some 4K capture cards will feature 144 fps recording at 1440p, and even 240 fps on 1080p. These should be your go-to if you intend on capturing tournaments, or want to be able to slow down gameplay footage in post production.
The higher the bitrate, the better your gameplay will look in the end. Lower bitrates can compress video heavily, producing horrible quality. If you’re streaming gameplay at around 1080p/60fps, at least 4.000 kbps should be your standard, preferably closer to 6.000 kbps.
Higher quality video requires even higher bitrates, but these ranges will have your gameplay looking good enough for live streaming.
The data you capture while gaming, can be copied into numerous formats. The standard for reliable and easy video editing is currently the H.264 format in MP4 files.
Some capture cards also feature options to output raw H.264. This isn’t necessary for most streamers, but is great if you plan on further editing of the video files. This can become bulky in bytes (because of nearly uncapped bitrates), but the footage will look at its absolute best.
Even way before Elgato was acquired by Corsair, it had made its name in the world of content creation. Elgato was there when Let’s Plays and Twitch were just starting to get traction, offering an easy-to-use capture card for a reasonable price. Since then, they have built up their image as an all-round content creation products manufacturer.
Elgato has green screens, RGB lights, microphones, and many different tools, but they still make reliable capture cards. Wether is internal or external, Elgato is usually leading the pack in capturing performance.
BlackMagic has a range of cards that are used less for the gaming industry, and more in the professional video and broadcast world. Despite this, the cards are designed to meet the needs of a video experts, and come in a wide range of formats. They aren’t as pretty or streamlined as some of the dedicated capture card companies, but the hardware they produce, is some of the most cutting edge video technology available.
AVerMedia is a design company that works with solutions in audio and video editing. They offer a wide range of gaming oriented products, often boasting premium specifications. Their experimental and sometimes ambitious attitude doesn’t always pay off for them, but they still make some great capture cards overall. These often go toe-to-toe with Elgato’s line-up, with AVerMedia aiming for the slightly lower price points.
And with that, you’re all caught up on capture cards for gaming purposes. We certainly hope our guide will get you picking the right capture card for your needs. If there is any sort of term or piece of technology you are unclear on, be sure to reach out to us. We would be happy to help you better understand capture cards in general.
Looking for some great recommendations on capture cards? Head on over to our article on some of the Best Capture Cards for Gaming. In addition, we can also explain How To Turn Your Camera Into A Streaming Webcam, or get you started in content creation with our guide on How To Stream. If it’s about gaming, hardware, or creating content from the two combined, we’ve got you covered.
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