At E3 I ran into these vendors and followed up with them afterward to help get as much information as I could to educate myself on “the right way” to be capturing audio and video from console systems like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in addition to exploring any streaming options available. We’d like to thank the folks at AVerMedia, Blackmagic Design and Hauppauge for the gracious amounts of time and information they bestowed on us.AVerMedia is a well known company that dedicates itself to researching and developing video technology. The PC-based TV Tuner series has been one of their major product lines and is well known in the industry. They offer two specific solutions when it comes to capturing footage specifically aimed at gamers . The first is the Live Gamer HD which runs for $219, which is a PCI Express card that captures 1080p@60fps and encodes in H.264. It comes with two HDMI ports and two audio ports. The other offering is the Game Broadcaster HD which allows you to do live streaming via XSplit or Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder. Blackmagic Design is perhaps better known outside of the gaming community, as they are well respected in the circles of commercial Hollywood production companies. Their products are mainly aimed for studios and production companies looking for top of the line equipment at reasonable prices. However, they do have a product aimed at gamers called the Intensity Pro which runs for $199 that has two HDMI ports and a DVI port. Also note that the “Intensity Shuttle” from Blackmagic Design is aimed at games as well.
Finally, Hauppauge is a company that gamers should be familiar with thanks to their popular line of TV tuner and video streaming products. At E3 they unveiled the HD PVR Gaming Edition which also runs for $199, but unlike the other options, is an external unit. This unit leverages a built-in hardware H.264 encoder and component video inputs along with optical or stereo audio inputs.All three companies offer a very solid product at roughly the same point.
Can I Really Use HDMI?
This is the part about capturing video from a console system that always baffled me. Here’s this wonderful technology called HDMI that allows you to hook up all your audio and video needs in one nice cable with plenty of bandwidth to account for 1080p video sources. The problem is that rarely will you find full support for your Xbox 360 and PS3 when it comes to importing video into your computer. Why? It all comes down to something called “HDPC” which is a form of copy protection. It works with two or more devices that connect up … basically your PS3 will “see” the other device via the data given to it from the HDMI cable and see a TV on the other end, know it’s a TV, understand that’s a trusted destination and conduct the handshake with the other side to send the signal through. When that query is sent over and it says “Hey yo, I’m a recording device!” the PlayStation 3 immediately declines the handshake, and thus, you can’t send your video from your PS3 to your fancy HDMI port on your import card. Now, this fact about the PS3 was universally true in our research, however, there’s been mixed reports for the Xbox 360.
The folks at Blackmagic Design were kind enough to talk us through this process of what HDPC actually does and how it affects our use case. They let us know that the reports of support calls coming in for Xbox 360 users has gone up, most likely due to the recent software update and that has raised some eyebrows. Finally, they mentioned that HD component input does not have this restriction.
Speaking to AVerMedia, they too reported that their product can support Xbox 360 fully on record and streaming functions via the HDMI port but due to the HDCP restriction, they cannot record or stream from a PS3.
Rounding out the conversation on this topic with Hauppauge, we were told the exact same thing.
Bottom line – thanks to the much beloved topic of “copy protection” us gamers are getting the shaft in terms of being able to capture our game play video via HDMI. Are we totally screwed? Heck no – just make sure you have some sort of component compliant solution on both ends and you can still record in HD (1080i), just not in full 1080p. You can always buy a Component-to-DVI converter in the case of the Intensity Pro card, so it’ll work for either the PS3 or Xbox 360.
Do I Really Want to Capture in 1080p? Uncompressed??
The quick answer here is no, you do not. Why? Well, frankly your computer system isn’t good enough. Even if you’re like me and armed with a sick PC gaming rig, it’s still all about I/O rates and not about how badass your CPU and Video Card are. Dan May, President of Blackmagic Design, was quite candid with us during our discussion on the topic. He told us that the number one support call comes from gamers complaining that they are trying to capture video and frames are being dropped. Blackmagic Design stresses that it’s all about the throughput of the video and for this type of video it’s dramatically significant. For uncompressed 1080i/60 we’re along the lines of 166MB … per second! That comes out to a whopping 6 terabytes per hour … that’s huge! Putting that in context that “hey my system dropped a few frames” and the support call complaint becomes more of a complement that your system didn’t actually drop a ton of frames. The pro tip here was to just not do uncompressed capturing and to go ahead with the right codec (such as the one they ship with) that will yield file sizes one-tenth of what they are uncompressed with minimal loss of quality. If you’re going to be editing footage because you’re putting together a Super Bowl commercial for Madden 13, then you’ll need uncompressed footage. If you’re putting together a highlight video (or in our case a review video), then a 720p compressed capture will do just fine for web viewing.
Oh Wow … So That Kind of Answered the Streaming Question
Right *and* wrong … you simply can’t pass through rates that high no matter what your bandwidth might be, as Hauppuage let us know. Thinking you can easily stream HD footage given your hardware and bandwidth limitations (hey, you aren’t ESPN!) is going down the wrong path to glory. If you think about streaming compressed video that still looks great, even HD quality, using hardware and software bundles specifically design to do so, then that is really where your thinking should be to accomplish streaming.
Speaking about Hauppauge, their HD PVR can record at data rates up to 13.5Mbs and that’s simply not feasible for streaming. That’s why they have a separate device called the “StreamEez” that leverages a built-in encoder that’s compatible with sites like Ustream and Justin.tv. AVerMedia does much the same with their streaming specific card as well. If you want hassle free streaming, certainly getting a card/device specific to the task is the right way go to, however, as our own Carl Armstrong (Associate Editor at Gaming Illustrated) found out, using his Roxio Game Capture device (follow the link to read the review) and the right software, broadcasting to a site like Justin.tv can be pretty painless – assuming you’re not aiming for the moon in terms of HD quality.
Hauppauge let us know their StreamEez box connects to an HD device (be it HDMI or component) and compresses the video using a built-in H.264 encoder that’s compatible with streaming sites. It then connects to your computer via USB, which has the control application installed. Their HD-PVR unit can be used with Xsplit for streaming, but they highly recommended using the StreamEez device.
With AVerMedia, their Live Gamer HD device is designed for both users who have never streamed or for the professional streamer. The RECentral software included makes streaming as hard as plugging everything in and pressing a button.
How Do I Get Captured Video Into [Favorite Editing Application]?
If you’re able to jump over the technological hurdle of hooking things up and installing the software, grabbing the video should be pretty easy. In the case of Blackmagic Design, if you have either Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere you can use their Intensity Pro card and it’ll be seen by the application directly. Note that they have their own software if you don’t have either pro-level editing application, which will be perfectly appropriate for grabbing and saving footage, just not for editing it.
Hauppauge had much the same sentiments, stating that the supported H.264 video and either AC3 or AAC audio is pretty much supported across the board, as is the MP4 format which is probably most appropriate for Final Cut Pro. They even have M2TS support which is best when importing into Sony Vegas.
The folks at AVerMedia included three very nice settings in their software, starting at Newbie then moving to Amateur and finally ending at Pro. Basically if you just want the software to do its thing, pick Newbie. If you know exactly all the settings you want, then pick Pro. The recorded file format is standard MP4 which is fine for both FCP and Premiere Pro without any transcoding. AVerMedia has even posted some videos on the process which you can see right here.
So What Do I Do From Here?
We’re going to stay vendor neutral here and basically let you, the reader, decide what’s best for you. All three companies, four if you include Roxio’s Game Capture, offer some great solutions for about the same price. If you’re a PS3 owner, you’ll have to be especially careful and avoid anything that is strictly HDMI based without a component input alternative. Even Xbox 360 users might want to do some consideration to this fact as well in light of recent support calls into Blackmagic Design.
For now, there are some great pro tips and lessons learned in this article that should get you well underway on your search for the right import/streaming card. If you plan to do just one, that might sway your opinion as opposed to finding something that does everything.
To conclude, we’d like to give a huge thanks to Brice Washington of Hauppauge, Joann Chen of AVerMedia, and to Dan May (President of Blackmagic Design). They all were extremely gracious with their time answering questions for this article.