While I’ve touched on the subject of which capture card I recommend using in the “Best streaming pc” post I made a while back, I have yet to go over the subject in detail. I feel that it is time to tackle this subject head-on; There are hundreds of capture cards on the market, all of which work to varying degrees of usefulness. However, for the purpose of livestreaming on platforms like Twitch or YouTube, some perform better than others. Our goal with this post is to provide a list of the best capture cards that conform to the needs of streamers.
I’ve spent quite a few hours researching this subject, combing several YouTube reviews from the likes of EposVox, GamingScan, and several others in my considerations. The takeaway from this research is that there is one particular feature that is invaluable for you guys:
This feature allows you to both capture footage from an HDMI source, as well as send out a signal to a display without the added latency from the capture process. Now, there are ways to do this with an HDMI splitter, but that ends up with a spaghetti monster of wires. But if you are on a tight budget, coupling a splitter like this with the cheaper capture cards listed here will save you quite a bit of money, if you’re willing to deal with the mess.
Table of Contents
Who really needs a capture card?
There are two widely utilized situations that exist where a capture card becomes a necessary purchase to stream content.
The first is retro consoles that do not support a streaming application. This means every single console older than the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. This also includes the Nintendo Switch, as it does not currently support streaming services at this time. Please note that the Switch must be docked in order to utilize a capture card.
The second use case is capturing HDMI out of a DSLR camera to use as your webcam. Of course, this is assuming your camera doesn’t already support a similar feature over USB instead of a capture card. If that trend continues, then capture cards will one day only really have one reason for streamers to buy – the retro console capture.
If you don’t fall into one of those three examples, you really don’t need a capture card. Unless, of course, you know you do for a specific use case that applies uniquely to you.
Get the right capture card device for your needs
Some capture cards will have different inputs to match the needs of different video and audio sources. You will need the capture card that has the inputs and outputs that you can utilize. Typically, that means HDMI these days, as that is the standard used by most modern consoles & devices. However, if you are a Retro Streamer, you may actually need a Composite capture card, unless you had something like the Super 64 by EON Gaming. It all depends on what the video source uses, really.
Finally, Not all capture cards are created equally. Some have a large latency, which can make its use for live streaming a hassle to deal with. For example, say you are capturing video from a console game. Well, because you have a good HDMI passthrough lane with this example, you end up reacting to a situation in your webcam feed and mic before the stream sees it in play. This can be somewhat confusing to your audience until they realize what is going on, and having such a situation lowers your perceived production value.
One extreme example I’ve seen was a streamer with over three seconds of delay, resulting in very early reactions to in-game events. This is a sort of hard disconnect for your audience with that much advance notice.
This side-effect is often worked around by fixing the audio and video tracks synchronization in post-editing software, like Davinci Resolve. But in a live environment, you aren’t afforded such luxuries. But with a capture card that has a lower latency from the capture process, this becomes less of an issue.
The Roundup: The Best USB-Attached HDMI Capture cards
A quick note in case you skipped the above sections: HDMI Pass-through will allow you to view the signal with zero latency added from the capture card into a monitor or TV. Note that if your monitor runs above 60hz, you will need one of the higher-end cards listed that states it supports higher than 60 fps for pass-through. Your best bet in this situation is to opt for a PCI-E capture card.
Under $50 “Gets the job done”
On a tight budget? Consider these Generic capture cards. These are dongles without any sort of HDMI pass-through, Just the basics. This means if you want to view the source, you’ll need to play it through your preview window in OBS, or buy an HDMI Splitter to split the signal before it reaches the dongle. The monitoring method adds some latency, but unless you are doing First Person shooters, that shouldn’t affect your gameplay too much.
The Camlink has an added benefit of making the PC think the attached source is in fact a webcam, enabling the use of webcam filters, such as Gain, White balance, and saturation.
“Enthusiast” grade capture cards
- USB 3.0 AverMedia Live Gamer Mini 1080P 60 w/ pass-through
- USB 3.0 AverMedia Live Gamer Portable 2 Plus 4k30 pass-through
- Elgato HD60S+ 1080P @ 60 fps capture with 4k60 pass-through USB 3.0
- ClonerAlliance Flint 4kP Plus,1080P @ 60 FPS with 4k 60 passthrough USB 3.0 Type-C
- USB 3.1 AverMedia Live Gamer Ultra for above 60 fps capture
- Thunderbolt 3 AverMedia Live Gamer Bolt
These capture cards represent the best that technology has to offer using a USB 3.0, 3.1, or the Thunderbolt standard. With the exception of the Live Gamer Mini, all of these options support 4k Passthrough.
Note: If your motherboard does not have a Thunderbolt port, you will be unable to use the Live Gamer Bolt.
My Recommendation to most streamers: The AverMedia Live Gamer Mini
This card ticks most of the boxes needed for streamers on platforms like Twitch, which have a limited bitrate maximum.
- FHD pass-through
- 60fps capture
- Low latency capture
It does, however, lack the ability to pass through greater than 60 fps. As a result, you would be unable to utilize a 144 Hz 1080p display to its potential using this capture card out of the box. It requires a USB 3.0 port to utilize its full potential, so be aware of that when deciding on your purchase.
Of course, there is a workaround to that little issue involving mirroring the source, if the source is on a PC. This only works with NVIDIA cards though, which I recommend using for streaming anyways.
To get the Audio of the signal, you can usually send it over HDMI, but in the cases that you can’t get that working, I wrote a guide on how to route your audio.
For YouTube Content Creators: AVerMedia Live Gamer Ultra
If you’re looking to record 4k Footage with 30 fps, then your options are narrowed down towards the top end cards. The lowest cost card capable of this is the AverMedia Live Gamer Ultra.
Unfortunately, this also means your motherboard needs to support USB 3.1. 4k is super bandwidth-hungry, so it needs this kind of throughput to not saturate the USB bus. If you don’t have that, then you’ll need a PCI-E 3.0 capture card.
Premium Tier: The Best PCI-E HDMI Capture Cards
The step into the premium and some would say, overkill capture technology, is that of the PCI-E capture cards. These beasts of technology utilize the massive bandwidth offered by the PCI-E 3.0 interface to deliver high fps, High resolution, low latency capture. These cards are well suited to capturing 4k footage for use on YouTube. All of the listed cards in this section are capable of Passthrough, so I don’t need to specify this.
Entry-level PCI-E Capture Cards
These two are 1080p60 capture devices without 4k Passthrough. They are a bit on the older side of things, but are fairly decent options if you just need basic, low latency capture without an external footprint that USB devices deal with.
High-End PCI-E Capture Cards
These devices are the top of the line capture products offered by the two most popular companies that are commonly recommended by several streamers. As you can probably tell, the PCI-E interface isn’t nearly as popular as the USB interface, and for good reason. It isn’t as accessible for users, and limits it’s use to desktops only.
But it is internal, extremely low latency, and leaves your USB bus bandwidth intact. For some, these benefits outweigh the loss of accessibility.
The best of the bunch: Elgato 4k 60 Pro MKII
The MKII is one of the most impressive capture cards on the market by far, for its unique feature: Being able to output it’s capture to two separate programs. For a YouTube creator who also streams, this can be invaluable, because you can record gameplay, or anything else for that matter, separate from your overlays, and keep the overlays going on stream. This allows you free reign in your editing of footage later.
So, if your intent is to record footage as well as stream, this is the card for you. Just remember though, unless you specifically want these features, lower end capture cards are totally viable to capture 1080P footage.
Other notable features include:
- HDR10 support
- 4k60 Capture
- 1440p 144 fps
- Up to 1080p 240 fps for the frame lovers