What Is a Capture Card & Do You Need It?

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Edited by Ben Jacklin
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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 how do capture cards work?” 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 laptop or 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 through capture card software or third-party streaming programs.

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.

Capture card vs software comparison

Capture cards have the following advantages over screen recorders:

  • They don’t use computer resources for high quality data streaming or recording.

  • Streaming with capture cards is lag free and produced at very high quality.

  • Easy management and creation of a video clip library.

  • Capture cards can record and stream console gameplay even on consoles that don’t have built-in streaming capabilities.

  • Capture cards that are compatible with SD reader ports can record and stream camera footage.

Screen recorders also have their pros compared to capture cards:

  • If you are recording a program that doesn’t require many resources, a screen recorder is more than enough for recording and streaming.

  • Some OS and consoles have a built-in screen recorder, so you don’t need to buy additional software and hardware for simple recording tasks.

To sum up, capture cards are essential for professional streaming, while recording software is great for everyday tasks and business purposes.

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

Best capture card with built-in audio mixer

EVGA XR1 Pro

Best capture card for 4K 60fps capture

Elgato Game Capture 4K60 S+

Best portable capture card

AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable 2 Plus

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

Our goal is to provide you with only verified information. To ensure this, Movavi Content Team does the following:

  • When selecting products to include in our reviews, we research both demand and popularity.

  • The team tests all the products mentioned in this article.

  • When testing, we compare the key characteristics of the products, which include selecting capture area, schedule recording, showing keystrokes and mouse, and other significant features.

  • We study user reviews from popular review platforms and make use of this information when writing our product reviews.

  • We collect feedback from our users and analyze their opinions of Movavi software as well as products from other companies.

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Elgato HD60 X

  • Resolution:

    1080p, 4K

  • Frame rate:

    60fps (30fps, 4K)

  • Interface:

    USB 3.0

  • Price:

    $199.99

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 Pro

  • Resolution:

    1080p (up to 4K HDR passthrough)

  • Frame rate:

    60fps

  • Interface:

    USB-C

  • Price:

    $219.99

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 Pro clocks at 60 FPS on a 4K 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+

  • Resolution:

    4K

  • Frame rate:

    60fps

  • Interface:

    USB-C

  • Price:

    $309.99

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 Portable 2 Plus

  • Resolution:

    1080p60 (up to 4K passthrough)

  • Frame rate:

    60fps

  • Interface:

    USB 2.0 (USB Micro)

  • Price:

    $149.99

The AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable 2 Plus is a convenient capture device for anyone who wants to record the PC or console gameplay. The capture device can function as both PC-free and PC-tethered being reliable and robust in both cases. 

While the pass-through works flawlessly, it has enough lag in the preview that you need to have a separate TV or monitor to comfortably play, regardless of how you want to capture the video. For most users, AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable 2 Plus is an excellent capture card that records and streams high-quality 1080p footage, with a high degree of flexibility.

NZXT Signal HD60

  • Resolution:

    1080p

  • Frame rate:

    60fps

  • Interface:

    USB Type-C

  • Price:

    $139.99

Signal HD60 has a sleek and small form factor as well as an affordable price. This capture card is relatively inexpensive and still provides decent performance.

This capture card is perfect for beginners, as the setup is simple and intuitive. More importantly, it plays well with consoles. While it doesn’t have HDR or VRR support, the Signal HD60 is a reliable capture card, which is more important for beginners.

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.

Movavi Screen Recorder

The perfect way to record anything from your screen

Disclaimer: Please be aware that Movavi Screen Recorder does not allow capture of copy-protected video and audio streams.

Movavi Screen Recorder

Frequently asked questions

What is a capture card and do I need it?

Can you stream without a capture card?

Do I need a capture card to make YouTube videos?

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