Review: Elgato Game Capture HD
Posted by Ken Barnes
The captain of capture.
Back in the days before everyone had a “Vlog” about their favourite types of pasta, and before the entire world was in a launch-day race to fire up a “Let’s Play” video of the hottest new gaming title, capturing video from games consoles was a total pain. Even up until recently, that could still be said. Devices were available of course, but they were generally hit-and-miss efforts that required no end of technical knowledge in order to be used successfully. Some didn’t have the right inputs, or wouldn’t recognise a 60hz output. Others jumped ship when you tried to connect up a PAL console. Others needed a monster PC in order to capture anything at higher than a sketchy 12 frames per second.
The Elgato Game Capture HD attempts to dispatch of all of those concerns right away. It claims to capture at the full 1080p resolution, whilst allowing you to play in a lag-free environment by using a simple pass-through to your standard monitor or TV. On top of that, you can broadcast your gameplay sessions to Twitch.tv live, or upload them to YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter with a single click. And if that wasn’t enough, as long as you actually own a PC or Mac (which is a fair assumption), you won’t need to pick up anything other than the standard Game Capture HD package in order to do it.
We were sceptical, it has to be said. Those are some very lofty claims, given the grief provided by similar devices that we’ve tested in the past. “It can’t be done!” we claimed, as we set to disproving the advertising hype.
In the box, you get the Game Capture HD device, which is smaller than a Nintendo DS case, and as light as a feather. Alongside that, there’s a “Quick Start” guide, a USB cable to connect the device to your PC or Mac, an HDMI cable, and two unexpected little bonuses in the form of a PS3-to-Game Capture cable (in case you aren’t using HDMI), and a component-to-Game Capture cable (for capturing footage from pretty much any console that doesn’t use HDMI.)
The claim that they give you everything you need is entirely true, then. To get started, you plug the HDMI lead from your Xbox 360 into the “HDMI In” port on the GCHD. The HDMI cable that’s provided in the box connects to the “HDMI Out” port on the device, and then to your TV/monitor. The USB cable connects the PC and the Game Capture HD, and you’re done, in terms of hardware setup. Download the software from the Game Capture site, and you’re good to go. On a Windows 8 machine, we suffered no installation problems at all – everything just worked right off the bat and was absolutely effortless.
When we fired up the Game Capture HD software, powered up our console, and saw the traditional Xbox 360 startup logo spinning across both our TV and our PC screen – both with perfect colour, and in both in HD - we started to come around. Maybe this device could actually work. Could it be that all of those claims weren’t just advertising hype after all? We were sure that slowdown would kick in at some point. After all, we were running the software on an average PC (a Dell Studio laptop with 4GB of RAM and an Intel Core i5 at 2.40Ghz) - so there had to be some sort of overload occurring somewhere, surely?
It appears not. The claims made by the manufacturer aren’t just empty promises designed to shift units. This device WORKS, and works incredibly well.
Our First Capture
To prove the point, our first capture with the device is embedded below – we thought we'd choose a dark, muddy sort of game to really put the device through its paces. So, we played through the first attack of a major enemy in Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (with the HD texture pack installed), with no tweaks at all to the capture settings. We loaded the game, and pressed “Start Capturing” as soon as we had gotten through the menus, then we hit the “Stop” button after the first enemy was vanquished. Using the Elgato software’s “Edit” tab, we were able to trim off everything leading up to the first boss fight in just a few clicks. Note that this video was rendered in the Game Capture’s default 720p. The full 4 minutes and 17 seconds of footage weighed in at 499mb, which is a tad hefty, so we converted it using Handbrake’s “Normal” settings, with the average bitrate upped to 3500kbps. The result, is a 107mb file that – even with the artefacts that occur during YouTube’s processing – looks pretty darned sweet. Don't forget to spin the quality up to 720p in the YouTube player for the best effect.
If you do want to tweak things, the standard Game Capture software is incredibly easy to use. There are panels for video quality, game audio, live commentary, live streaming, descriptors for your video, and then the usual stop/pause/play commands. Each is self-explanatory, and the live commentary feature is nothing but a boon. If you’re doing a “Let’s Play” video for example, you can simply check a box, and the software will lower the game sound every time you speak – again, settings can be tweaked for this, but the defaults worked perfectly adequately during our testing.
On a separate tab, you can spin through the footage that you’ve captured and trim out bits that you don’t want, browse through previous videos that you’ve captured, and the “Share” panel allows you to export your video in a few different optimised formats, such as for iPad, iPhone, standard MP4, or a 1080p MP4. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Email, Apple TV, and Windows Live Movie Maker options are also on the cards, too, and you can remove any of these from the interface if you find the options overwhelming. Selecting the iPad or iPhone options converts the video for you, and then adds it right to your iTunes library without you having to do anything.
What you can’t do, is add new output formats, or tweak the output settings – and that’s a shame. With this in place, the software would really have been the entire package – mainly because it works a lot quicker than the likes of Sony Vegas or Adobe Premiere when it comes to doing something as simple as chopping off the last ten seconds of footage. The YouTube upload feature (which will be most commonly used, we’d imagine) does what it says on the tin, giving you options to enter descriptions, titles, and tags, and then converting and uploading in one click. The only issue is that our 4:17 test render converted to a file that was over 500mb when we used this feature. If the option to add new defaults - or even tweak the settings slightly - was available, we’d not have a bad word to say about the package as a whole. That isn’t to say that the sharing and conversion features don’t work, since they most assuredly do. It’s just that not everyone has the bandwidth to be uploading half a gigabyte of data when they could upload a video of a very similar quality that has been converted to a fifth of the file size using Handbrake or any number of other alternatives.
Fortunately, the Twitch.TV streaming feature allows you to alter the bit rate on the fly, meaning that there’s no cause for concern there. Hit a button, enter your Twitch username and password, add a status message, hit the big red “Start Streaming” button, and you’re online. Brilliant. It gets no simpler.
The lack of flexibility in the conversion options isn’t a deal breaker really. As we say, Handbrake is free to download and picks up the slack just fine, but it would have been nice to have a similar thing built in to the interface. If anything is going to put anyone off the Game Capture HD, it’s the price. The RRP in the UK is some £179.99, although you can frequently pick it up for around the £130 mark at many online stores. Listed next to devices that claim to do the same job for £30 or so, it’s easy to see why people think that Elgato’s device is overpriced. However, the simple fact that the Game Capture HD works, works well, and works without you needing to have an IQ of 182, means that you’re probably going to save money in the long run if you just splash the cash. It’s relatively future-proof, too, given that the next generation of consoles will undoubtedly debut with a 1080p maximum resolution, and use HDMI as a standard output.
We’ve bought many cheap and not-so-cheap devices in the past in the hope of picking up some sweet footage of our latest top-corner boomer in FIFA 13, or that sweet kill in Halo 4, only to find that the top-corner boomer turned into a skippy, jumpy mess that would only render in black-and-white, and that the gunshot sound on that amazing kill was off by a few seconds. The Elgato Game Capture HD most certainly doesn't have any of these problems, and as such, will be an invaluable piece of kit in any content creator’s arsenal.
We don’t issue review scores on hardware but if we did, this would be very close to the full complement of stars.