What Do Capture Cards Do, And Why Do You Need One Right Now?

Battlestation Setups is reader-supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small commission.
Written By: Lorenzo • Updated: 25/10/2021

I'm not going to lie; I was a little confused when I first started researching capture cards since there are many different ways you can use one.

You can use capture cards for competitive gaming, whether you are live streaming or recording footage.

But capture cards can do more than just that.

So what do capture cards do?

A capture card acts as a receiver for input data, allowing you to "pass-through" footage from one device to another.

This means that you can live stream or record on one device, capture the footage from that device, and display it through another device or get it encoded and turned into a video.

And when I say devices, I mean any device that plays or records footage...

Hopefully, that cleared up how capture cards work. If it did, you can move on to some budget-friendly capture cards here...

But if you're still not entirely sure, let me go a little bit more in-depth...

What Do Capture Cards Actually Do?

As stated earlier, a video capture cards act as receivers for input data, allowing you to "pass-through" footage from one device to another.

In other words, it's the middleman between two devices, allowing you to capture footage to either record or stream.

Whether you want to record footage or live stream, capture cards drastically reduce the lag between your gameplay and what you see on-screen...

Or if you're a console player wanting to take advantage of higher refresh rates or even play your Nintendo switch on a larger TV screen without lag.

There are some creative ways you can use a capture card. Here are some clever ways you can take advantage of this piece of technology:

  • Gaming PC To Play Games → Capture Card → Secondary PC To Record And Encode Footage: This allows you to record gameplay on your main computer without using its resources.
  • Gaming PC To Play Games → Capture Card → TV: This allows you to play games on a larger TV resolution with minimal lag.
  • Console To Play Games → Capture Card → PC To Record And Encode Footage: This allows you to record gameplay off your console.
  • Console To Play Games → Capture Card → High Refresh Rate Monitor: Allows you to game on a 144Hz or 240Hz monitor for more responsiveness.
  • Console To Play Games → Capture Card → TV: This allows you to play games on a giant TV with minimal lag.
  • DSLR/Mirrorless Camera → Capture Card → PC: This allows you to use a camera as your face cam.

Do You Need A Capture Card To Stream?

A picture of a "live" element pointing to a capture card. What do capture cards do?
(Right) AVerMedia Mini Capture Card

No. You don't need a capture card to stream.

In many cases, capture cards aren't necessary for game streaming...

But what they do well is drastically reduce the strain off of your primary gaming device, whether that's a PC or a console.

So no, you don't need a capture card to stream, but we recommend it, especially if you are playing some resource-heavy games.

You can also use a capture card to connect a DSLR/Mirrorless camera to your PC so that you can use it as a face cam.

Is It Better To Stream With A Capture Card?


Now, when you are live streaming games, you might use two computers where you use one PC to run the game and the second PC to receive your video output and encode it.

And the second is connected to a capture card that will record the video in a format compatible with a player that broadcasts the game.

Connecting the second computer to the first does not interfere with its system performance or affect your game in any way, which happens if you go for screen capture.

That's because screen recording is an added burden on the laptop or PC.

Screen recording might be cheaper or free, but you will pay the price in terms of the quality of the output.

Speaking of which, capture cards are also advantageous because they make high-quality game streaming possible, allowing you to look professional for your audience.

These devices also give you the bonus of allowing custom overlays that add value to your content.

And you can have the video on external storage, which gives you the option of building a library.

You May Also Like: Dr Disrespect's Setup: PC, Streaming Gear, and Peripherals

Why Should You Choose A Capture Card Over Recording?

A graphic explaining the differences between a capture card system versus using your main computer to record.

While the process is similar to screen recording, a capture card ensures that the PC you're gaming from doesn't have to use resources recording your gameplay at the same time.

And since that burden is no longer a concern, you can expect a recording or stream without lag.

Or with video game consoles, using a capture card is the easiest way to record your gameplay.

This will keep your audience engaged because the card also ensures that the output is of high quality.

Depending on the resolution you choose, the price of the card goes up or down.

Using a capture card is a better option.

But before you get one, you must know which capture card to buy and how to use it.

Here's a small guide...

Types Of Capture Cards

Your first move is to ensure that you have the right cables, including a USB cable, HDMI cable, console, and a PC or a laptop.

You won't need them all because it depends on the capture device.

There are two types of ways you can connect a capture card:

  • Via USB: Self-explanatory.
  • Via PCIe Slot (PCI Express AKA Internal Capture Card): Can only be installed internally on a motherboard.

There are different ways you can record using these two types of capture cards:

  • USB External Capture Card (No Encode): You will need a high-performing PC to run the game and another connected to the capture card. We recommend this setup for hardcore gaming, where FPS is a factor. The capture card will use your secondary PC's resources to encode video as you record or live stream, so you can dedicate 100% of your PC's resources to smoothly running your game of choice.
  • USB External Capture Card(Built-In Encode): You won't need a secondary PC for the capture cards with built-in encoders. This makes the capture card perfect for traveling since it's widely portable. Although you may find that you gain better footage from a secondary PC, a capture card with a built-in encoder saves you time and money.
  • PCIe Internal Capture Card (No Encode): Works the same as a USB version of a capture card, just installed on your secondary PC's motherboard.
  • PCIe Internal Capture Card (Encode): Works the same as the USB version of a capture card - you install it on your secondary PC's motherboard. Although this defeats the purpose of having a secondary PC - you're better off just using your secondary PC's resources.

Pre-Requisites Of A Capture Card

A good capture card is compatible with some Macs, all Windows PCs, HDMI-compatible cameras, and video game consoles like Nintendo Switch, Xbox X Series, and Playstation 5.

Ensure that you check the hardware specifications of the capture card before you buy one.

No matter what device you connect to, make sure your capture card has an HDMI output.

Here's what you need to use a capture card.

  • A primary device that has an HDMI output port.
  • A capture card that has an interface that is compatible with the primary device.
  • A second HDMI cable.
  • Recording/live streaming capture software (We recommend using your capture cards native software or OBS).
  • Two types of monitors (can also be a TV).
  • A PC/Laptop for encoding purposes.

Below is a quick list of how capture cards work on different systems and consoles:

  • Mac: You will need a capture card designed for this platform. But they do make streaming better in terms of the output resolution.
  • PlayStation: A capture card allows the gamer to stream, record, and edit the footage with greater flexibility.
  • Xbox: Capture cards make it easier to handle heavy files of the game footage, making it easier to stream, record, and edit the footage.
  • Wii: You will need a capture card that is compatible with this platform. They make it easy to transfer the data between the devices.

Quick Tutorials: How To Set Up Your Capture Card

A picture including three photos; an AVerMedia capture card, the OBS logo, and an Elgato S+ capture card.
Source: (Left) AVerMedia Mini Capture Card | (Right) Elgato HD60 S+ Capture Card

Most, if not all, capture cards work with OBS Studio, but you may find that more premium capture cards have their own recording software, namely Elgato and AVerMedia.

You will find that some features that Elgato and AVerMedia offer aren't available while using OBS, and you will need to use their native capture card app.

How To Set Up A Capture Card (General Guides)

If you are going to use a PC capture card, here's what you need to know.

Any capture card will need a PC that can read what you are trying to pass through.

But if you have heard people in the know using the term "PC capture card," you can safely assume that they mean a PCI-e capture card.

This will require you to have two HDMI cables and a motherboard compatible with your PCI-e capture card.

Here's the step-by-step process:

  • Step 1: Install the capture card.
  • Step 2: Download the capture software and drivers that are required for the capture card to work.
  • Step 3: Insert the card into the PCI-e slot on your PC's motherboard.
  • Step 4: Plug an HDMI cable into the capture cards IN port.
  • Step 5: Plug the other end of this cable into the OUT port of your chosen gaming device.
  • Step 6: Take the other HDMI cable and plug it into your capture cards OUT port.
  • Step 7: Plug in the other end of this second cable into the IN port of your monitor or television screen.

Using A Capture Card With OBS

If you are a gamer trying to live stream, we recommend using OBS, a popular free-to-use capture software to capture games. Here's how to use it:

  • Step 1: Set it up by clicking on "Sources" and then the "+" sign under it.
  • Step 2: You should be able to see your capture card. Click on it and name it for convenience.
  • Step 3: Go to "Properties" and click on your capture card.
  • Step 4: Click on the "Start Recording" button at the bottom right corner of the screen.

It is best to test this out before your actual broadcast to iron out any possible glitches.

If you do hit a bump, click on "Help" for troubleshooting.

How To Set Up A USB Capture

For this, you will need to get an external USB capture card, and you will need a USB cable and two HDMI cables.

  • Step 1: Take one HDMI cable and insert it into the capture cards IN port.
  • Step 2: The other end of that HDMI cable goes into your laptop or console OUT port.
  • Step 3: Take the other HDMI cable and plug it into the capture card's OUT port.
  • Step 4: The other end of the second cable goes into your display devices IN port. This would be your television screen or monitor.
  • Step 5: Take the USB cable and connect it to your laptop.

Features To Look For Before Buying A Capture Card

As mentioned before, you need to find the right capture card depending on your requirements. Here are some key factors that go into buying one.

  • Recording Capabilities: You use capture cards for high-quality output. Look for hardware that supports at a minimum - 1080p HD so that your live streams are exciting.
  • Price: This is important because you get what you pay for when it comes to capture cards, which means the more expensive the card, the higher your recording capabilities will be. So, the priciest ones are a good choice for competitive gamers looking for the highest-quality videos.
  • Console: The card must support the input formats of your recording device, especially for live streaming. Popular devices like PlayStation, Wii, and Xbox are good since they use HDMI connections.
  • Hardware Factors: Your card must also have the right speed, memory, and storage space, which means you need to look for established brands so that you get tech support as and when you need it. The current front-runners in the capture card industry are Elgato and AVerMedia.
  • Ease of Use: A good capture card has many features, but you need to know how to use them to make the best of your purchase. That means you need to go through the user manual at least once. Make sure the features are not over complicated for your understanding and, if they are, that the user manual helps instead of making it worse.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do You Need a Capture Card to Stream Games?

You don't need it, but having one will ensure that the output is high-quality.

The high-quality resolution will show you off as a "professional," which will win brownie points in the eyes of your viewers.

Are Capture Cards Necessary?

This depends on your situation. If you are a competitive gamer with live streaming plans, then capture cards can be extremely useful.

The same is true for those who want to live stream or record videos.

If you are a hobbyist who only plays games casually, you can do without a capture card.

Do Capture Cards Affect FPS?

Typically, you use the capture card with a second device.

That means you use one PC to run the game and the other to record the footage.

In that case, it does not affect your FPS because your recording does not take up any resources from the PC you are gaming from.

This is the prime reason why capture cards are the preferred method of recording or live streaming gameplay, especially with games nowadays becoming more resource-heavy.

Are Capture Cards Expensive?

They don't have to be, but it is dependant on your needs.

If you are a competitive gamer recording footage for professional reasons, you will likely pick a card that supports the highest resolution - 4K.

These cards can cost between ~$150 - ~$300, which isn't bad.

The bulk of your expenses will come in ensuring you have the main pre-requisite - a streaming PC to handle the majority of your encoding.

Can I Record Audio With My Capture Card?

Yes, most capture cards allow you to record audio and video with your capture card, which you can use for high-quality recordings and broadcasts.

Pay attention, though, because some capture cards combine your microphone and your in-game sounds in one track, so you can't separate the audio between the two.

Ensure you look at how the capture card captures your audio.

The Bottom Line

Capture cards are a better option than screen recording because they are not an additional burden on the PC (unless you use only one system).

This reason alone is why a capture card is an excellent addition to your streaming accessories.

It is essential to note that some capture cards lag at the capture preview stage, so ensure you check this feature if you're planning to game on using your preview window.

Apart from the quality of your capture card, the speed and quality of your footage will also depend on your streaming computer's hardware.

With the correct hardware setup, you can produce some stunning 1080p/4K quality, which are the standards for "high-quality" footage nowadays.

There are at least five different ways of using these capture cards, all of which we have detailed above.

You can use it with a single PC or two or a gaming console.

If you're using a PC, we recommend using two systems, one for the game and the other for capturing. Now you're ready to go and buy a capture card.

Article written by Lorenzo
Since the age of 6, Lorenzo has enjoyed gaming on computers. Having grown up in the digital age, the technology revolves around him. He enjoyed growing up gaming throughout his high school years and is now a young adult who does most of his work on his computer. Lorenzo's mission is to make buying products and building PC's an easy and fun experience for all.

Related Posts