What Is a Capture Card? [Epic Guide]

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Ben Jacklin Edited by Ben Jacklin

Livestreaming and recording high-quality video from your PC requires a little extra push to make it happen – like with the help of a capture card. This article answers the questions “What is a capture card? And what does it do?” and provides an overview of how to choose and install the right one for your needs.

What is a video capture card?

Capture cards have a lot of functions. But when you break it down, they perform two key tasks:

  1. It relays a video stream to a PC for processing.

  2. At the same time, it provides support as a pass-through that allows the video stream to display on a monitor.

How do capture cards work? Most external devices – cameras, consoles, etc. – send raw video streams that require conversion for a PC to process them properly. Upon processing, the PC will encode the data where you can save it as a file and/or upload it live to the internet.

Using a capture card, the pass-through allows you to view your stream live as your PC processes the recording.

Manufacturers make video capture hardware in key formats: an external device with a plugin – USB, USB-C, Thunderbolt, FireWire, etc. – or an internal device that uses a PCIe slot on a motherboard.

Regardless, you’ll have the same basic setup to capture videos. Simply connect an HDMI cable from the device to the card, and then connect another from the device to your display.

There are capture devices now available that can capture the video and convert for processing all in one place. But as those devices can’t really perform a live stream, we’ll focus solely on capture cards for this article.

What does a capture card do?

So, what does a capture card do? The name for a capture card is self-explanatory. They capture video signals from external devices via an HDMI or other connection.

Using a capture card, you can capture play from consoles like Xbox or PlayStation or from another gaming computer. It works like an input data receiver in either situation.

The GPU from your device transfers data to the card where it can be captured, recorded, encoded, and uploaded wherever you see fit – even as a live stream. And as stated, some cards can also encode in real-time, just like a CPU.

What is a capture card used for?

Wondering “What is a capture card used for?” Capture cards allow users to record and stream content appearing on their display screen.

As stated, video game streamers are the biggest market for capture card manufacturers. Consoles like the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 support internal livestreaming directly. However, the internal processing power and data-speed can’t handle streaming and recording the video at a high quality in real time.

And so, this is what you use a capture card for.

Do you need a capture card?

As stated, consoles now have internal streaming and recording capabilities. And it’s possible to use your PC alone to record, stream and play a game at the same time. So no, you don’t need a capture card.

So, do you need a capture card to record on a PC? If you want to record and stream at a higher quality, then you’ll need to purchase one.

Types of capture cards

Here are the five most common types of capture cards you’ll find available:

  1. PC: This type of card is useful for gamers who use a dual system to play a game and record and/or stream video at the same time. The capture card works as a go-between between the two PCs.
    This is the setup most commonly seen for competitive gamers who require a tremendous FPS rate while capturing and recording. It allows the gaming PC to handle the processing for the game and the secondary PC to handle the video stream.

  2. Mac: Mac capture cards run with the same concept as the PC. However, they support users on the Mac platform along with a wider range of resolution levels.

  3. 3DS and Wii: It’s a required card if you’re going to stream from either of these devices.

  4. PlayStation: Most PlayStation-specific cards provide users with additional software that helps to stream, record and edit footage.

  5. Xbox: With an Xbox capture card, users can handle larger file sizes and record and stream for longer periods of time. Editing is also much easier with a capture card.

How to choose a capture card

The first decision to make when choosing a capture card is choosing whether to go with an external or internal card.

Internal PCIe cards offer better performance because they connect directly to the motherboard. However, external cards give you more mobility as you can move between different recording and streaming setups.

Many cards today can handle signals from 4K and beyond. However, 1080p and 720p are still the most common resolution standards today. Be sure that your card can handle those resolutions for streaming, as you don’t have to record or play the game at the same resolution.

It’s also important to consider the resolution the card can handle as a pass-through. This is where 4K will come in handy, as you’ll want to record and play in this resolution, but upload at only 720p. These cards also prepare you for updating your setup in the future. Just be sure they support high dynamic range (HDR).

How to install a capture card

Before you purchase and unbox your video capture care, review the label and be sure you have the proper cables needed to connect your devices. For example, a USB video capture card requires a USB cable and two HDMI cables.

From there, read below and follow the steps to install your capture card and connect it to a gaming console.

USB external capture card

  1. Take an HDMI cable and plug it into the in port on your capture card.

  2. Plug the other end of the first cable into the out port on your device.

  3. Take another HDMI cable and plug it into the out port on your capture card.

  4. Plug the other end into the in port of your display device.

  5. Use the USB cable to connect the card to your computer.

Internal PCIe capture card

Some people refer to a PCIe internal card as a ‘PC capture card.’ In this situation, they’re referring to an internal video capture card.

Regardless of what you call the card, you’ll also need two HDMI cables. However, an internal card connects directly to a motherboard, so you’ll need an open PCI slot for installation. Follow these steps to proceed:

  1. Find an empty PCIe slot on your motherboard and insert the capture card.

  2. Take an HDMI cable and plug it into the in port on your capture card.

  3. Plug the other end into the out port of your device.

  4. Take the second HDMI cable and plug it in the out port on your capture card.

  5. Plug the other end into the in port on your display device.

Software

With your capture card hardware installed, you’ll need to download and install the software and drivers that go with your device. Most capture cards on the market come with proprietary software, but most users choose third-party programs to enhance their streaming and recording capabilities – like OBS Studio.

Top 5 capture cards

Elgato HD60 X

With two devices on this list, Elgato is the go-to manufacturer for video capture cards. Their Elgato HD60 X model is currently at the top of everyone’s list, and you can use it with any device on the market – Xbox X/S, PS5, PC, or Mac.

The device connects via USB-C and works well with many top third-party capture and streaming programs like OBS Studio, YouTube, Twitch, and more. So between the program and device compatibility, the HD60 X serves the needs of almost every user, unless they need a highly specific setup.

With this card, you can pass through at 60Hz in 4k with HDR10 video. With that much power, you won’t lag at all while playing. However, the 60Hz max does limit you if you’re working with a display device with a high-refresh-rate.

On the recording side, it can capture at 60 FPS on 1080p footage and 30 FPS on 4K footage. The device can also capture HDR10 footage.

EVGA XR1 Lite

This video capture card gives you a lot of value. It’s affordable and everything fits well in a tightly packed device. In fact, it runs a pass-through rate of 60 FPS on a 4K display, so that makes it ideal for anyone with the latest models of PlayStation and Xbox.

Recording on the EVGA XR1 Lite clocks at 60 FPS on a 1080p feed with no lag or compression issues. It’s a simple device that works with USB-C and HDMI to connect everything together. You can also connect the device with a DSLR camera to link in a webcam.

Another outstanding feature on the card is its display light indicator. The colors on the light tell you the status of your card – offline, active, updating, idle. Plus, the card comes in a hard plastic chassis that adds some durability.

This card is certified compatible with OBS Studio. So when you combine that with its price point and easy installation features, then you have a solid capture card that would work for most users out there.

Elgato Game Capture 4K60 S+

To store capture gameplay, most cards require that you connect to your PC. But with Elgato Game Capture 4K60 S+, you only need an SD card. This gives your computer a boost in power as it won’t have to focus on recording your gameplay. From there, you’ll just hook up the device by connecting it to your PC and output display and then press record.

The recording device and card have some power behind them as well. You can record at 60 FPS with 4K gameplay and record in HDR at the same time. This is one of the top video capture cards for its portability, power, and versatility.

AVerMedia Live Gamer Bolt

If you’re looking for the top-of-the-line video capture card, you’ve found it. The AVerMedia Live Gamer Bolt does everything you want it to do and more. Testers found it has one of the lowest latency rates on the market, so it’s the top solution for modern gamers that require fast-twitch movements.

You can record phenomenal footage at 1080p240 or 4K60 HDR and stream it in high quality as well. The only catch with the Gamer Bolt is that it requires a Thunderbolt 3 or 4 port. That will limit you to a small range of high-end gaming laptops and motherboards.

Be sure to review the ports and capabilities of your system before investing in this card.

Asus TUF CU4K30

Many video capture cards out there limit you to using the traditional USB-A port or an open PCI slot. But most modern laptops are moving away from USB-A to USB-C instead. Asus TUF CU4K30 has you covered.

This card helps you to link up to gaming laptops with ease to capture footage and/or stream to the web. It can handle 30 FPS at 4K, 60 FPS at 2K, or 120 FPS at 1080p, so you have a versatile resolution range to play with.

The card has solid pass-through rates as well at 60Hz/4K with HDR, 144Hz/2K, or 240Hz/1080p. Plus, it all comes in a nice protective aluminum chassis with solid indicator lighting.

Summary

If you’re thinking about using a capture card for your video recording and streaming, hopefully you now have a solid knowledge base for choosing a card. Remember to review your system’s ports and capabilities before you make your selection. And be sure to bookmark this page, so you can refer back if you need more guidance.

Frequently asked questions

What is a capture card and do I need it?

A capture card allows you to record and stream video in real-time without losing quality. Video game streamers are the key market for these cards, as they want to maintain a high level of gameplay and recording quality.

You don’t technically need a capture card. But it’s necessary if you want to stream and record videos with high quality.

Can you stream without a capture card?

Yes, it’s possible to stream on a PC or console without a capture card. Most people don’t use them. In fact, using a capture card for PC gameplay requires two PCs – one dedicated to running the game, and the other to recording video. Few gamers invest in two PCs.

Do I need a capture card to make YouTube videos?

No, you don’t need a capture card to record gameplay footage. But if you want to record footage from consoles like a PlayStation or Xbox, then using a capture card is typically the best option to get the footage on your PC for uploading to YouTube.

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