Capture Cards: How to Use a Capture Card for Streaming

Guy streaming videogames on computer

Have you ever watched someone blaze through a video game on Youtube or Twitch and wonder how they did it? And by “did it,” we don’t mean speedrun through Metroid Dread or crack all the secrets of Elden Ring. We mean how did they stream video games in high resolution over the internet? Often the answer lies in a video capture card.

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What is a capture card?

A capture card is a computing device that gamers use for recording and streaming gameplay. It enables live streaming of video games on platforms like Discord or Twitch. Video game capture cards also let a user record gameplay on a hard drive or an SD card, where it can be played back later or uploaded to a streaming service like YouTube.

What are capture cards used for?

Video capture cards mainly exist for the purpose of recording and streaming on-screen content. They come in particularly handy when you want to take a video signal from an external device and broadcast it from a laptop or desktop PC. Here are three ways you might use one:

  1. To use a DSLR camera as a webcam. Most of today’s laptop and desktop computers come with a webcam, but some aren’t very good. To get the best quality video quality for your stream, you can attach a high-quality DSLR camera to your computer using a USB cable and use that camera as your webcam instead. In most cases, you can improve image quality and reduce latency by first plugging the DSLR into a capture card and then connecting the capture card to the computer. This will help process the camera’s raw video signal for computer-based streaming.
  2. To stream video games that you play on a console. Typically, you plug a video game console directly into your TV using its HDMI output. But if you want to stream the game while you’re playing, you’ll need a capture card. In this case, you’d plug the gaming console into the capture card, which then produces two video feeds. It sends a converted video file to your PC for streaming and recording, and it sends a signal to your TV so you can still play the game while it streams. This works with any console that has a USB or HDMI output, like a Sony PlayStation, a Microsoft Xbox, or a Nintendo Switch. Note that you can also modify older devices to give them an external port.
  3. Streaming from a gaming PC to a broadcast PC. If you want to use the same PC to play a game and stream it over the internet, you don’t need to buy a capture card. But because both playing and streaming require a lot of processing power, many PC game streamers actually use two computers: a gaming PC to play the game and a streaming PC to broadcast it out. This limits the strain on each machine and helps ensure fluid streaming and gameplay. If you want to use this two-computer method, you’ll need to buy a capture card to send the gaming PC’s video signal to the streaming PC.

Types of capture cards

When shopping for capture cards, you’ll encounter two main variations: external capture cards and internal capture cards.

  • External capture cards. An external capture card connects to your computer using a USB cable. Today that typically means a USB-C cable that runs USB 3.0 speeds or higher.
  • Internal capture cards. An internal capture card attaches to your computer’s motherboard using a PCIe expansion card. This is a popular option for desktop PCs. Most laptop computers don’t allow PCIe expansion cards.

What devices require a capture card?

Not all video game streaming scenarios require a video capture card. Here’s a rundown of some popular platforms as they relate to capture cards.

  • Sony PlayStation. If you want to play a game on a PlayStation and record it or livestream it on your PC, you’ll need a capture card. But you don’t necessarily need a PC in the first place: newer models of the PlayStation, including PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, have a web streaming function built into the device. So if you want to use that function, you can leave out the PC entirely and you don’t need to buy a capture card.
  • Microsoft Xbox. Xbox users have similar options to PlayStation users. Newer versions of the device, like the Xbox One and the Xbox Series X, have built-in streaming capabilities. But if you want to do your streaming or recording through a PC, you’ll need a capture card to handle the conversion.
  • Nintendo devices. The Nintendo Switch can stream to a PC using a capture card. You can also connect it to an Xbox One or Xbox Series X and use those devices for streaming, which cuts out the need for a PC or a capture card. Older Nintendo devices like the 3DS and the Wii don’t have HDMI outputs, which means they need hardware hacks to connect to capture cards, but there are third-party devices that will do the trick. Currently, no Nintendo devices offer built-in streaming without the use of some other device, whether that’s a capture card or another gaming console.
  • Windows PCs. If you’re gaming and streaming on the same Windows PC, you won’t need a capture card. But if you’re going to use a two-PC setup where one computer is your gaming PC and the other is your streaming PC, you’ll need the capture card to connect the two. Specifically, the capture card will serve as an input device for the streaming PC.
  • Mac computers. Within the gaming community, Macs tend to lag behind PCs. Apple limits the expansion possibilities of Mac hardware, and the computers don’t play nice with top-of-the-line GPUs. Still, if you’re gaming and streaming from the same Mac, you don’t need a capture card. If you’re using a Mac as part of a two-computer gaming/streaming setup, you’ll need a capture card to connect the machines. Most likely, you’ll need an external capture card that connects via a USB cable since Apple computers don’t accept PCIe cards (with the lone exception of the Mac Pro).

How to choose a capture card

When shopping for a capture card, keep the following parameters in mind.

  1. Internal card vs. external card. Internal capture cards tend to process video images a bit faster, but they only make sense for Windows desktop PCs; most laptops require an external capture card.
  2. Resolution. Internet videos frequently stream at 1080p, which is considered high definition. 720p streaming is a level below that and 4k streaming is a level above. A 4k video capture card requires more bandwidth, and depending upon your home internet connection, you may not even be able to stream in 4k without heavy latency. Think about price differences and bandwidth when choosing between 1080p and 4k resolution.
  3. Software compatibility. Computers run software to convert and compress the video signals that come through a capture card. Maybe the most popular capture software among video gamers is OBS Studio, but there are a lot of options out there. Make sure your capture card hardware will align with your choice of software.
  4. True need. Not everyone actually needs a capture card. If you game using a single PC, or if you like to use the built-in streaming function found on recent Xbox and PlayStation consoles, you don’t need a capture card to share your gaming skills on Twitch, Discord, or YouTube. Only buy a capture card if you want to stream from a computer while playing the game on a different device — whether that’s a video game console or another PC.

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