Advisor Capture Cards: Record PC and console games

If you want to publish (semi-) professional video from games, Capture Cards help. We tried the most important devices and show strengths, weaknesses and costs.

Today you do not play for yourself anymore. In times of social media, Twitch and Youtube, sharing their video game experiences with other people is easy. Classic video reviews or streaming are two of the most popular options. But even a video essay about a particular aspect of a game can start a dialogue. The net is full of analysis on game design or the dramaturgical content of interesting titles. In contrast to a classically filmed video contribution, there is a special technical requirement: The game scenes must be recorded.

Do you need a Capture Card? Not always. Who plays at a PC with Nvidia graphics card, is with the included recorder software Shadow Play already well served. The parallel to the graphics card driver offered and free software just runs in the background and takes the game in the foreground. Of course, this costs CPU and GPU resources.

Even Playstation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch have rudimentary capture capabilities. The image quality is poor in the videos due to the low bit rate and prone to annoying artifacts. For occasional sharing on social media, where anyway only small videos or pictures are needed, but it is enough. So potentially every player can record. It's just a question of ambition or use case, if you actually need your own Game Capture Card.

Game Capture Devices help to record games and other content.

With the article we start into a new theme world around streaming, Let's Plays and related topics. Fits to this post is already our guide: microphones for podcasts and Let's Plays appeared.

A long time ago, newsrooms from game magazines actually shot and printed photos of their office monitors. For videos, they were dependent for a while on the material provided by the manufacturer. At the turn of the millennium, magazine DVDs were an obligatory supplement and editors built their own video editorial. To record expensive hardware was needed, which usually found in a performance-hungry PC space.

But that has changed – also because of Youtube. Ever since the success of the Angry Video Game Nerd, it has become clear that the future of gaming coverage lies in video formats that anyone can record in their living room. Manufacturers have reacted accordingly and developed products that are also affordable for the hobby user. This is followed by a wide distribution and in tons of video recordings. Today, players often find out about moving pictures about games. A simple google search throws up results even in obscure insider tips – mostly Let's Plays or uncommented walkthroughs.

Of course, video capture devices are also used for sources other than game consoles. Basically, any video signal is recorded that is not copy protected. For example, you can digitize material from old videocassettes. For older devices that appeared about five to six years ago, there are also integrated analog inputs. They are adapted to the then current generation of consoles and provide connections for Component (for example Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii) and Composite (also Playstation 2 or older consoles). Sometimes there are also cable whips, where synonymous S-Video is here. However, analogue ports are no longer the norm for current capture devices – they only use HDMI, which means, for example, that the current retro consoles (top 10) also work.

Further fields of application are, for example, endoscopes in human medical diagnostics or mirroring of an external camera. The target-group-oriented product design of the Game Capture Devices may seem inappropriate for other cases, but they fulfill their function.

The range of devices is now so large that you can find the right game capture device for every application. The first major difference is in the mode: There are internal solutions that come as an expansion card in a computer. There are also external devices that are either connected to a computer or even work without. These standalone devices then record not on a PC or Mac-connected drive, but on a USB stick or SD card.

Solutions that require a computer also require recording software. An in-house version is included with each manufacturer, but only Elgato offers software for Mac users. Linux users are up Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) instructed, a free open source program. Compatibility with hardware is not guaranteed. Above all, OBS is a cross-platform solution for streamers, as there are also ports for Mac and Windows. Unsurprisingly, the Windows operating system, which is the most widely supported by manufacturers, is that most games finally run here.

Apart from the operating mode, another aspect to consider when purchasing: The supported resolutions. These can already be read on the data sheet and vary mainly by the age of the devices. There are four important things:

  • the resolution in pixels
  • the frame rate (fps)
  • the maximum bitrate
  • the video passthrough

Of the product descriptions of the shops you can not be alone, since there may be false or misleading information. "Supports 4K" does not mean, for example, that the device actually records in 4K. The optimal case is the look into the specific data sheet. Often, only the so-called video passthrough is mentioned. Means: The video signal between transmitter and receiver is ground by the device, while shooting is only possible in lower resolutions. An example is the PVR Pro 60 from Hauppauge. You can switch it between an Xbox One X and the TV without losing resolution. But when recording the device scales the signal down to 1080p.

The plug-in card 4K 60 Pro from Elgato.

Especially with older game capture devices, the used price is attractive, but not every device supports high image refresh rates. Fast action games that run in 1080p at 60fps will then only be recorded in 30. This looks then jerky, exhausting and, above all, not authentic. 720p / 60 is usually possible. This may seem puny, but may still be a decent solution for retro gamers. The mini-consoles, such as the Super Nintendo Mini (review) or the Playstation Classic (review), supported only 720p anyway. Even at a retro pie (guide) makes this resolution sometimes sense. An expensive 4K recording device does not have to be necessary if you use a setup with lower resolutions anyway.

Another crucial criterion is the quality of the video compression. This point is difficult to assess in advance. Personal reviews play a role in product reviews and sample images are distorted by the compulsory data compression on the Internet. Comparison images in JPG or PNG therefore do not necessarily look like the source material. Not to mention clips on video portals, which convert the source video into several formats when uploading to address different players. Anyway: On a tablet, even mobile phone blur due to the small screen, the quality differences. Only on a computer monitor, video projector or TV they become clear.

An indication of the quality is the specification of the maximum bit rate. This is simply the highest possible data throughput of a video stream. How much information fits in and from when is capping? In terms of games, this means that the more elements in the picture and the faster they move, the more demanding it is for the video codec. A quiet still image of an adventure game should look appealing to almost any video capture device, even if the bitrate is only 18 Mbps. In a racing game is so much going on that it can come to weaker devices with worse video compression to so-called motion blocking. With 18 MBit / s then literally little blocks can be seen. The data throughput was then not high enough. On the other hand, the internal 4K60 Pro card from Elgato can handle up to 140 Mbps. There is room for a lot of picture information, and an effective action scene with lots of particle effects should not be a problem.

How many megabytes per second can be processed can also be limited on the software side. A first indicator from the outside is its connection type: Devices with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt connection handle potentially faster and more data than with Firewire or USB 2.0.

The Elgato software

How does video compression work? Basically, there are two methods that make a video codec its result. First, there is the redundancy reduction. It analyzes self similarities and reduces all repetitive elements. If the image content does not change as much within a certain period of time, new information does not have to be constantly updated. Therefore, a quiet, standing picture of a person on a park bench takes up less space than a wild action sequence with several moving elements. Redundancy reduction combines several methods, sometimes quite complex and even including the optimization of the written code. Each byte is saved.

As far as the file format is concerned, most devices use MPEG-4 / AVC (H.264). It is the first choice when it comes to good image quality with low memory and bandwidth requirements. Common editing programs come with it easily. In unfavorable picture situations and too low set quality settings or too low bandwidth, however, typical MPEG artifacts can occur. In addition to motion blocking, quilting, a kind of edge flickering with slightly oblique lines, is one of them. Also mosquito noise can occur. At the same time, fine details flicker in especially high contrast.

The second method is the irrelevance reduction. Here, image information that the average viewer does not perceive is discarded. The physiological perception of the human eye is exploited in the widest sense. For example, we perceive a reduction in color less true than a reduction in brightness. The color resolution can therefore be reduced without it attracting most viewers immediately. This is called color subsampling. Of course, there are people who have an extremely trained eye and perceive that, but that affects the minority. Another example is the reduction of the resolution at the extreme edge of the screen, as most viewers focus on the center.

The Avermedia Live Game Portable 2.

The more information that is omitted from a compression, the more it needs to be quantized or interpolated at the end. Basically, there are two types: lossless and lossy compression. In the latter, information is lost to the source material. Products for the prosumer usually rely on lossy compression. This sounds worse than it is because good game capture devices are now capable of capturing beautiful images at low file sizes. The latter is not trivial, especially if you want to record longer sessions. With Let's Plays it will take several hours to find space on the hard disk. And finally, the widespread JPG format for image files or MP3 for music rely on lossy compression.

Whether and how brightness and colors are transferred or stored reduced is indicated in three numbers. They symbolize the relationship between resolution, luma signal (brightness) and the color signal. "4" stands for the maximum possible resolution of the respective video standard in a component signal. If one writes about "4: 4: 4", one speaks of the maximum possible quality with the highest processing ability. In "4: 2: 2", however, colors and brightness are only reproduced at half resolution, which, however, takes up only half as much storage space.

Although HDR is a bit longer for home TVs, recording is not trivial. There is no external solution capable of doing so at the time of this article. The highest of emotions is a pass-through of the HDR signal, so you can enjoy it while playing. Only the public has nothing of it. Internal solutions that come as a PCIe card in the desktop PC, however, exist. Avermedia offers with Live Gamer 4K GC 573 and Live Gamer Ultra GC 553 corresponding solutions. Elgato also has Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2. All can record HDR10, but this requires hardware power: At least 16 MB of RAM, a Nvidia graphics card of the Pascal generation and an Intel Core i5 processor have to be. Elgato even needs an i7. Due to limitations of the HDMI 2.0 standard, an HDR signal at 4K can still only be recorded in YUV 4: 2: 0. Full RGB resolution of 4: 4: 4 or half of YUV 4: 2: 2 is not possible.

The external Elgato Game Capture HD.

In contrast to the image quality, there are no major quality differences in audio compression, especially when digitally tapped via HDMI. But it gets exciting when you want to record surround sound. The fewest devices master this and only offer stereo recordings. For releases on Youtube & Co that is quite sufficient, since most viewers do not expect elaborate surround sound in this kind of videos. But who perhaps sits at a higher quality documentation (in the manner of Indie Game – The Movie), may not want to lose the surround information.

With the great success of the Twitch streaming platform, the demands on Game Capture Devices have increased. In the meantime, most users are no longer limited to just recording their game scenes, they also want to broadcast the content live. This poses a challenge for manufacturers: their recording software must be able to connect as a client to video portals. In addition, there must be opportunities for a live comment, i. a switched on microphone must be leaked to the video feed. Not to mention the latency of the video feed output once it has passed through the device. The latest capture cards have no noticeable lag, but for older products this is a crucial factor. In a fighting game (matching arcade sticks in the test) or a music game even the slightest delays can acidify the entire experience.

The Elgato software in action.

Elgato, Avermedia and Razer's programs, included free of charge, meet these requirements as their products are also designed for streamers. With them you can also connect a Facecam, if you have connected a second camera. The programs have rudimentary management and editing capabilities, with performance generally dropping from a specific database size. It is recommended for further editing to access its own editing program. For example, Final Cut Pro X sorts libraries into large containers whose contents you can tag.

Elgato does not rely too much on its own software, but explicitly promotes smooth integration with Open Broadcaster Software (OBS). This also applies to neighboring products such as the Stream Deck, a freely programmable control panel. Although you can also use solutions from other manufacturers, but by small inconsistencies in the communication between device drivers, associated recording software and OBS, the configuration can be more complex.

What to Remember: There is usually no access to the hardware encoder from external capture cards. You can only use the encoder in OBS, which comes with the GPU of the desktop PC. Capture cards are therefore simply connected as an external video source. Noteworthy: The Elgato Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2 is the only card that can output two video signals simultaneously. This is possible at least with the Windows driver and can be very useful in a home studio. So you can, for example, a video stream completely without chat or Facecam overlay spend on its own monitor to better focus on the game can. Or completely freaky: spend on a projector and use that for a creative studio setting? Anyone who is creative can certainly start with the second video output.

A simple search on the major online retailers and sales platforms brings many capture devices to light. In addition to the established manufacturers such as Elgato or Avermedia, there are also a variety of products with unknown names. Some of these devices have a certain self-engendering character that is untrustworthy. As well as the price: Often these are already offered from 50 euros. As an example, we looked at the Relliance HD Video Capture. The equipment is good: It has an analog component input, HDMI in and out, RCA connectors for microphones and a USB port. It is not even connected to the PC, but is designed for standalone operation. The data sheet raises only vague information about the video codec, but the picture quality is moderate. Already in a Kart Racer blocks occur. In addition, the metal casing has become very hot during operation, although an external power supply is connected.

The main PVR Pro 60

Much better is the LogiLink UA0269 Game Cinema Lite HD Capture. The plastic case does not look very stable, but the device is smaller than a pack of cigarettes and very light. It is by far the most portable device we have looked at for this article. With only 18MBit / s, but the device also has clear limits: Although at least 1920 × 1080 are possible with 60 fps, but in fast games you can see quality losses. There is then lack of sharpness and details. For quieter pictures, the quality is quite passable. It is powered by micro-USB. Settings are made via a separate software on the PC, because there is no external switch for quality settings. But this basically applies to all standalone devices.

TerraTec Grabster Extreme HD (130653)

TerraTec Grabster Extreme HD

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LogiLink UA0269 Game Cinema Lite HD Capture

The LogiLink UA0268 Game Cinema Media Capture Box lacks the "Lite" in the title, which is why it's unsurprisingly its big sister. It has a larger case and needs an external power supply. The two devices did not differ in the basic data, but here there is also the possibility for analogue connections. A component signal from the Nintendo Wii or the Playstation 2 are no problem

To our astonishment, the device even handles the Nintendo 64. The signal is not processed and therefore looks as spongy as one might (not) remember, but it is converted to the HDMI output. This is interesting for retro gamers who want to unite the signal converter and standalone recording device in one. A replacement for a complex HDMI modification, which makes the rounds recently in modder circles, but it is of course not.

The Logilink Game Cinema Lite

With Hauppauge HD PVR Pro 60 and Avermedia Live Gamer Portable 2 there are two portable stand-alone solutions that can score with a good image quality. At 1080p60 both land at approximately 100 to 130 MB per minute. Both use SD cards or micro SD cards as a storage medium (overview), which loosely fit several hours.

The processing of the product of Avermedia has a higher quality and it comes with a streaming function that naturally requires a PC and the Avermedia software. But Hauppauge's counterpart has its own screenshot button. Interesting is the switch for the treatment of HDCP signals. If it is switched off, you can loop through copy-protected signals, but not record them. This saves the annoying plugging of cables, if you want to see a Blu Ray with your Playstation 4, for example.

LogiLink Game Cinema Media Capture Box (UA0268)

LogiLink UA0268 Game Cinema Media Capture Box

Hauppauge HD PVR 60 Gaming Edition (01602)

Hauppauge HD PVR 60 Gaming Edition

AVerMedia GC510 Live Gamer Portable 2 (61GC5100A0AB)

Avermedia Live Gamer Portable 2

Noteworthy: In the upper price range, there are no standalone devices. The quality standards are so high that they can not be guaranteed for mobile use. This makes sense, because for the encoding of live streams further processing power is needed. In addition, the high-resolution images would quickly be full of memory cards – if they can be described fast enough by the device.

The Avermedia Live Gamer Portable 2 is an exception with the streaming function, but does not reach the same level of image quality as the Razer Ripsaw HD, for example. The sleek black box features a USB 3.0 port to minimize delays while maximizing data throughput. So good that you can play in the live preview of Razers related software console games on the PC and play. The picture quality is flawless and reaches reference values. The typical compression artifacts can be searched here for a long time.

The Razer Ripsaw HD.

But the black box from Razer does not offer HDR pass-through, let alone a recording. This is where Elgato Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2 comes on the scene. This is an internal capture card with PCIe port, which can also record HDR10. In addition to the computing power, the demands on the storage space are immense: One minute of gameplay absorbs 1.5 GB on average with maximum quality settings. You come here in regions where actually manufacturers for professional filmmakers cavort. The camera manufacturer Black Magic Design, for example, also offers an internal card with the Intensity Pro 4K, but does not explicitly address gamers. For this reason, the company is decoupling streaming features and offering dedicated hardware. But they are beyond the 200 euros. Who does not know where to go with all the data: We have examined external hard disks (comparison test) and NAS systems for home (comparison test)

Razer Ripsaw (RZ20-01780100-R3G1)

Razer Ripsaw HD

Elgato Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2 (10GAS9901)

Elgato Game Capture 4K60 Pro MK.2

Blackmagic Design Intensity Pro 4K

Intensity Pro 4K

When buying, you should be smart and consider: Why do I need the card? If you only need low resolutions as well as analogue inputs and you do not want to use a converter, you will probably be well served with an older device like the Elgato Game Capture HD. Or the LogiLink UA0268. For streaming, one should rather look at the software features and compatibility with home studio software like OBS.