A capture card is an important component of streaming. But many consoles allow you to stream directly from them, so I bet you’re wondering why you might need a capture card. What does a capture card do, and why should you use one instead of streaming directly from your PC or console?
What Does a Capture Card Do?
A capture card is an input device that “captures” game audio and video from your system and converts those signals to digital data. That digital data then gets sent to your computer for encoding. The encoded data can then easily be recorded or live-streamed.
The exact mechanisms of capturing and recording are extremely technical, and I’m not even sure I understand how that works myself. But, that’s an article for a different day and a more technical blog! This is about how a capture device works to get your stream up and running – and we’ve got everything you need to know about that.
Is a Capture Card Necessary?
A capture card is necessary if you are going to be streaming from the Nintendo Switch or if you use two PCs for gaming (or live streaming anything else). You need the card to capture the signal from one device and send it to the other.
If you’re very creative and have other consoles, you might be able to make something work without one. I have a friend who connects his Switch to his XBOX, and streams the Switch games from XBOX! Talk about a frugal win!
Both the Playstation 4 and XBOX One have built-in streaming capabilities – so you can stream directly from one of those consoles to Twitch. A lot of people don’t even bother with a capture card when using these systems.
If you’re streaming from a single PC, you don’t really need a capture card. Your PC can do all the things that a capture card can, and you can either record from your PC or stream directly to Twitch (or Youtube, or Facebook etc.).
Is it Better to Stream with a Capture Card?
Just because you don’t need a capture card, that doesn’t mean it isn’t better to have one. But it actually depends on your setup and which gaming console you are using.
So far, the Nintendo Switch does not allow you to stream directly from it. The only option when streaming Switch games (other than creative options) is to use a capture device.
If you are streaming with XBOX, you can get the Xbox Companion App. This handy app will allow you to stream to OBS – which will give you all the recording and stream options that using a traditional capture card will use. So you don’t actually need a capture card if you’re only using XBOX.
I couldn’t find a similar app that would help you stream from the PS4, so it does seem like it’s better to use a capture device with this console. The advantage to using one with a PS4 is that it gives you more options and generally improves your stream quality. These options include changing your resolution, tweaking your bit rate, and even modifying your frame count (FPS). It’s good to be able to do these things, because every game, set up, and internet connection is different. Having the ability to tweak these settings will ensure that you have the highest quality stream possible.
Using a capture card also gives you more recording options, which is super important if you are making any type of video for YouTube. According to all the information I could find – the PS4 only allows you to record for about 15 minutes. That’s definitely not enough time to make your presence known on YouTube!
Some say that the card will take some of the pressure off of your CPU and make things run more smoothly, but I haven’t found any evidence that supports that. Every internet thread I’ve found about it says that it doesn’t make a difference. All the capture card does is packet the data and send it between systems for processing, it doesn’t do any of the processing itself.
If you are using multiple PCs to stream (like most of the professionals!) you need a capture card. It will transmit the data between PCs, allowing you to play on one and stream from the other.
What Kind of Capture Card Should I get?
There are so many different brands, styles, and types of capture devices that it can be hard to decide what to get. Let’s go through the options together.
Internal vs External Capture Devices
Internal capture cards connect to the inside of your PC tower, and external ones connect to your laptop or PC via either HDMI cable or some type of USB. If you’re using a laptop for streaming, this is an easy choice – you need an external capture card.
The advantage to using an internal capture card if you have a desktop gaming PC is that it connects directly to your motherboard – thus ensuring the fastest set up possible. Faster is pretty much always better when it comes to streaming.
External capture cards are more portable, and with USB3 connections there isn’t that much of a noticeable difference in stream speed vs internal cards. You obviously need to use an external card if you stream from a laptop.
Best External Capture Cards
There are a few good external capture cards that will meet all your streaming and gaming needs. All three of these options have excellent video quality with HD capture. Which one you chose will probably come down to personal preference – all have the same basic functionality. Elgato has the best name recognition, and some of the add-ons are slightly different.
Elgato Game Capture HD 60S
Elgato is the top capture card on the market, and it’s easy to see why. The HD60s card boasts 1080p recording speeds at 60fps, and has a USB 3 connection. It also comes with built-in software that helps you get up and running with ease.
Razer Ripsaw HD
I use the Razer Ripsawcapture card. It also has 1080p at 60fps with a USB 3, but does not have it’s own streaming capture software (it does have software that runs alongside its basic function). I use Streamlabs or OBS though, so I’ve never seen this as a limitation. And, since it’s somewhat cheaper than the Elgato, it’s a better option for streamers on a budget.
Avermedia Live Gamer Portable 2 Plus
The Avermedia Live Gamer is the cheapest option – but not because it’s not good. Avermedia doesn’t have the brand recognition that Elgato and Razer do, but still offers the 60fps and 1080p recording with a USB2 input.
Best Internal Capture Card
Internal captures are better if you have an actual Desktop that you’re using as your gaming PC. Since they are on the inside, they reduce latency. But, they are also generally more expensive and less portable. However, they offer amazing results, so if you can afford it and have the desktop set-up, they are definitely worth looking into.
Elgato Game Capture HD60 Pro
The Elgato HD60 pro captures full HD at 60 frames per second. It also comes with a h.264 hardware encoder and only takes up one PCIe port. In theory, the built-in encoder is supposed to take pressure off of your PC – but like we said above I can’t find any proof that it actually works that way.
Still, whether the built-in encoding works as advertised or not, it’s a great option. Elgato is one of the best brands in the business.
AVerMedia Live Gamer 4K
The AverMedia live Gamer 4K allows you to capture at a frame rate of up to 240 FPS. The human eye is only capable of seeing 60fps, and only recognizes 40fps. Maybe someone can explain what you can do with those other 200fps but I cannot. I guess it might be good for creating slow motion videos?
Anyway, it also lets you capture 4k60 footage in HDR. Although you can’t stream in that high of a quality (yet – tech is always improving), you can record the game capture and upload it to YouTube.
What is a Good, Cheap Capture Card?
I get it – the common theme with these capture cards is that they cost a ton of money. I think there’s only one on the list so far that’s less than $150! Are cheaper options available?
The answer: Yes!
The Y&H HDMI game capture card is the cheapest capture card on the market with good reviews. It offers live streaming functionality and 1080p video recording. And, at less than $100, it’s definitely better for your wallet!
How Do I Set My Capture Card up?
Setting up an external capture card is incredibly easy. Most of the video capture will be done through HDMI, so all you need to do is connect the correct cable to the correct location. The HDMI input cable goes from the capture device to your console (or whatever you are playing the game on) and the HDMI output capture cable goes from your capture card to your TV (or whatever you are viewing the game on). The USB cable (USB 3/USB-C; they are the same thing) goes from the capture card to your computer. The game capture data will go to whatever streaming/recording software you are using. I use Streamlabs, but some cards have their own software, and there are a variety of other options available.
What Else Do I Need for Streaming?
This is largely a matter of opinion, and I’m assuming you’re researching what a capture card does because you are interested in streaming.. And that’s awesome! But you do need a bit more than a capture card. Although you can stream without them, I highly recommend a webcam and a microphone. For more information on getting your stream set up, check out this guide to starting a stream.
Recap: What Does a Capture Card Do?
So, what does a capture card do? A capture card helps you stream by capturing data input/output! It also aids recording, not just streaming. You can use it as a video capture device and upload to YouTube as well. Whether you livestream or not, a capture card can help you improve your video content and give you tons of streaming and recording options.
I hope this answered all your questions, from what a capture card does to which one is right for you. If so, get your perfect capture card on Amazon, and start your stream today! And, don’t forget to check out our guide to becoming a Twitch affiliate to start building your stream from the start!
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.