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What Is a Capture Card and How Does It Work?

how does a capture card work

As a gamer or streamer, you may have heard of a capture card and wondered what it is and how it works. 

A brief explanation is that a game capture card is a device that enables gamers to record, stream, and save their gaming sessions by capturing video and audio from gaming consoles such as Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. 

Capture cards are an invaluable tool for gamers and streamers who want to share their experiences with friends and family or even broadcast their work to a larger audience.

Find all about capture cards, how they work, and how to set them up.

What Is a Capture Card?

A capture card is a device that facilitates the transmission of audio and video signals from one source (usually a gaming console or some other input) into a computer, where it can be recorded, stored, and streamed to other devices.

The capture card enables easy recording and transmission of all your gaming experiences, whether for archiving or streaming purposes. This allows for an easier and smoother recording experience and the ability to customize the settings to suit your needs.

How Does a Capture Card Work?

A capture card allows you to record or stream from your PC, console, or other devices in high quality. The capture card captures the video signal from your device, processes it, and sends it out to a streaming platform like YouTube or Twitch.

It’s worth noting that a capture card doesn’t handle any data encoding. It only eases data transfer from input devices to the computer, which transmits the feed to streaming platforms.

Why Do You Need a Capture Card?

You already understand what a capture card does. But why is it necessary? 

First, it’s essential to appreciate what goes into a successful livestream. Visuals are everything with livestreams, and while you might have the best background for your streams, equally capable capture devices are just as vital.

Similarly, you must have a computer that can process and transmit the footage quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, it is challenging to find these capabilities in one device. 

In most cases, you can easily find a computer that can encode, process, and transmit streams efficiently. Getting capable input devices (i.e., cameras and microphones) in most computers can be tricky.

A capture card solves this. Thanks to seamless connectivity, the right capture card can make any peripheral input device seem like a built-in feature. 

So, you can now take better videos or record better audio using a DSLR or sensitive microphone; and your computer won’t be able to tell. Even better, your audience will get better visuals from your stream.

How to Set Up a Capture Card

Setting up a capture card can be intimidating initially, but it’s not as complicated as it seems. 

This is how it is with most capture cards, but slight variations may exist. If there are any, please consult the manufacturer’s instructions or manual.

How to Use a Capture Card for Xbox One and PS4

Here’s how to go about it:

  1. First, connect your capture card to your console. This involves plugging the video and audio cables of the capture card into the appropriate ports on your console. 
  2. Install the necessary software. You should see an automatic prompt asking you to install software for the capture card to work on your device.
  3. Connect the HDMI output from the Xbox or PS4 to the capture card’s input HDMI slot. Plug a second cable connecting the capture card’s HDMI output to the monitor or TV you’ll be playing the game on.
  4. Connect the computer you’ll be transmitting from to the capture card using a USB cable.
  5. Switch your Xbox/ PS4 on and launch your streaming software.
  6. Navigate to where you can add sources, then select your capture card from the available devices.  

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How to Set Up a Capture Card for PC

Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Start by connecting your capture card to your PC. Depending on the type of capture card you have, this will either involve connecting it directly to your PC with an HDMI or USB cable or plugging it into a PCIe slot (for internal capture cards). 
  2. Download the software that comes with your capture card. This is usually found on the manufacturer’s website or as an installation prompt. Install the software, ensuring all necessary drivers are up to date.
  3. Configure your settings. This will depend on the type of capture card you have, so be sure to read the instructions that came with it. Generally, you’ll need to select your video source, resolution, and other recording settings. 
  4. Connect the HDMI output from the PC you’ll be using to game or create content to the capture card. Next, connect the HDMI output from the HDMI to the computer you’ll be transmitting your streams from,
  5. Connect your capture card to the computer you’ll be streaming using a USB cable.
  6. Test your setup. You can do this by recording a clip or testing the audio. Ensure the quality is good and there are no dropped frames in the footage.


With internal capture cards, ensure you switch off the computer before installing it. Locate a free PCIe slot, slide your capture card in, and secure it firmly.

How to Use a Capture Card for Nintendo Switch

It may sound cliché, but purchasing the right one is the first step to using a capture card for your Nintendo Switch. 

That said, here are the rest of the steps:

  1. Install all the manufacturer-recommended software for the capture card. Usually, the install prompt comes up automatically.
  2. Connect the output HDMI cable from the Nintendo Switch dock to the input port of your capture card. 
  3. Connect the output HDMI from the capture card to the TV, monitor, or computer you’ll use to stream.
  4. This may not apply to all, but if your capture card has one, plug in the power cable, then connect it to the computer via USB.
  5. Launch your preferred streaming software, navigate to where you can add “Sources,” and select your capture card from the options. If it doesn’t show up, try reconnecting the HDMI and USB cables.
  6. To record, press the record button within the software. To stream, set up a streaming service within the software. 

Types of Capture Cards

Generally, there are two main types of capture cards. Internal and external, but many types branch out from these two, with the basis of classification on which device(s) they’re used.

Internal and External Capture Cards

As the name suggests, internal capture cards are installed or plugged in internally, whereas external ones are connected to the computer externally.

Since they’re installed directly into the computer, internal capture cards are easy to set up and use. However, they may need more flexibility and higher resolutions of some external models. External capture cards can give users more control over their recordings and access to a broader range of formats but require additional setup time.

Internal capture cards are often cheaper, making them ideal for those on a budget. However, an external card is likely the better choice if you’re looking for a high-end setup. 

Also, internal capture cards are limited to desktop computers, unlike external cards, which can be used with any computer, laptop, or desktop.

Capture Cards for Consoles

This type captures gameplay or any other activity on consoles and transmits it to another computer which transmits it to streaming platforms.

There are multiple capture cards explicitly built for consoles. Most of these come with HDMI connections, the most common type of connection used by modern consoles. Some cards may also feature composite or component connections, which are less common but still usable with consoles.

Capture Cards for PC

PC capture cards come in various forms, but the most common type is an internal PCI card. These cards are installed directly into your computer’s motherboard and connect directly to your PC’s graphics processor (GPU). 

This type of card usually offers the best performance and features, as they have direct access to the GPU and system memory.

External capture cards are just as capable, but they can be expensive. However, the convenience and better performance they afford make them worth it.

3DS and 2DS Capture Cards

These two are built specifically for streaming gameplay from Nintendo consoles. The 3DS capture card has a special connector that connects directly to the console’s headphone port. It allows you to capture both video and audio directly from the console. 

The card also features built-in software that allows you to record and edit the captured footage easily.

The 2DS capture card is similar to the 3DS Capture Card but has different connectors compatible with the 2DS console. 

It also has software built-in, allowing you to record and edit your footage quickly and easily.

You can use both capture cards to share your gameplay online with friends or the world. 


Can You Stream Without a Capture Card?

Streaming without a capture card is possible, but the stream’s quality will be limited. To stream without a capture card, you need to have an internet connection, a streaming platform such as Twitch or YouTube Live, and a device with a camera and microphone, like a laptop or smartphone. 

With these items, you can start streaming immediately, but it won’t provide the same quality as streaming with a capture card. A capture card offers higher-quality video and audio as well as increased stability. This makes it ideal for professional streamers who want to produce the highest quality streams possible. 

Some capture cards are compatible with more than one streaming platform and can stream to multiple platforms simultaneously. So, while streaming without a capture card is an option, having a capture card provides better quality and stability, making it the preferred choice for serious streamers.

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What’s the Difference Between Game Recording and Capturing Software?

Although they are both used for recording video footage from a gaming session, they have different purposes and operate differently. 

Game recording software records the entire video of a game session, including sound. This means you can capture gameplay, cut scenes, and any other video content associated with the game. This software is great for creating videos to share with others or tutorial videos. 

On the other hand, game capture software is designed specifically for streaming live gameplay. It captures footage from the game in real time, allowing you to stream your gaming sessions live on platforms like Twitch and YouTube. 

Unlike game recording software, game capture software does not record the audio from the game, so it’s best to use a separate microphone if you want to include audio in your stream. 

Here’s a list of the best free screen recorders.

What Makes a Good Capture Card?

When buying a capture card, there are many factors to consider to get the best quality video and audio output.

The first factor to consider is the type of connection your capture card will use. The two most popular types are USB 3.0 and HDMI. USB 3.0 offers the highest resolution and frame rate. With an HDMI connection, you’ll be able to capture up to 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second.

Another critical feature to consider is your capture card’s recording and streaming capabilities. Look for features such as built-in encoding, which makes streaming much easier, and multiple input options.

Also, look for features such as integrated scalers and hardware audio mixers, which can help improve the quality of your streams.

Finally, you’ll want to ensure your capture card has enough internal memory and supports the latest technologies, such as 4K and HDR recording. This will ensure that you can take advantage of the latest streaming technologies and capture high-quality content.

What Is a 3DS Capture Card?

A 3DS Capture Card is a device used to record, stream, and share gameplay footage from a Nintendo 3DS console. 

The recorded footage is then saved onto a computer or streaming service, allowing you to share your gameplay with others. With a 3DS Capture Card, you can capture any moment of your gameplay, no matter how brief.

Unlike other capture cards designed for consoles like the Xbox or PlayStation, the 3DS Capture Card works differently due to the 3DS console’s unique design. While most capture cards use HDMI connections, the 3DS Capture Card is designed to plug directly into the headphone port. This makes it more convenient to set up, as you don’t need to buy additional cables or adapters.

The 3DS Capture Card lets you stream your gameplay easily with its built-in streaming support. You can connect the capture card to your computer and stream your gameplay online in minutes. 

Final Thoughts

A capture card is integral to the success of any streamer that wants to take their stream to a higher level. They are pretty easy to set up and use, with the ability to capture HD video and audio from multiple sources. Still, it’s entirely possible to livestream without a capture card.

Choosing the right capture card is as vital as having one in the first place. Now that you know what a capture card is, what to consider, and how to set it up, it shouldn’t be too hard.

Investing in a good capture card is important to create quality streaming content. Don’t forget to start, even if it’s not yet come together. If you’re uncertain about it, here’s an in-depth guide on how to live stream on Twitch.

After you’ve done the hard work, don’t forget to promote the live stream to bring as many people as possible to your stream.

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