I get a lot of people asking me about the best way to capture gameplay. It’s not a simple answer: there’s a wide range of options, from very consumer-focused products all the way up to the same stuff TV shows and movies use. Your own “best way” is going to be determined by your specific needs and your budget.
That said, I feel like I can at least provide some guidance and help you narrow down options. It’ll still be up to you to do the research and draw your own conclusions – for example, I’m not going to list every spec of every device here – but this should be enough to get you going in the right direction.
But first, some ground rules:
- The device has to be able to capture any of the three major consoles: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, or Wii. And since the Playstation 3’s HDMI output carries HDCP, it can’t be recorded – so the device has to capture via Component, or at least have that option.
- The device has to capture in HD, at good quality. I don’t care about crappy little devices that give you blocky SD, and neither should you.
- The captured footage needs to be usable without weird hoop-jumping – no transcoding, no shady no-name software processing, etc. My test for usable is if it can be edited by Adobe Premiere Pro or uploaded to YouTube without additional processing.
- The device needs to be at least mostly compatible with both Mac and Windows, and be either USB or PCIe.
- Not a deal-breaker, but I give a bit more weight to devices that suit themselves to living-room use. Cause I like my damn couch.
I’ve separated the devices into 3 categories:
– The budget solution
– The balanced cost/performance solution
– The Moneyhat solution
I figure that covers everyone from poor students up through filthy-rich game reviewers. Also – while I’ve used a lot of gear, I haven’t personally used every single device listed below. However, in cases where I know the companies and have used other products of theirs, I feel pretty comfortable giving a general opinion.
So…let’s get started.
You want to capture your gameplay and share it with the world. You want it to look good, but may or may not be editing it. Simple and functional, and you’re willing to deal with a few quirks if it means saving booze money.
Hauppauge HD-PVR 2 – $159.99
Hauppauge HD-PVR – $189.99
My Pick: Hauppauge HD-PVR 2
– Hardware H.264 encoding, so you don’t need a fast machine
– Small filesize for H.264 recordings, so you don’t need a ton of drive space
– Can upload straight to YouTube, so you don’t (necessarily) need editing software
– HDMI or Component input
Does it have drawbacks? Of course it does – it just has fewer drawbacks than the other devices in this category. The included software is shitty, sometimes the power supplies crap out and cause instability, and if you’re on Mac you have to buy a $30 3rd-party program to use it (which is actually a better program than the included one).
I’m also concerned that no component loop-out is going to introduce some lag for PS3 players – but since I don’t own the v2 model, I can’t confirm (hey Hauppauge, send over a review unit!). Just be aware, and maybe go with the original HD-PVR if you’re a PS3 player (which is component only). You’ll also want to stick with the original if you need Linux support.
Remember: I don’t personally own the HD-PVR 2 – my recommendation is based off of published spec, years of experience with Hauppauge products, and my personal use of the original HD-PVR. I’d love to review one though (HINTHINTHAUPPAUGEHINT).
I have no experience with any of these, so will not include them in my opinions. They’re presented here just for reference.
Avermedia Game Capture HD – $139.95
– Doesn’t require a computer, but user reviews seem inconsistent, and file format looks troublesome
Elgato Game Capture HD – $195.35
– Seriously, somebody needs to come up with better names for these products
– Same concern as the PVR 2, PS3 output is converted and could lag, and also no idea on file format
You want a bit higher quality, both in build and in capture. Maybe capture to a less lossy codec, directly from within your editing app, and have the option to use the device for something beyond gaming – if that sounds good, this category is probably for you. You’re going to spend more, but hey, you get what you pay for.
Matrox MXO2 Mini MAX – $799 ($599 til Sept. 30th)
Matrox MXO2 Mini – $449
MOTU HD Express – $495
My Pick: Matrox MXO2 Mini MAX
I’ve personally only used the MXO2, but have used other products from Blackmagic and MOTU. And really, what sets the MXO2 apart in my mind is how flexible it is while still staying under $1k:
– Capture via Component or HDMI
– Connect via PCIe card, Expresscard/34 card, or Thunderbolt adapter (price includes one of these, others sold separately)
– Capture either in Matrox’s software or your favorite editor (even Avid now!)
– Live stream through most popular streaming software
And you may be wondering what MAX is, and why it justifies a $350 price jump. MAX is Matrox’s name for hardware H.264 support. So in addition to all the stuff above (which the other contenders can mostly do), you can capture straight to H.264 files in Windows only, and dramatically accelerate H.264 encoding on both Mac and Windows. That YouTube export from Premiere taking forever? MAX IT THE HELL OUT!
…I apologize for that. But the MAX encoding acceleration really does produce a dramatic boost in encoding speed, and that plus H.264 capture makes it worth the extra money. And it’s only $150 extra right now!
You don’t care what it costs, you want pro-quality capture in the comfort of your living room. There’s tons of heavy-iron options for video capture, but a true connoisseur plays games in a tricked-out home theater, not in a server room. So no capture cards here.
Also important to note: these are the highest-end devices I feel are realistic for game capture. You could absolutely record your gameplay on an HDCAM-SR deck or as uncompressed 4:4:4 to your SSD RAID array – but that’s stupid.
AJA Ki Pro – $3,995
AJA Ki Pro Rack – $3,995
My Pick: AJA Ki Pro Rack
This one was surprisingly easy – AJA is really the only game in town when it comes to supporting HD component input. And since the Rack version supports 2 drives (for hot-swapping during long gameplay sessions), as well as Avid DNxHD support, I like it better for high-end living room capture.
Beyond that, the unit will do almost everything: component/composite/HDMI input and output, with all outputs active at all times. That means a signal coming in as component gets spit out component, HDMI, and down-converted composite. How’s the lag on that conversion? I had IGN’s Mark Ryan Sallee play some Street Fighter through it, and he had no problem.
Again – these are just tools. And like any tool, the choice should be dictated by what’s right for the job. So do your research, think about what you really want, and buy smart. And if you ask really nicely in the comments, I may even answer some questions.
And if all you want is HDMI capture with maybe some streaming thrown in, take a look at the Matrox Monarch.
I just got a response from Hauppauge on some questions about the HD-PVR 2. I had asked about the underlying hardware compared to the original HD-PVR, the lag concern on PS3, and the software. Here’s the verbatim response from a Technical Support rep:
The device are not based on the same hardware. There is no delay introduced in the conversion. It would defeat the purpose of using the device for gaming. The ArcSoft Showbiz software has been updated to recognize the new device but no new features have been added.
Not surprised that this is new tech – the loss of Linux support pretty much confirmed that already. The software is still a concern (at least on PC), as I’ve always found it clunky and a bit unreliable. But I think I was using Arcsoft TME and not Showbiz, so maybe it’s better now.
I’m pretty skeptical of the “no delay” conversion. I take this to mean no discernible delay – it’s pretty much impossible to do an analog->digital signal conversion with absolutely zero latency, though you can get really really close. How close? AJA’s analog->digital conversion delay is less than one microsecond.
That’s less than one millionth of a second. You can’t see that.
So the Hauppauge tech is probably correct – there’s no lag. But I’m still annoyed that he gave me the super-basic consumer answer.