It’s easy to begin streaming but takes a bit of work to do it well. Most platforms offer some sort of entry level streaming option but after just a few weeks, you can find yourself wanting more. 1080p, Intro and Outro cards, easy editing options. For those looking into streaming as a hobby or even a source of side revenue the entire process can be a bit overwhelming.
We get that. It can be mystifying and confusing to navigate all the ins and outs of streaming technology. We’ve created a comprehensive guide to help you understand high-quality capture cards and why they matter so that you can start your journey to becoming a Twitch all-star.
If you already understand the tech though and are eager to dive in just scroll on down to our curated list of the best capture cards of 2018!
If you are here just for our top pics, you can jump straight to our choices here:
Streaming has blown up. In the last few years it has grown into a huge industry. Twitch, which once started off as an enthusiast site is now one of the most visited websites on the internet. Over 100 million unique visitors tune in to watch streams on Twitch every single month. This has created new opportunities for content creators, pro-gamers, casual gamers, advertisers, and artists. Some stream as internet entertainers for a living, others just enjoy sharing what they love with the incredible streaming community. It’s fun, easy, and if you are good at it, rewarding.
This new streaming market has created a slew of unique hardware and software items specifically designed to make streaming enjoyable and give you the tools necessary to connect with your audience. We created this guide to teach you about one of the most critical pieces of hardware in a streamers toolbox, the capture card.
A capture card is basically a piece of hardware that converts digital signals (Such as those of a livestream) into a different form of data that can be easily recorded, edited, replayed, and posted online. In plain English, it’s just a device that helps your PC record gameplay footage so it can be edited. Capture cards also connect with fancy streaming software so you can stream with style and minimal lag.
Recording gameplay footage is a very CPU intensive process. Running a AAA game with demanding graphics while streaming gives you a lower fps and results in laggy streams. This is because your CPU struggles to encode video and simultaneously run an intensive game. Gaming capture cards were developed as the solution to this so that streams don’t lose quality as you broadcast. Capture cards basically take an incoming video signal and in conjunction with a CPU convert streams into recorded editable files. The CPU does the heavy encoding and the capture card basically allows the PC to see the incoming footage.
This means that a console can directly plug into a capture card and be recorded onto a single PC. The console runs the game and merely sends an HDMI signal to the capture card. The card relays the HDMI signal at the highest possible quality and speed to the PC while the CPU encodes it into a file format that is editable. With streaming software you can make changes to the stream live as well. This means an overlay of your gorgeous mug in the corner, subtitles, and more can be added.
For those who want to stream and record PC games with a capture card, a secondary PC is required. One PC runs the game while the other PC records the footage. This way the strain on the CPU is eliminated. One CPU processes your Overwatch match and simply sends the video footage to the secondary PC which handles the actual recording and streaming.
Capture cards are not designed for simultaneously streaming while running a game on the same PC. Capture cards are designed to take an incoming signal and stream/record it. So there should always be a primary device and secondary device involved with them.
Most modern consoles offer some sort of basic streaming. For instance the Xbox One automatically offers a proprietary streaming software that loads to the site Mixer. PS4 offers a dedicated streaming platform as well. Better yet, while PC gamers have to fiddle with graphics settings and make sure they have a strong enough system, console streaming will always be similar in quality to another console streamer.
So why get a capture card for console streaming? Two reasons.
Console streaming software is extremely limited, this makes things such as using an intro and outro or the insertion of greenscreen, camera angles, and more quite difficult. Capture cards allow you to stream through a PC and often make digital changes to a live feed.
The second reason is that streaming through a PC makes it far easier to save footage for usage later. This makes editing clips of a good game of Overwatch a breeze and is good for streamers who post videos as well as live stream. There can be video capture issues too for some games if it hasn’t been optimized for streaming yet.
We recommend taking your streaming to the next level with a dedicated PC. This will insure you have a smooth stream with access to all the bells and whistles of a professional streamer.
Cards come in two formats, external and internal.
An external capture card is usually small, mobile, and easy to carry around. This mobility comes with a drop in cost and a drop in quality. This affects recording speed, resolution, fps, and audio quality. External cards usually have specific OS requirements and port requirements ( such as USB 3.0) so make sure you check your system for compatibility.
An Internal capture card works by plugging into a PCI or PCIe slot and offers the highest quality recording available but needs a dedicated desktop computer to run. Different Internal cards have different requirements but the specs below are a good starting place. If you meet or exceed these requirements your capture card will work just fine.
Streaming has its own vocabulary. Here are some helpful terms we’ll use in discussing capture cards.
Encoding: Turning raw video and audio data into a file that can be read. I.E. Converting live video to MP4. Encoding can be done through a combination of software and the CPU or through specialized hardware but a processor is usually the best option.
Bitrate: The rate per second that data is produced by the encoding process. Measured in kbps (kilobits per second). Take kbps and divide it by 8 to get the kilobytes per second and you have a pretty reasonable estimate for how much bandwidth you are using.
I.E. 2000kbps divided by 8 = 250 kilobytes per second. 250kb x 60 seconds is 15,000 kilobytes or 15MB. This is very useful if you have a capped data stream or stream to a country with data caps. This isn’t exact though as MANY factors change the amount streamed. This post by Oremm goes into the details though if you have bitrate questions and concerns.
Full HD: Just a marketing term for 1080p
Ultra HD: Marketing term for 4K
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 resolution but they use special processes to bring the image to a lower resolution. It can look a bit messy.
Passthrough: Most consoles have one HDMI port. So plugging into a capture card means you can’t simultaneously plug into a monitor or TV. To get around this you traditionally would buy an HDMI splitter. Now many capture cards offer HDMI passthrough which means the capture card has both an HDMI in and out as seen in the diagram below. Elgato has a great breakdown of passthrough here.
Single System: A streaming set-up with one PC. Streaming with a single capture card equipped PC is simple and effective for consoles. It is not recommended for PC streaming as it can cause a large drop in quality.
Dual System Set-Up: A two PC set-up where one PC runs a game and then sends an 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 as well as any conflicts between streaming software and specific games are minimized.
Single System Set-Ups are the best option for console streamers. All the work is done on the PC and a capture card allows streaming software to greatly expand on the quality of console streaming. For PC streamers though, it’s another story.
Single System Set-Up of HD PVR 2 External Capture Card and Laptop
It is highly recommended that PC streamers use a Dual System Set-Up as it eliminates many common streaming problems. For instance some games may conflict directly with streaming software especially if they are demanding or require legacy driver support.
Dual System Set-Up
Dual System Set-Ups developed as an alternative to this. While they are a bit more complex to build, a separate dedicated streaming PC processes the livestream and allows the original computer to have little to no performance impact from streaming. This also ensures the livestream has a better chance of a smooth performance as well.
Twitch recommends a PC that meets or exceeds the following requirements for a Single System Set-Up.
The system specs for streaming on Twitch aren’t very demanding but we recommend adding a capture card for those streaming console gameplay.
Twitch recommends these minimum specs for a Dual System,
GeForce GTX 770
GeForce GTX 580
Intel i7-3930K @ 4.3GHz
Intel i7-4790K @ 4.0 GHz
8 GB DDR3-2133 RAM
16 GB DDR3-1600 RAM
A Dual System Set-Up requires higher quality hardware but offers top-tier visual fidelity. For those interested in the niche market of 4K streaming, this is the best option for achieving that.
Yes. If you want to be serious about streaming some sort of computer set-up is necessary. Those who want to build and grow an audience will be somewhat glued to the PC for editing and technical reasons. Streaming is a very competitive activity and even a winning personality can quickly be overshadowed by inferior streaming hardware. This doesn’t mean you need a ton of fancy gear or the latest camera, it just means that quality streaming requires a system that can process your feed while allowing you to add in overlays and other features.
Don’t go 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 streaming experience and can even be worse than no capture card at all. Investing in a good capture card will give you the most accurate lag-free streams and the artistic freedom to make an interesting fun live feed. Below are some major features to consider when choosing a card.
Understanding and achieving the right resolution is vital for streaming. It may be counter-intuitive but the best resolution is not always the best fit for your audience. As we move to 4K gaming and higher graphical fidelity it's easy to want 4K recordings of all your incredible gaming moments. While you may be capable of watching, streaming, and producing at high resolutions, the sweet spot for many people in your streaming audience will actually be closer to 720p at 60fps. Why? The bitrate that is sent and received can be HUGE the higher the stream quality. This means a large portion of the audience may be unable to view a stream due to the bandwidth required. Since upload speeds are traditionally just a fraction of download speeds, you could very well find uploading at those speeds a challenge too. This can result in stuttering laggy streams.
As internet speeds increase, 1080p and 4K will take priority. That being said, if you are posting footage that is edited and no longer live then it is worth having the best graphical fidelity. Sites such as YouTube automatically downsample videos but the higher quality the original video source is the better it will look after downsampling.
4K streaming is a bit ahead of the curve. Still there is a niche market of graphics enthusiasts that love watching things in 4K. With the release of the Xbox One X, 4K gaming is possible on a console level as well so it won’t be long before 4K becomes normal.
If you have an Xbox One X or a killer rig (GTX 1080 Ti or higher preferred) you can be one of the first 4K streamers out there.
Frames per second matter with games like CS:GO. People are even overclocking monitors to get outrageous framerates that are actually unseeable by the human eye. Most Capture devices fall between 30 and 60 fps because realistically that is what streaming services allow. There are rare times where more frames may be preferred (A last minute shot during an esport match or editing with slow motion effects) but this isn’t really what the streaming audience values. So 30-60 fps is the sweet spot for recording. One reason to consider an external capture card over an internal one is that the extra quality (such as the higher framerate) may not be necessary for your audience. Most consoles play games between 30-60fps so a 30fps stream is pretty good looking.
Some older capture cards have a space limit, most modern ones though stream and record up to 1000 hours and then continue to record as long as you have space on your disk drive. Unlimited is the best standard to shoot for. Pay attention to cards with features such as Flashback. These allow you to pull up footage of gaming sessions when you weren’t streaming live. So if you make an awesome headshot it’s not lost to time.
Several factors affect speed when streaming. Basically every stream has some delay. This delay can be large (10 or more seconds) or minimal (Literal milliseconds). Capture devices come in a range of speeds but the longer a delay, the more unnatural it feels to stream and observe your own work. You may even cut the feed off early! So this is something to consider as well. Everything from Bitrate to latency specific features can help make recording smooth and lagless.
The file you record from streaming can be copied into numerous formats. The standard for good video editing is currently H.264. There is also the option to stream in raw h.264. This isn’t necessary for most streamers but is great if you plan on video editing and changing things such as color saturation.
The HD 60 Pro comes with a sleek look and flawless execution. This card records 1080p footage at excellent speeds eliminating stream lag and offering premium quality. With a blazing fast Bitrate of 60Mbps streaming happens without a hiccup. This card is a beauty. We loved how it felt so solid in our hands and the futuristic look makes it worth showing off inside of an LED lit gaming rig.
One of the best features is flashback recording. The HD 60 Pro saves footage in the background even when you aren’t live. If you find you got an Ace in CS:GO or did something freaking awesome, you can actually go back and record the old footage. This is perfect for streamers who want to play for fun but don’t want to miss out on epic content that just happens while playing. Flashback can be enabled or disabled from preferences so there is no need to worry about invasion of privacy.
The Elgato HD60 Pro is designed purely for modern streaming. One of the drawbacks to that is a lack of ports for anything other than HDMI set-ups. If you are streaming modern devices this isn’t an issue but if you stream vintage consoles or are using an old TV for some reason, a different card might be better suited for that. Also this isn’t for an outdated computer set-up. If you have an older streaming PC, it should hit the recommended Twitch specs before attempting to put this in it. This card is only compatible with Windows 10 so you are unable to use it with an older OS, or an outdated OS X.
AVerMedia has been battling Elgato for the premium Capture Card market and offers an incredible streaming option through the Live Gamer HD 2. While similar in requirements to the HD60 Pro, the LG HD 2 is a bit more generous on compatibility with older OS and older CPU models. So if you have an aging i5 or an older Windows OS, this might already be the best fit. It offers premium streaming quality at a similar price point and is a solid piece of gaming hardware.
There isn’t such a large difference that you will find a clear winner between the HD 60 Pro and Live Gamer HD 2 in streaming quality.The Live Gamer HD 2 looks fantastic. With LED lighting and a metal chassis, it fits well into most gaming rigs. They also prioritizes newer CPU configurations such as the recent Ryzen line from AMD. As for performance though? Both cards operate with a few feature differences but are similar enough that you can be a premier streamer with either of them. The Live Gamer HD 2 has flawless file transfer, easy options for adding overlays, and is just an excellent Capture card. If you value the flashback feature of Elgato that might be one thing to consider as well since Live Gamer HD 2 doesn’t offer a comparable feature.
The Live Gamer HD 2 is big. It’s not so big that it will ruin most ATX board set-ups but if you already have a large GPU such as the GTX 1080, the size might be a bit hard to work around in comparison to the slimmer Elgato HD60 Pro. Also it lacks the flashback recording feature which is a killer option for content creators to consider.
The Colossus 2 fills a niche for those who want to stream but want a cheap reliable card and don’t care about recording video at high fps. For a budget streamer, you can’t get a better PCIe card at this price. The Colossus 2 streams at 1080p60 while managing to offer composite video as well and compatibility with some older OS. This Capture Card is great for older game set-ups or composite streaming. HDTV’s can make an SNES look terrible but with a Capture Card using Composite cables, you can have a little bit more freedom. We love the versatility of this card and the price. It’s just a solid budget card for the starting streamer.
The age is showing. The Hauppauge Colossus 2 PCIe HD-PVR can be a bit harder to find as it is an older product. It still works with modern consoles though and has a wide range of uses. Be aware that it needs 3rd party software if you are using Windows 10 to use every feature. Also the lack of 1080p60 fps recording is a major drawback for those who are serious about streaming.
With a small size, portability, and top-tier performance that goes head to head with our internal Capture Cards, the HD PVR 60 is the option for someone who needs to stream on the go. You can take it to another player's house or if you need to change from a living room set-up to an office set-up frequently, this offers the portability you want in a capture card.
Being able to record without being at a PC is just so convenient. As a feature we love that! Also the size is good for an external device. It fits great on a desk or next to a console if you aren’t streaming near your gaming rig. The Skipback feature is also an awesome option if you missed some of your epic gaming moments. You can go over the last 1000 minutes of gameplay footage and pull up highlights and footage. That’s an incredible backlog of approximately 16 hours! Just be sure to turn it off if privacy is a concern.
You need to disable HDCP protection in order to stream from a PS4 and Xbox One. It’s just a little set-up hiccup that’s slightly obnoxious. No Optical Audio and 5.1 Channel Sound. It also lacks component video if you are into streaming older consoles.
The GL310 is a small little device that costs less than some of the premium streaming options but has some incredible streaming power. If you can put up with being locked in at 30fps, there isn't a better budget option. This is the lowest-tier we would recommend as going lower in price will start to tank your streams quality. Few devices can compete at this price point with 1080p streaming and stellar audio. There is no need to worry about quality with this card.
Excellent compatibility with macOS and Windows. The GL310 is our go-to plug and play option for those on a budget. Most other cards at this price range feel cheap but the GL310 feels like a sturdy piece of hardware worth the money. It has good recording speed and quality and is compatible with a wide array of Operating Systems.
As we said, the GL310 doesn’t have any 60fps options which is pretty much a dealbreaker if you stream games for the graphics. Other than that though, it is a solid piece for the price you pay!
BlackMagic is on the forefront of 4K streaming with one of the first 4K capable capture cards. It is a niche market but there are people who want to watch streams just to see favorite games at the best possible graphical fidelity.
The Intensity Pro 4K basically checks off every box you need for a capture card. From gaming to converting old VHS tapes, the IP 4K does it and does it well. Also with the new cards coming out, expect a price drop as this will finally get some competition. This card is less geared toward gamers and more toward industry professionals so set-up isn’t as user friendly but for the moment this is the best 4K card around!
The unfortunate part to the 4K capture card market is that there is very little diversity in products. The biggest drawback to the BlackMagic is that the framerate is pretty low. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find another, if not a better, 4K capture card before the 4K60 Pro hits shelves. This card favors HDMI and Composite jacks so those trying to use S-Video or other odd formats will be unable to. Also this card could definitely use a makeover.
Those on an extreme budget though may want to consider the Game Capture HD PRO. The Roxio does have a cheap feel but it achieves decent levels of streaming quality and can allow you to learn without much risk. If you are just experimenting with streaming it is an ok starter option. Keep in mind at this level capture cards begin to have small issues and signal loss. If you are willing to experiment and want the cheapest option, the Roxio will do, but you may need some help setting it up. Look for a cheap open-box deal on Amazon to get it at the lowest possible cost!
Getting started with streaming is easy. If you are using a PC or Console, you need to get your capture card up and working, select a streaming service, and then download some streaming software! We have some tips below to help you get a head start.
Streaming has grown so much that most social media platforms allow some form of streaming. Facebook and Youtube being newcomers as of late. Each streaming platform is different with various pro’s and con’s.
The algorithms for YouTube make finding videos easier and if you have a diverse content set (How-To Videos, Tutorials) as well as stream, then it might be the best fit. The major downside is that YouTube is rife with changes that affect content creators with little warning. You may find your audience no longer sees your videos in a news feed due to a behind the scenes tech change. They also pay less than other streaming services through Ad Revenue meaning it’s a bit more challenging to monetize.
If you stream games, they are the lead streaming service. The best technical options, great interaction with the audience, and some sweet options to stand out like becoming a sponsored streamer that allow more monetization and better portfolio items.Twitch is where you should start and will offer you the best experience at first. Other streaming platforms are newer or originally designed with a different function in mind. Twitch also integrates with several platforms like Steam and Blizzard.net making it easy to go live and show your epic Starcraft II battles.
Mixer is a newer service that primarily targets the Microsoft Ecosystem. They offer some great ways to subscribe and even unique modes of monetization. A great option if you want to experiment with a newer platform before it is super popular and also some unique money making options. Mixer has very low latency and makes it easy to broadcast from any Windows 10 device. The best feature is Co-streaming where multiple streamers can combine streams into a single viewing experience.
While not a traditional platform, things like OBS now allow you to tap into your friends and family for streaming. This is a great option for those who are building an audience. Start with some close friends and get them to migrate to Twitch from Facebook! You can’t make money off of facebook unfortunately. This is a good, somewhat safe arena for getting some confidence in stream set-up and practice without trolls or ne’er do wells.
A capture card is only one piece of the streaming equation. If you can’t make the footage you desire, capturing it isn’t much use! Streaming software allows all the technical
OBS is a beloved free option that is currently used by many streamers. While being free it still allows the versatility of paid for streaming software. It isn’t the prettiest but it is relatively user friendly with a little assistance from YouTube tutorials. As an open source project it is regularly updated by a group of passionate streaming enthusiasts meaning it can compete with the top streaming software out there. We recommend OBS as it is the best way to get some practice and is free.
Elgato is a premium manufacturer of streaming products with a diverse portfolio of easy to use streaming devices. They are simple, sell a small product portfolio (Currently offering 3 devices) and have great customer service. This is simply one of the best places to start your streaming journey and is a company with a high degree of consumer respect and trust.
BlackMagic has a range of cards that are used less for the gaming industry and more in general video editing and creation. Despite this, the cards are designed to meet the needs of a business professional and come in a wide range of formats. They aren’t as pretty or streamlined as some of the dedicated Capture Card companies but they do fantastic products and hardware they produce is some of the most cutting edge streaming technology available.
AverMedia is a design company that works with solutions in audio and video editing. They offer a wide range of gaming items and set-ups that are premium quality. They have a more versatile portfolio of offerings than most companies at different price points and create solid products. The only downside is that AverMedia can be a bit harder to navigate due to all the different items on offer. Still, capture cards from AverMedia go toe to toe with the best.
Streaming isn’t usually about the graphics but there is a comfortable spot to stream at. In fact, playing at a resolution like 4K and streaming in 1080p will still give a better quality picture because a high-quality image is used and then downsampled afterwards. If you are having graphical issues with your PC, it might require a hardware upgrade. You can still build a healthy audience though at settings like 720p. 1080p is recommended for your games though even if you stream at a lower quality. A console will always look the same since they always limit graphical options to brightness and aspect ratio.
Capture cards are just one small piece of the equipment necessary for top-tier streaming. That being said, it is best to start small and build up. Since streaming involves games, video footage and editing, audio editing, and other technical areas, you can spend a lot of money on equipment. Buzzfeed has a great article on some of the things you might consider getting as you improve your streaming. There are a TON of ways to improve your set-up, from green screens to microphone filters.
Streaming is within a legal gray area where streaming is the best advertisement a company can have but publishers are still hesitant to give up control of intellectual property rights.
Every Time you play a game or install a program, an end-user license agreement (Or EULA) pops up and informs you of your rights as a consumer. Often times it is “Illegal” to stream content without permission according to these EULA. Most developers LOVE streamers, even inviting them to events early to preview footage and would never raise the issue by sending a cease-and-desist letter. It’s good to study up on your particular game and streaming service and understand what the law is. For instance, PewDiePie was recently hit with a DMCA takedown notice purely sent because a developer opposed some of his content choices. Too many of those and you will lose your channel. However this is exceedingly rare. A notorious company for pushing copyright though is Nintendo, as they regularly pull videos from YouTube and other services.
In short, you usually have limited legal protection, but you also have very companies who don’t like the free publicity.
Nostalgia is driving an arms race for content creators to cover old games just as they have new ones. Sometimes this is in the vein of a charity stream, or rigging up a system to stream an old Gameboy classic. Vintage streaming is a bit more difficult than that of normal streaming as you rarely have the same technical options and use outdated ports. Still, it is a very popular form of streaming to consider. Be aware that it does take some research and a bit more work than streaming on the big three (PS4, PC, and Xbox One).
The mobile market is an enigma. Most hardcore gamers hate the way it has developed but it still remains a Cash Cow fueled by both casual gamers and streamers. Similar to streaming a vintage device, Mobile streaming is an art unto itself. Games such as Clash Royale have a dedicated fanbase with a global reach and streaming stars as well. This is an underdeveloped avenue for streamers but one to also consider if you are wondering what to stream. Mobile device streaming is usually difficult but great inventions such as airplay make streaming easier with Apple devices, so there is a silver lining.
Thank you for joining out guide on Capture devices! We hope you saw a few products you love and are ready to take the plunge into streaming. There will never be a better time than today to start streaming as the audience and competition will continue to grow. If you are thinking about starting, do it! It’s fun, a creative way to play games, and can even produce income and fame! Every capture device on this list will help you on that journey as well. As always, if you’ve found this article helpful, comment, share, and smash that like button! We love bringing you the best in Gaming Hardware and Software.
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