There is a piece of hardware mentioned a lot of times in the streamer community: capture card. Everyone talks and creates videos about what are the current best capture cards, but little to no one tells you what is a capture card, and how it works, what is the idea behind it.
This comprehensive guide about capture cards is for beginner streamers and for people who actually know what a capture card is, but they want to know more about them.
Please note that this post may contain affiliate links and ads. Please read my full disclosure HERE.
What is a capture card? What is the point of a capture card?
Capture cards are used in order to transmit video and audio from a device to a computer. The other ‘device’ can be - well - any device that has an HDMI output, for example, PlayStation, XBOX, Nintendo Switch, or even another PC.
The idea behind capture cards is to transmit the data coming from your device through the HDMI cable straight to a computer, so you can create actual content from your gameplay. Computers don’t have an HDMI IN slot, so this is what capture cards try to bypass.
1. Capture gameplay from consoles
If you use a capture card, you can stream what you are doing on your console in real-time. Adding a capture card allows you not to have to use the built-in streaming feature (using the ‘Share’-method). If you transmit the sound and video of your PS4 to the PC, this transmitted video capture can be streamed with OBS or XSplit or any other streaming software, as if it was a regular video.
2. Dual-PC setup for streamers
Another possible use is (if you are truly aiming for a professional live stream and you are not short on money) to simply increase the quality of your PC stream by connecting two PCs with the capture card.
This means, you will have one gaming PC put together especially to play on, and another PC where the transmitted video and audio from the gaming PC is encoded to be streamed. Having two PCs for this specific reason is very common in the streamer community because once you go live, your PC is under heavy pressure (because of the process video encoding), which decreases its performance, which can lead to lag spikes, dropping frames and overheating.
However, capture cards are not mandatory to start a live stream, but as mentioned before, it can highly increase the quality of your live stream if you do so.
How does a capture card work?
There are two main types of capture cards: one is completely external, and the other should be attached right into one of your PC’s PCIe slots (in your motherboard) - called internal capture card.
External capture cards
These kinds of capture cards are usually boxy-looking hardware with various ports on it:
An HDMI IN port, where you should plug in the HDMI coming out from your device (which again can be an XBOX, PC, Nintendo Switch, etc.), what should be plugged right into your TV.
An HDMI OUT port: this makes you able to connect your device to a TV or monitor, so you can see what is happening on your device.
USB port: this is where you can connect your PC and your capture card, so the data coming in from the device’s HDMI cable can be sent through this to your PC.
Some capture cards might only have just one HDMI IN and a USB port and others might have a port for an external microphone or AV cable.
In some cases, the capture card also has a built-in encoder, which makes you able to record gameplay directly to an SD card or any other data storage which works with a USB, like an external HDD.
Internal capture cards
These capture cards are more efficient than external cards because they send the data directly to your PC’s motherboard (and do not require you to use a USB cable). These kinds of cards usually have one HDMI IN and one HDMI OUT port. This means, if you plug the capture card into one of your motherboard's PCIe slots, you just have to attach the HDMI cable coming from your desired device straight into the back of your PC. Internal capture cards have slightly less latency caused by data transmission.
Do capture cards use CPU?
If you're using your capture card attached only to the same computer you're playing the game on, you're doing it wrong. Adding a capture card to one single PC won’t increase the performance of your CPU. If you are connecting two PCs with the capture card, it allows you to offload the entire encoding portion of CPU usage onto a second computer.
However, there are other ways to take the load off of your CPU. For example, using NVIDIA NVENC with OBS, which uses the GPU to encode a video.
Adding a capture card to your PC won’t increase your FPS or any other aspects of its performance.
What video quality can be achieved with a capture card?
If you are using a capture card, the quality of your video depends on two factors: 1. The type of HDMI cable you are using and 2. Your encoding PC’s performance.
1. HDMI cable types
I recommend buying the newest version of HDMI cables, which is currently the HDMI 2.1 cables. These cables support higher definition video and audio as well as higher refresh rates (4K 120 Hz and 8K 120 Hz, with the maximum supported format being 10K at 120 Hz). The maximum transmission rate of this cable is 48.0 Gbit/s which allows you to achieve HDR video quality.
2. Your encoding PC’s performance
Encoding is a very CPU-intensive process, which means you should have a PC with at least an AMD Ryzen 5 built into it. With my recommended basic equipment you can achieve 1080p video on your stream.
Anything better than the AMD Ryzen 5 would increase the quality of your video; with the AMD Ryzen 9 3900X can achieve 4K or 6K videos if you are using an HDMI 2.1 cable - but don’t forget that you will most likely have to spend more money on your PC to support this CPU. In my opinion, 6K and 8K videos are sort of an overkill for streaming and capture cards usually support up to 1080p60 quality.
Are there any alternatives for capture cards?
As far as today, there are no cheap or DIY alternatives for capture cards. However, in the future, there might be the possibility that phones could serve as a capture card if someone develops an app that does the process of capture cards and a proper adapter for the cables. But this is only my weird fantasy.
How to use a capture card with…?
How to use a game capture card with a console that supports HDMI cable?
The following mainstream consoles support HDMI cable: Xbox 360 E, Xbox One, Xbox One S, Xbox One X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 3 Super Slim, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Slim, PlayStation 4 Pro, Nintendo Switch (as a home console) and Sega Genesis Mini.
If you want to stream from any of these consoles, you can use basically any capture card that has an HDMI IN port.
To set up an external capture card for your console:
Connect your capture card to your PC with a USB 3.0 cable.
Take the HDMI cable that would go into your TV or monitor, plug it off of your console and plug it into your capture card’s HDMI OUT port.
Plug in an extra HDMI cable into the HDMI IN port and plug the other end into your console.
Add the capture card’s picture to your OBS (exact steps described later in this post).
To set up an internal capture card for your console:
Connect your capture card to your PC by putting it into your motherboard’s PCI socket.
Take the HDMI cable that would go into your TV or monitor from your console and plug it into your capture card’s HDMI IN port.
Plug in an extra HDMI cable into the HDMI OUT port and plug it in into your TV or monitor.
Add the capture card’s picture to your OBS.
With these types of cards, you will see your gameplay on your PC’s monitor.
For consoles that do not support HDMI (older consoles, like PS 2 or a Nintendo WII) you should pick a capture card that has AV cable IN ports.
How to use a capture card for a dual-PC setup?
To set up an external capture card for your dual-PC setup:
Connect your capture card to your streaming PC with a USB 3.0 cable.
Take an HDMI cable and plug one end of it into your gaming PC’s HDMI port, plug the other end into your capture card’s HDMI IN port.
Take another HDMI cable, plug it into your capture card’s HDMI OUT port, and plug the other end of it into your gaming PC’s monitor (if you monitor does not support HDMI, use an HDMI-VGA converter).
Add the capture card’s picture to your OBS on your streaming PC.
To set up an internal capture card for your dual PC setup:
Put your capture card into one of the PCIe slots on your streaming PC's motherboard.
Take one HDMI cable and plug one end of it into your gaming PC’s HDMI slot, take the other end of the same cable and plug it into the HDMI IN slot of your capture card.
Take another HDMI cable, plug one end into your capture card’s HDMI OUT port and plug the other end into your monitor.
Add the capture card’s picture to your OBS on your streaming PC.
How to add the content coming from the capture card to OBS?
Capture cards function as they were ‘webcams’, because they transfer audio and video to your PC at the same time, thus streaming softwares treat them as video capture devices.
If you are using an Elgato Capture Card, make sure you close the capture card’s software first.
Select your scene where you want to add the image of the capture card.
In the ‘Sources’ section, click on the ‘+’ (Add).
Select ‘Video Capture Device’.
Rename the source as ‘Capture Card’ or something relevant that you can recognize later.
In the next popup window, select your game capture card’s name.
If you right-click on your capture card, in ‘Properties’ you can change certain settings of your capture card’s image, such as video quality to your liking.
How to add and configure the audio coming from your capture card? Issues with the audio of your capture card.
I know it is not evident for everyone that devices are only able to output audio to one source. This means that if you have a headphone plugged into your console (or the device you are streaming from), the HDMI will not transfer any sound, because you cut off audio right at the source.
To resolve this, plug a speaker into the TV or screen where you transferred the audio and video with the HDMI cable.
There could be various issues with the audio coming through your capture card, but due to their endless variations, I'm not going to include those in this article. I recommend you look up forums or ask on Reddit if you think you cannot solve your issue without help.
If you want to use the voice chat of your game while using a capture card...
If you are willing to voice chat on your console while recording your gameplay with the capture card, I highly recommend using a capture card with an Audio IN port (such as Elgato HD60S) with an Elgato Chat Link cable. This is pricy, but you will get your desired effect super simple.
For dual PC setups
Solving this problem for dual-PC streams is a bit spicier. Either you can use:
two microphones simultaneously (one for your gaming PC to talk in the in-game voice chat and one for your streaming PC so your audience could hear you)
or audio mixer software (such as PedalBoard),
or hardware: soundboards.
Here is a little help from Murray Frost:
Best capture cards in 2020 (my recommendations)
1. Cheap, but still good - YOTOCAP YT-294 - $90
An internal capture card for $90! Extremely beginner-friendly. Check it out HERE.
2. Still affordable - MiraBox Capture Card - $126
A very simple external capture card for half the price of the Elgato ones. Check it out HERE.
3. Best of bests - Elgato Game Capture Card HD60 S - $240
Probably the most common of external capture cards. Well, for a reason! Check it out HERE.
4. Not the Elgato one PLZ - AVerMedia Live Gamer 4K - $280
A beautiful internal capture card. You can catch it for an extremely good price in the sale seasons. Check it out HERE.
5. Kinda overkill - Elgato Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2 - $250
This card is probably the one that can provide the best quality amongst capture cards. Check it out HERE.
6. For older consoles - buy any capture card and use an AV-HDMI converter.