Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Tech: Comprehensive Capture Device Review

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First and foremost, let me preface by saying that this entire post is in no way promotional.  While I may link to a slew of items – using Amazon because it’s the only location to find all of these items, but many can be found elsewhere and sometimes at better prices – there is nothing in it for myself of Gaming History 101.  We did not receive any of these items, all were purchased by the reviewer (ie: me, Fred Rojas) and none of the links here involve any kickback for purchasing through them as I’m told you can do with Amazon and of course, Gaming History 101 remains completely ad free.  I am writing this piece because when I looked for buying advice online it was nothing but paid promotion, a few hardware reviews that are years old and speak nothing to the current state of these capture devices, and of course none of them had accurate information when it came to capturing retro devices.  In a world where we want screenshots, streaming, video capture, and just to have fun with the prized possessions in our collection and share it with the world, capture devices are a great way to do so.  I have also been told that capturing and streaming emulation, especially if you generate ad revenue (we are ad-free on GH101 as well as our YouTube channel), can be illegal and get your videos taken down so use caution if going that route.  We only capture actual consoles with actual game carts/discs, and use flash carts when necessary for items like homebrew.  Therefore, here is the most comprehensive review I can give with about as much geeky tech background as I can provide.

As stated in the intro, I wanted a device where I could both capture retro and modern consoles that also supported streaming, commentary, and a myriad of content creation options.  I should also point out that my plans were, and currently consist, of importing almost all gameplay into Sony Platinum Video Suite 13 (formerly Vegas) for editing and rendering, so that does play a part in my opinions.  I tested these devices on three computers, all of which I will provide basic spec for you now.  In reviews, these will be labeled as Computers 1, 2, or 3.

Computer 1: Editing Rig

This computer is a strong but basic rig that runs Windows 7 64-bit Premium, has an Intel Core Duo 3.0 ghz processor, 2 GB of RAM, some Intel integrated graphics, multiple USB 2.0 ports, and is a desktop.  I run my editing software on it and it has a massive hard drive for such work.  I also have a slew of software to change content types, which I highly recommend if you’re getting into higher level editing and video production, like FLV extractor/re-encoders (for taking those Twitch streams and making them .mp4), Audacity (for audio editing and adapting), and capture devices.

Computer 2: Antiquated Laptop

I think everyone needs a laptop they no longer care about, and mine is a Sony Vaio that runs Vista Premium (32-bit), an Intel Celeron dual core 2.2 ghz, 4 GB of RAM, Intel integrated graphics, 2 USB 2.0 ports, and a massive 500 GB hard drive.  It was my hope to do all the capturing here since I can compress and extract the clips I want for editing and just capture forever on this computer.

Computer 3: Gaming Rig

This computer runs Windows 7 64-bit Premium, has an AMD Phenom II 955 3.2 ghz quad core (overclocked to 3.6), 8 GB of RAM, NVidia GTX 970 (although I also worked with it on a GTX 760), and twin 7200 RPM 500GB hard drives (no RAID, no SSD), and it does have two USB 3.0 ports. I did not want to use this for game capture for several reasons, most notably that this computer has one purpose and that’s gaming, nothing else.  I also have a graphics card that can capture and stream through Nvidia’s ShadowPlay, which despite the complaints I’ve heard, has never really given me any problems and had incredible capture quality.  Still, it’s not as dependable as a capture card and there have been times where I’ve lost significant data (not to mention it’s a performance hit, like FRAPS is, on cards that are barely meeting benchmark for today’s games).

The Capture Devices

I am not interested in integrated cards because I don’t want it in my gaming rig and the other two computers don’t support add-on hardware, so that’s that.  As a result, here is my breakdown of the cards I tried.

easycapEasyCap  USB Dongle for Composite/S-Video (Link) – Price: $8.99

It really couldn’t be that easy, could it?  Actually, yes, for retro consoles looking exactly as they did this device delivers at a super budget price.  It’s a bit goofy in terms of driver software and I had to go on the web, download six different drivers from random sites, and eventually one worked the way it should, but once it’s running it runs wonderfully.  This comes with ULead Video Studio 8.0, which I recommend using various Googled means to get the updated 10.0 version (and you can do this legally with your EasyCap software’s registration code, but it’s complicated).  This is the perfect starter capture device because it’s plug and play, reliable, and ULead even has some impressive editing abilities like picture-in-picture, dual audio/dual video tracks, support for images, transitions, and animation.  Not to shabby a package for less than $10.  Here’s the catch: the games won’t look good in today’s competitive landscape.  Ever hooked an N64 up to an HDTV?  Looks like crap.  It will look similar on this device because of how compressed the video signal is, there’s no mid or post processing, and this device is limited.  It also supports no resolution over 720×480 (widescreen 480p), although almost everything in composite or S-Video, especially retro consoles, will be 640×480 (full screen 480i) and it does have a de-interlace so it looks just fine.  You also may want to consider not editing in ULead if you can avoid it because there is lots of blurring and mosaic effects as the result of rendering, but the captures themselves (especially when thrown into an external editor) look solid.  I’ll provide some links to GH101 videos that we use this with, but as you’ll see in our YouTube library, this was the capture device I learned on and it served me quite well for almost two years.  This device also worked on any computer I threw at it, even a 2.8 ghz single core Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM running Windows XP 32-bit.  If you want to grab retro vids, do basic editing, and want just good enough quality, this is the capture device for you.

Example Vids:

blurexBlurex HD Capture Box (Link) – Price $79.99

As you can see the moment you try to do anything resembling modern capture devices, the price goes up considerably.  The Blurex HD almost looks too good to be true, and in some ways it is.  The box promises to let you hook up any HDMI or Component video device (PS3 needs to hook up via component video unless you find a way to strip HDCP – which this device accidentally does – but no illegal activity please) and allows the capturing of video to any connected USB device without the use of a computer.  Keep in mind that Component Video (red/green/blue) cannot output higher than 1080i, no matter what you’ve heard/read/or your TV says, so don’t be mad if your PS3 captures in 720p (although 90 percent or more of PS3 games are in 720p via HDMI anyway unless you force the poor upscaler).  It does allow you to use audio from a headphone source (that’s the blue “in”) for those HDMI no-sound and analog audio output people (like certain PC users), has a pink “MIC” jack for embedded audio commentary alongside your video, and a green “out” for using headphones to hear the audio if you so desire.  It outputs everything in HDMI only, though, so you’ll need an HDMI tv to play on and the passthrough is lag free.  In truth this does an amazing job and may be your only option if you do not want to involve a computer.  After using the higher end capture cards I now appreciate the fact that commentary syncs up perfectly, the device auto detects the source (only supports 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p and de-interlaces 480i/1080i), and captures in great quality.  Here are the down sides: it doesn’t stream, it captures all video in 1.95 GB chunks (that’s so it can support FAT32 USB drives), it won’t tell you if it runs into problems (you’ll just lose part of the capture), it has no support for composite video, and the MP4 format it uses isn’t liked by almost any software but what’s included and ULead.  If you plan to capture these videos and directly upload to YouTube, especially if you only have a 15 minute limit on YouTube (1.95 is exactly 15 mins in 1080p), this is a perfect solution.  The second you want to edit, stream, or even have a reliable source to capture to (ie: you care if you lose part of the recording), then it’s probably not for you.  I should note that under 30 mins I rarely lost parts of a recording, but for those long 30-2 hour captures, it got unreliable consistently.  Another recommendation is to use a 2.0 compliant flash media to capture (16-32 GB should be more than enough and costs about $5-$10 online) because it hated my Lacie 1 TB USB hard drive and dropped recordings constantly.  As a bare-bones HD capture device it’s great, but you can rule out most retro consoles.  Don’t send surround sound through HDMI on this either, it creates an odd sound signal in the capture, but also keep in mind that almost no capture device also grabs 5.1 and none via HDMI.  I have no comparison videos because I decided to return this item when I realized it didn’t work with my editing software.  The quality was identical to these other cards below (I think it’s MBPS encoding was 14, which is quite good and YouTube doesn’t benefit from anything over 6).

roxioRoxio Game Capture HD Pro (Link) – Price $99.99

After my failure with the Blurex I decided to get back to a true capture device.  My next step was the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro, which I selected over the half price Game Capture HD because it did both component and HDMI, whereas the the regular Game Capture HD is Component only.  It needed a dual core processor of at least 2.0 and 2 GB of RAM, so I liked that all the PCs I had could work with it (especially the laptop), and the included software allowed me to capture and stream.  I had also heard that it could capture composite video if I hook the yellow video cable into one of the three component video inputs (either blue, green, or red and just try each and see what works).  This turned out not to be the case, the device never detected a video signal and thus never even allowed me to try composite, so I returned this almost immediately due to the fact that it did not capture old school (although my EasyCap does quite well in the old school world but I wanted to stream retro).  It also has the same HDMI problem that all capture cards do with the PS3 (see my review of the Blurex above to remove that headache, if you wish), but otherwise I was impressed with the capture and stream.  Then, like always, with two weeks of testing and longer runs of 1 hour+ streaming and 2 hours+ recording I started to see problems.  Recordings would get jostled around, pixelate, blur, and at times even repeat themselves.  Furthermore the streams would get goofy and I would end up with Twitch streams that my viewers said were unwatchable, out of sync, and it would result in my video library having like 100+ 30 second clips that were glitched to high hell.  I wouldn’t mind all this if the software ever told me, but according to the software everything was great.  Even more odd was that I had the most problems, as you would suspect, on Computer 2 (it barely made spec), but Computer 3 (gaming rig) tended to have major issues too and it had a powerhouse of hardware behind it.  It just seems to me that a particular build type of computer was in mind for this Roxio and if you moved outside those designated lines it wouldn’t work properly.  If you try this and it works for you, that’s great, because I assure you the quality of the videos is not in question here, just the consistency.  Without retro streaming and with these hiccups I gave up and decided I would have to spend a bit more.  I also decided I would not accept a capture card that didn’t allow me to stream retro consoles either.

elgatoElgato Game Capture HD (Link) – Price $149.99

Given that it was at price parity with the other option (Hauppauge HD PVR 2 below), the most popular and widely regarded capture device I could find was the Elgato Game Capture HD.  There was a recently released Game Capture HD 60, which captured at 60 frames per second and not 30, but it was incompatible with the retro console dongle (a $10 add-on from the Elgato web site that adds composite and S-Video) so I went with this one.  It had steep requirements for a PC, namely at least 2.0 ghz dual core and 4 GB of RAM (the RAM being the bigger and more expensive problem), and if you scour the web you will find that the Elgato acts really goofy if you use antiquated software (ie: streaming issues, audio sync issues, bad recordings, etc).  This little box really does it all: it streams, it captures, it does both at the same time automatically, it has a 15 minute buffer in case you don’t want to capture and just want to grab cool moments after they happen, it supports all video formats and allows you to manipulate them (ie: capture at 1080p but stream at 720p, etc), and it has its own editor and MP4 converter (because all high end streams are usually in raw MPEG-2 .ts format).  You can also plug the yellow composite into the red component video slot (putting the audio in the separate audio ports) for retro gaming right out of the box, the dongle is just for S-Video (with a quality boost, of course).  The down side for me was that only my gaming rig (computer 3) worked with it – Computer 1 didn’t have enough RAM and Computer 2 was min specs and had all of the problems I had seen.  I did not like having to install all this software and screw with my gaming rig one bit (had to update my Win 7 to SP1 and install .NET Frame 4.0, both of which may be ideal from a securities and regular use standpoint but I had avoided by only playing games on it).  Furthermore it still didn’t work properly most of the time without a bunch of fiddling with.   For starters the software is now at 2.0 (or so) and it had all kinds of install issues, then once it finally started it needed me to disable video and audio preview to not have audio sync issues, and every now and again the software would crash while converting to MP4 format, leaving me with lost footage.  Now I’m sure some people out there had no software install issues (well I did), Elgato claims that a “decent” rig doesn’t need to disable these features (I can run Shadow of Mordor at ultra in 1440p, what the hell does this thing need?), and my editing software can easy work with .ts to make an MP4 but not everyone has 3rd party editing software nor should they be required to.  I also had problems with the microphone in that on my computer it would sometimes cause the Elgato to not be recognized (and visa versa), which according to Elgato support (great support staff, btw) is a “known issue” but they have no good solution.  The old Twitch issue with 100 30 second vids came back as well, which they suggested is my Internet, however I’m doubting that more and more given that my speed test is a consistent 30 mbps down and up (I have a fiber optic line) and I don’t have those streaming problems with my PS4, Xbox One, Nvidia ShadowPlay, or other capture devices, so it’s gotta be some odd hiccup with the Elgato on my rig.  With all those compromises, hundreds of cords, and the need to hook my gaming rig up to another display device than my TV (not to mention the lack of portability), I just couldn’t take it.  After re-installing drivers a few times, having tons of problems, and whatnot I decided that this wasn’t going to meet my needs.  Although if you don’t have these problems the quality is amazing, my entire Conker’s Bad Fur Day LiveStream (in S-Video with the retro dongle) used the Elgato, which worked flawlessly for almost 14 hours and my Resident Evil HD Remaster video was also captured on it with impressive results, but that is two rare cases out of the nearly dozen I tried over two weeks.  I should also point out it has the highest recording and streaming quality options, it automatically drops the game sound when you speak in a mic (although it suffered some lag issues), and it allows you to adjust livestreams and recording with tag info on the fly as well as telling you how many live viewers you have.  Fortunately you can return it to retailers (in my case Micro Center) with ease if it doesn’t work for you.

hauppaugeHauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition (Link) – Price $199.99

Finally we come to the last, and my personal favorite, the Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition, which is a half step down at 30 fps from the Gaming Edition Pro that supports 60 fps and 5.1 via optical port, but you guessed it, doesn’t support component or retro consoles.  The PVR 2 Gaming Edition was the capture device of choice as recently as Black Ops 2, but in recent years the quality and options of the Elgato have blown it away.  I’m not about to claim otherwise, so I highly recommend doing as I did and trying these devices before committing (ie: buy from a store, not online), but for my setup and my needs it is by far the best with some major caveats.  Since all of the video capturing, processing, and output is handled by the box you can use older hardware with it.  Hauppauge recommends 2.0 ghz dual core with at least 2 GB of RAM, but frankly I’ve read online about people using 1.5 ghz dual cores and even 3.4 ghz single cores without much issue (I tried it on a super old laptop I had that was 1.3 ghz dual core and 1 GB of RAM, and it worked but not too well).  On the other hand, my Computer 2 (laptop), that just skirted by at minimum spec handles this like a dream.  I can capture really anything and at this point have zero concerns about audio sync, capture quality, stream quality, etc. and that peace of mind is priceless to me.  Now, this all comes with some acceptances you need to make first.  On the forefront of those problems is that the Hauppauge software is quite rough, does require the SP1 and 4.0 NetFrame to work, and if you don’t have it all installed at first will fail on your first installation (just install a second time and it’ll work fine after that).  Also the software itself is so GUI and user friendly that it’s almost a disservice to the custom user because very little can be adjusted or tweaked.  Basically it’s true plug-and-play: open the software, pick the video/audio source, add the microphone if need be, choose record or stream, and go.  There’s even a massive black button on the top to start/stop recording from the box if you don’t want to deal with the computer part.  This box only allows you to capture at 13 mbps, which is more than twice what YouTube can handle but some still swear that if you capture/render in 22 mbps or higher it looks better on YouTube, not my experience with the Elgato or ShadowPlay (which can capture at up to 50 mbps).  For the record, YouTube compresses this stuff heavily and never has a higher stream than 6 mbps and it rarely gets that high.  You also can’t stream and record (at least as far as I can tell) so if you stream and want to keep it you have to stream to Twitch (at, say, 720p) and then pray that when you export it to YouTube or download it back from Twitch that it keeps the resolution because that’s the only way to get your hands on it.  It’s also so precise at capturing video that I thought there was an audio lag issue with Final Fight on my 360, but it turns out that lag was from the game and I was noticing it on the capture card (it was a test recording), so kudos to that and I have had no audio sync or even mic sync issues at this point.  On the other hand, the streams I take are MPEG-2 .ts files and if you try to convert to .mp4 within the provided software, there will be an audio lag issue.  On the net most suggest to use a 3rd party converter like Handbrake (which is free and works well but takes a long time to convert) and luckily Sony Video Suite 13 has no issues working with .ts (all HD captures in the Primal Rage video came from the Hauppauge), but keep that in mind if you go this route.  The fact that it works with my laptop, records/streams with ease, and just plain works allows me to forgive the lack of high end quality, lack of record and stream simultaneously options, and of course this thing needs a lot of cords (power, USB, and HDMI) and a bit of space (box is just above palm size).  It also has a composite/S-video dongle that’s $15 on the Hauppauge web site, but you can also hook composite into the component area (yellow into blue on this particular box) and it works just fine.  It’s the most expensive and kinda dated, but for my needs the Hauppauge rains supreme.

Example videos:

Other Devices

PS4 and Xbox One: Both of these have built in streaming, which is great but my few issues and why I generally don’t like using the included capture solutions are limited 15 minute recordings and a compromise while streaming of either real estate on the screen or not being able to see the chat via the console.  Oh, and there’s also like a 30-60 second delay from when it’s typed into chat to when it shows on screen, which usually defeats the purpose because the comment is no longer relevant.  I also hate that the video on my screen is 1080p, streams in 720p, and often gets converted by YouTube when I export to 480p (according to Twitch and YouTube this is a process that happens on the back end and there’s no getting around it).  Then again, these are free solutions.

Nvidia ShadowPlay:  When it was first in beta I wasn’t a big fan, but now that it’s in later revisions, has desktop capture, and I have a 970, I love this software.  It can capture or stream with literally the push of a button, I can add my mic, and there’s no lag anywhere.  Also the quality is by far the best I’ve ever seen for both capture and stream and the desktop display allows me to grab items like Hearthstone or Strife that I used to not be able to.  The down side is that even with a GTX 760, a decent mid-range card, I had issues with performance drop on most games when I used it.  Thankfully with the 970 I’ve had little issue, but that’s some steeply priced hardware so I feel it better work well.  Anyway, for the PC Elitist, it’s a decent option.

Keep in mind that when you check out my YouTube, I’ve used all combinations of these devices to capture, but you can easily get by with just one or two.  This is meant to be a buyers guide and less of a formal review.  What has been your experience?  Let us know in the comments below.

Written by Fred Rojas

December 29, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , , ,

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