Understanding the Different between Capture Cards VS Recording Software

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Capture Cards VS Recording Software

What is a Capture Card (today)?

Video capture cards just as their name implies, are devices or setups that allow users to record video output from a given device or peripheral.

In the classical era of the late 20th century, video capture cards are represented by recording boxes, such as record-capable VHS players, instead. These older machines record video output on an analog setting, and with a detachable media, such as VHS, Betamax, or on traditional CDs.

elgato capture card
Elgato Capture Card

In our modern era today, the definition is a bit modified. Capture cards are officially portable devices that typically enable high definition (HD), lossless recording of a video session outputted on a similarly HD device. While external data storage media such as USB flash cards exist, the video file is usually stored internally on a PC unit hard disk, or online, within a cloud storage space.

The difference both in recording quality and storage medium is significant since this article is focused on recording your gameplay footage with high-quality settings, something that:

  • Usually creates video files that consume a significantly more substantial amount of data space.
  • Only available with specific lossless video container formats.
  • May or may not be an issue whether you are merely recording or streaming.
  • May or may not look good enough for some users on lower/higher frame rates.

HDMI is the standard connection fare for almost all gaming capture cards, but a few old ports, as well as newer ones such as display ports, may be available to step up the versatility of a particular capture card model. This requires considerable notice, as you may want older port availability just in case you are attempting to record gaming sessions from older generation consoles.

Capture Cards VS Recording Software

While the choice of using the best capture cards on consoles is pretty straightforward, on PCs, the alternative and probably the cheaper option of just using recording software is also available.

The choice on what software to use depends on your PCs hardware limitations and of course the options available for that software. However, it is generally considered that merely using a PC resource friendly recording software (probably along with upgrading your PC hardware) would be better than purchasing a dedicated capture card.

If you use a Nvidia GPU for example, you have the option to use the relatively hardware friendly Shadowplay recording software to capture game footage.

Recording Software

Shadowplay hardly puts any severe stress on the PC that it is recording on, just because it precisely uses the hardware resource available on the GPU that you have on your motherboard by default. Granted, you won’t get super high-end quality here, but it is more than enough if you want 1080p 60fps recording on your gaming sessions.

This is even more of a no-brainer when you’re streaming on Twitch, or using software such as XSplit or Open Broadcaster Software (OBS)

These options can provide a good number of very convenient tools necessary to facilitate proper live recording setups. This is regardless of any additional hardware that you may need such as HD webcams or top of the line microphones. Other recording hardware with this method is no longer necessary, and the quality settings are mostly within minimum requirements for capturing footage in HD.

In any case, if you are using a capture card for any specific purpose, such as to use for different gaming rigs, or to set up a separate, dedicated gameplay recording PC that would handle all the recording for you, then the option to buy a capture card is still viable.

Keep in mind though, that your recorded gaming sessions will be just as good as the maximum settings you have used on the game itself. Even if you have the best ultra HD 4K capture cards in use, don’t expect a similar quality if your slightly older game is stuck in like, 720p 30fps maximum settings.

Does Capture Card Help You Streaming Better?

On PCs, the answer is a straight no. Even if it does, the quality increment is not too significant compared to the money you are about to waste on such a setup.

Besides, dedicated streaming setup software provides a much better platform for broadcasting your games to the world than any external recording device.

As mentioned earlier, if you are recording gaming sessions purely for PC, then just upgrading the hardware and choosing the best recording software for your preferences would be much more efficient.

That being said, using a capture card for streaming does make many things better, for several reasons:

  • When using multiple media hardware for streaming sessions (webcams, microphones, or other devices), a capture card can sync all of the audio and video into a coherent viewing experience.
  • For consoles, recording options usually have to make do with the limited hardware of the console. Using a dedicated capture card to record instead lets you bypass this.
  • Some (older) consoles can’t even provide the convenience of an all-purpose, always-ready recording medium in the first place. Thus the use of capture cards for these setups.
  • The default container format (usually H.264) ensures that your data storage space is efficiently conserved.

There are of course several exceptions. The PS4 and Xbox One consoles, for instance, have the fantastic option of streaming on Twitch directly regardless of game, via the Share/Broadcast button upon proper setup of the minimum requirements.

High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) toggling options aside, the quality might be slightly lower comparatively. However, on a minimum HD level, it is hardly an issue that would negatively affect the viewing experience of your target audience.

Ultimately, however, if you want the purest of quality, or would like to have more things to do with the streamed gaming footage than just directly recording them, then using capture cards will technically be better in any way.

Passtools.com author Richard Bernhardt
Richard is 35-year-old IT and tech enthusiast. He holds a master's degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering which complements his passion for science, technology and related aspects. Currently, he is initiating various tech-related startup projects including working as the founder of Passtools.com
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