What Is a Capture Card, and Do I Need One?

A gaming PC setup at a desk.
Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock.com

If you’re thinking about live video game streaming on Twitch or YouTube, you might wonder whether you need a capture card. The quick answer is easy: For streaming from a console like a PlayStation or Xbox via a PC, yes, you do. For streaming PC gameplay, the answer is generally no—but sometimes yes.

What Is a Capture Card?

At its most basic, a capture card does two things: It delivers a video stream to a PC for processing and supports passthrough so that the video signal can also be viewed on a monitor at the same time.

The process of sending the video stream to a PC is important since many external devices need a go-between to get the raw video stream coming from a device (such as a console or camera) and convert it into something that the PC can process. Once the PC has the video, it’s encoded, and can either be saved to a file, uploaded live to the internet, or both.

The passthrough, meanwhile, makes it possible to view the game properly on a monitor while the PC handles recording.

Most capture cards come in two basic form factors: an external USB device that plugs into the PC via USB, or an internal PCIe expansion card. For the latter, you’ll need an available PCIe slot on your desktop PC’s motherboard.

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The basic setup involves sending the video signal from the console or external device to the capture card via HDMI. Then, an HDMI output on the capture card sends the signal to the display. For external cards, a USB cord connects to the PC, while an internal capture card over PCIe already has a connection to the PC in place.

While most capture devices are designed to capture a video stream on the fly and then pass it on to a PC, there’s at least one device that can do all the conversion on its own. The Elgato 4K60S+ is an external box that’s able to record gameplay to an attached SD card, no PC required. The downside is that a device like this can only record video. For performing a livestream, you’d still need to hook up to a PC.

What a Capture Card Isn’t

A capture card is an essential tool if you’re using an external device and recording or streaming on a PC. If, however, you’re streaming gameplay directly from a PC, then a capture card isn’t necessary. That’s because the source stream is coming from the PC itself, so there’s no need for conversion or passthrough. In this case, all you need is software such as OBS, XSplit, or the streaming features of AMD’s Radeon Software or Nvidia’s GeForce Experience.

However, if you’re using an external camera (read: not a webcam) such as a DSLR, then that raw video source likely needs a capture card to work effectively with your PC.

We’ve seen some arguments online claiming that a capture card can help reduce graphics load for the PC, but that’s not the case. All the heavy lifting that turns the video into a compressed file or stream is still happening on the PC.

If you’re a PC streamer and you find that your stream quality isn’t up to snuff, then consider using a second PC. Many of the more popular Twitch streamers who game on a PC use a two-PC setup, and in this case, you do need a capture card.

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With one PC for gaming and one for streaming duties, the capture card sends the video signal from the gaming PC to the streaming/recording PC. Sometimes, you can repurpose an old laptop to do the recording and streaming, but even the streaming/recording PC needs some solid processing chops. A Celeron rig or something with an old CPU with integrated graphics (like Sandy Bridge, for example) just isn’t going to cut it.

What to Look for in a Capture Card

A PCIe capture card lying on its side.
Elgato

When buying a capture card, the first decision to make is whether you want an internal or external card. If performance is everything, then an internal card that can send data over speedy PCIe lanes is the best choice—assuming that you have a desktop PC, of course. If you want to move between various streaming and recording set-ups, then consider going with an external card.

Next is the question of resolution. Streaming in 720p and 1080p is the best choice for most people. You don’t necessarily have to record or game at that resolution—we’re just talking about what you send up to the internet in real-time.

When looking at these cards, consider passthrough resolutions as well. If you want to game and record in 4K but upload at 720p, then you need a card that can handle 4K resolution passthrough, meaning that a 1080p streaming card isn’t going to cut it.

Getting a 4K card is also a good idea if you’d like to build in some future-proofing, or if you want to record videos in 4K for later editing. However, 4K cards are usually more expensive. If you do 4K, consider support for high dynamic range (HDR) as well since that’s a feature common to 4K monitors, and HDR is supported by higher-end consoles and gaming PCs.

So, Do You Need a Capture Card?

Capture cards are a helpful tool for bringing in external sources for a livestream or for recording on your PC.

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If the gameplay is happening on your PC, you don’t have an external camera, and the PC is capable enough for you to play your game and stream at the same time, then a capture card isn’t something that you need.

If you’ve decided to get a capture card for your setup, check out our guide on the best capture cards to find the optimal ones to meet your needs.

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