If you want to start streaming your games online or record your gameplay footage to create YouTube videos of your exploits, you'll probably need a capture card.

These nifty little devices take on some of the processing work of streaming and recording gameplay footage, so that your main device - whether that's a console or gaming PC - is free to devote all its power to running the game as smoothly as possible.

While both the PS4 and Xbox One are able to stream and record footage directly, their capabilities are limited, and gameplay performance is likely to suffer. A capture card will help make sure you can get gameplay footage at the highest frame rate and resolution possible, which is pretty much essential for any serious streamer or YouTuber.

A capture card is even more important for Switch owners - the console can only record a few seconds of gameplay by itself, and can't stream at all, so a capture card is absolutely essential for anyone looking to stream or record lengthy Switch gameplay. Check out our full guide to streaming from a Switch to find out more.

There are a few on the market though, and for the uninitiated capture cards can be very confusing indeed. Luckily for you, we're here to help - here's our pick of the best capture cards around right now, with buying advice that explains exactly who each card is for.

How to use a capture card

First, let's briefly run down exactly how a capture card works. Most of them are external devices which need to be connected to another PC or Mac in order to capture or stream footage, while taking footage from the gameplay machine via HDMI.

So, for example, if you want to stream from a PS4 you'd run an HDMI console from the console to the capture card, with another going from the card back out to your TV, so you can still see what you're playing.

The capture card then connects to a PC or Mac via USB, where you use your choice of capture software to record the footage or stream it to sites like Twitch, Mixer, YouTube Gaming, or even Facebook

If you want to get footage from a gaming PC, the process is much the same, but bear in mind that an external card only really helps if want to play on one PC and record/stream from another (say, a laptop). If you want to do everything from one PC you either need to buy an internal capture card (which we also cover here) or just skip the capture card entirely and do without, at a hit to your performance.

Best capture card reviews 2018

1. Razer Ripsaw

Razer Ripsaw

At its full price the Razer Ripsaw was difficult to recommend, not offering quite enough to justify the price hike relative to the competition. But it's easy enough to find it well below the RRP/MSRP on Amazon, making it a comparable price - and sometimes even cheaper - than the similarly specced competition.

Unsurprisingly one big advantage the Ripsaw has is Razer's trademark sleek design. It may just be a black box with a single LED, but this thing looks and feels premium, right down to the selection of individually labelled cables that accompany it, which cover just about everything you might need.

The port selection is another clear win - alongside the standard HDMI in and out and USB 3.0, you get a component in for older video sources, and two separate audio ins - one for general audio, and one for a mic, allowing you to easily mix audio from multiple sources as you stream or record.

That USB 3.0 port lets the Ripsaw handle very low latency streaming, up to 1080p and 60fps, and it does a respectable job at recording video too, though we noticed a little more stuttering and stammering there.

So what's the catch? Razer Cortex. Razer's own capture and streaming software is, to put it gently, total junk. We thought that the Ripsaw itself was hopelessly inadequate, with lagging streams and artifacted recordings, until we tried running it through open source software OBS, and it just worked.

It's frankly embarrassing that Razer's own software has such rampant performance problems considering it has a fairly standard feature set, but the good news is that the Ripsaw is compatible with both OBS (which is free) and XSplit (which is not). Buy the Ripsaw, but skip Cortex and use one of them instead.

2. Elgato Game Capture HD60 S

Elgato Game Capture HD60 S

Most people looking at capture cards are probably hoping to stream footage live to services like Twitch. For them, the Elgato HD60 S is a pretty ideal choice.

Slim and compact, this is a very portable device, ideal for streaming on the go. It's simple looking too: sleek black, with a single slim light bar to show when it's active. Ports are minimal, but cover what you need: HDMI in and out, USB to connect to a PC, and a 3.5mm audio jack so that you can mix in commentary.

Built primarily for streaming, the HD60 S uses USB 3.0 for low-latency transfer at up to 1080p and 60fps - it's seamless enough that you can just about play the game using the streaming computer as a display, without even using a separate TV or monitor, if you have a limited setup.

That comes at a cost though: the HD60 S is a bit ropey at recording footage, so we wouldn't recommend it if that's your priority. It can record footage, but you might have to drop the resolution and frame rate to keep things smooth, which might be too much of a cost for some.

The HD60 S comes with the Elgato Game Capture software, which is by a long way the most simple and user-friendly capture software around, though lacking some of the in-depth features of rivals. It blows Razer Cortex out of the water though.

Still, it's ideal for anyone new to this tech, which makes the HD60 S our recommendation for any streaming newbies, and will be more than enough for most users. For the rest, the HD60 S is also compatible with OBS and XSplit.

3. Elgato Game Capture HD60

Elgato Game Capture HD60

No need to refresh your browser, this isn't the same capture card again. This is the Elgato HD60 - no 'S this time.

While the form is almost identical to the HD60 S, the innards aren't - while that card is optimised for streaming, the regular HD60 is all about recording footage.

It's packing an H.264 encoder that helps the card keep up with recording 1080p footage at 60fps without any stuttering or artifacting. Gameplay footage we recorded was smooth and consistent, easily a match for the original console output.

Naturally, the downside is that it just can't keep up when it comes to streaming. The USB 2.0 output isn't a match for 1080p footage, and even dropping to lower resolutions and frame rates we still noticed some latency. For short streams at low resolutions and frame rates you might just get by, but any more than that and it'll start to skip and stutter.

As with the HD60 S, it comes with Elgato's own software, which is simple and friendly, with a few basic recording options - including the nifty 'Flashback' feature, which starts recording to temporary storage as soon as you open the software, giving you the option to save any footage in case you hit record a bit late.

4. Elgato Game Capture HD60 Pro

Elgato Game Capture HD60 Pro

And now for something completely different. Well, a little bit different. Despite the similar name, the HD60 Pro is a rather different proposition: this is an internal card, which connects to a PCIe slot inside your computer.

Obviously that means it's only useful if you have one specific desktop PC that you want to use for capturing footage, and if you're comfortable opening it up for installation (or know someone who is). Naturally that makes it a hell of a lot less portable, and also pretty limiting for capturing console footage unless you keep your desktop in the living room.

That means that this is really only the ideal choice for anyone with a single suped-up desktop gaming rig that they want to use to simultaneously game on and capture the footage, without the massive performance hit that would usually entail.

Bear in mind though, there will still be some performance hit - this thing can't entirely offload all of the processing labour of footage capture, but it will pick up a fair bit of the slack, leaving your CPU and GPU to focus on running the game as well as possible.

Given the nature of the setup, the performance really depends on your computer (which is technically true of all the cards, but much more so here), though it has the same H.264 encoder as the regular HD60 to enable recording at 1080p60, with pretty similar streaming performance.

As with the other Elgato cards, it comes with the company's own Game Capture software, but is also compatible with third-party alternatives.