Hands on with the Elgato Game Capture HD

On Monday, Elgato announced the Game Capture HD, a $200 piano black box about the size of portable USB hard drive, designed to let gamers record and share their exploits with fellow enthusiasts.

By the name, the product is clearly targeted to gamers who like to post walkthroughs and game achievements on YouTube. But it has other applications as well. Demoing an app or series of steps on an iOS device, perhaps. Or capturing the user interface of an Apple TV to grab stills for a story even (much better than taking a picture of your TV screen).

The Game Capture HD is set to ship in early June, but I got to play with a pre-release version for a few weeks—final hardare but beta software—and here are some observations.

The hardware

On one end of the Game Capture HD, there’s an HDMI input as well an “A/V In”. The latter lets you connect either the included video cable dongle for PlayStation 3, or the included component video dongle. (The box will include a standard HDMI cable and a USB cable, as well.)

On the other side is a Mini-USB port to connect the Game Capture HD to your PC or Mac for capture (and bus power), as well as an HDMI Out port that serves as a pass-though—which means that you can place the Game Capture HD in between your game console/other device and your TV/display, and then plug in to capture via USB whenever you want.

The Game Capture HD takes input from HDMI sources, or via component or PlayStation 3 with the included cables.

The Game Capture HD offers H.264 hardware encoding in 480p, 576p, 720p, and 1080i resolutions. It requires a Mac running OS X 10.7 (Lion) with a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor; or a PC running Windows 7 with a 2.0GHz dual-core processor, a sound card, 4GB RAM, and a USB 2.0 port.

The software

Elgato offers its Game Capture HD app for both Macs and PCs. In my tests, I used several beta builds on a MacBook Pro, and captured from a third-generation iPad and second-generation Apple TV.

Connect up the various cables—at its simplest, the HDMI cable from your device to the Game Capture HD’s HDMI In port and the USB cable from the box to your computer—and launch the software.

Click the settings icon in the panel on the right to choose the input device (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iPad, or Other), input type (Component or HDMI), profile (Mobile, Standard, HD 720, or HD 1080), and quality (a slider with Good, Better, and Best as labels). You’ll also find settings to tweak the picture brightness, contrast, saturation, and hue, as well as adjust the analog audio gain.

The settings dialog box lets you choose your input device, capture settings, and more.

When you’ve chosen your settings and clicked OK, you can enter title, game, and description tags. when you’re ready to record, click the big red Record button and start playing. After a few seconds, the right side of the interface slides off, leaving you with a larger window of the content being captured.

If you accidentally forget to record before something really cool happened, a nice Flashback record feature acts as a buffer when you launch the app, letting you go back and use footage that took place before you pressed the Record button. I was able to go back and ‘capture’ my new high score on a level of Angry Birds Space on the iPad retroactively, even though I’d forgotten to click record before game play.

It’s unclear how long of a buffer it provides, and there’s no setting in the software yet that lets you choose how much space to dedicate to Flashback (in the company’s EyeTV software for TV tuning hardware, which will also support the Game Capture HD, there is such a setting when it comes to its live TV buffer.)

After capture, you can do simple editing—splitting a capture into multiple clips and then deleting the portions you don’t want—and then share directly to YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter; export for Apple TV, iPad, or iPhone; or send via email. Additionally, in the Mac version, you can send to iMovie or save to your Movies folder; in the PC version, you can send to Movie Maker or save as an MP4 file. Those additional options make it easier to perform more advanced editing outside of the software.

Limitations

The Game Capture HD isn’t High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) compatible, which means you can’t use it to capture HDCP-encrypted content. When I hooked up the Elgato box to an Apple TV, I could capture the menus and even previews from the iTunes Store, but not my own videos streaming from Vimeo, for example. Netflix streams were similarly blocked, but I was able to capture a Netflix stream from my iPad using Apple’s Digital AV Adapater without a hitch.

Also, because it tops out at 1080i, the Game Capture HD can’t record progressive 1080 video (perhaps not a big concern for games, however).

For a serious gamer, a PC-based capture card may be a more likely choice, but the portability and cross-platform nature of the Game Capture HD make it a nice addition to the video-capturing options available.

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