NOTE: This review is for a product that originally came out in late 2013 and thus, was done using more mature drivers and firmware that earlier reviews did not have.
UPDATE (18/08/2014): In the review, I talked about the limited USB 3.0 chipset support of this device. Apparently, the latest firmware for the ExtremeCap U3 adds support for VIA and ASMedia chipsets but with limitations depending on your OS and configuration. AVerMedia’s site isn’t clear on this and that support is only mentioned in the change notes for the latest firmware. See the ExtremeCap U3 download page for more information.
Capturing video in general is a bit of a voodoo science. There’s lots that can go wrong and it only takes one thing to wreck a whole session. Since starting my YouTube channel, this has been the biggest of my many trials by fire. Capturing from PC isn’t too bad because it’s just done with software but grabbing footage from consoles needs extra hardware and thus, an extra thing that can go wrong. As YouTube’s popularity among gamers continues to skyrocket, a number of options are now available for easily taking in video from an external source. The AVerMedia ExtremeCap U3 is the third of these I tried and despite some quirks and the potential for frustration for some users, it’s still the best option I’ve come across.
Previous to the ExtremeCap U3, I tried the Elgato Game Capture HD (which has since been replaced by a new model) and AVerMedia’s previous USB offering, the Live Gamer Portable. I hated Elgato’s feature-lite and unreliable software (which I should have expected given Elgato’s being a Mac company first and foremost) and its inability to record commentary to a separate audio track, a vital feature if you are concerned about production values. The Live Gamer Portable allows separate commentary recording which is the main reason I switched but it too had lag issues that weren’t nearly as bad but still problematic. The Live Gamer Portable is a USB 2.0 device and thus, doesn’t send data to your PC fast enough for you to be able record a game lag-free. To get around this, it has an HDMI pass-through that allowed you to send real-time video to another display to watch while you recorded. Since I record at my desk where I only bring consoles when needed and don’t have HDMI-capable monitors, this didn’t work out so well. There was between a one and two second delay between what the console was sending out and what the included RECentral software was showing me which made playing off the software’s display near impossible.
The ExtremeCap U3 is AVerMedia’s first USB 3.0 product and furthermore, the only USB 3.0 capture device on the market that’s not targeted at the very expensive, professional sector. Due to the massive speed increases the relatively recent USB 3.0 spec offers, it’s two most boasted features are the ability to monitor game play through the RECentral software in real-time and also, to be able to record or stream 1080p video at 60 frames per second. Other devices (including the Live Gamer Portable) can only record 1080p at half that speed and even then, still dropping frames on occasion. You can stream to at least Twitch at 60fps if you want and YouTube is starting to roll out 60fps capability to select partners but due to bandwidth constraints, few people will likely use them right now. The higher frame rate is not particularly important right now but having a device capable of it is good for future proofing. The real-time monitoring seemed right up my alley and since this device was cheaper than replacing even one of my two monitors, I decided it was time to upgrade. After a bunch of testing, I can say that this device is solid and does what it advertises very well, if it works for you. That’s key because while I had few problems with it, there’s plenty of headache potential for others.
The first point that cannot be stressed enough is that this is a USB 3.0 product. If you don’t have a system with USB 3.0 capability, you are wasting your money with this. If your motherboard doesn’t support it, add-on cards are available cheaply. However, since USB 3.0 is still in its infancy (though the standard has been finalised), the number of chipsets with official support is low. At present, AVerMedia only supports Intel (which is only on motherboards), Renesas and Fresco Logic chipsets. They say others may work but if not, it’s not their problem. If you are an AMD user, you’ll likely need an add-on card. Even with this caveat, I’ve read numerous reports of particularly Renesas users still having problems with certain resolutions not capturing properly. If you run Windows 7, you’ll also need the most current USB 3.0 drivers for your chipset and right now, only Intel makes those freely available. For other chipsets, you’ll have to go to your add-on card’s vendor and those drivers are often out of date. With Windows 8 or 8.1 (which I run), there are official USB 3.0 drivers from Microsoft in the OS which work well. I have an Intel chipset on my MSI Z77A-GD65 motherboard and had no issues. AVerMedia does include a handy utility which will test your USB 3.0 ports against the ExtremeCap U3 and tell you what resolutions are supported. Unfortunately, this utility requires the device to be plugged in and thus, you can’t do the test before you’ve already put your money down. I strongly recommend that if you buy one of these, do so from a place with a no-hassle return policy.
Aside from the higher frame rate, the main benefit of the ExtremeCap U3 is real-time monitoring. Essentially what this means is that you can use their RECentral software as a display, rather than having to have a second display purely dedicated to monitoring your game play. Overall, this feature works quite well. I experienced a handful of frame drops while playing this way but they were far too few to impact game play and they didn’t show in the recorded footage. The bummer about this is that I presume to save on component costs and keep the price reasonable, they took out the HDMI pass-through that’s present in the Live Gamer Portable. Now, I just explained why real-time monitoring eliminates the need for that and while that’s true, it only applies when you’re recording with RECentral.
If you’re live streaming and using the ExtremeCap U3 as a virtual camera in something like XSplit or Open Broadcaster, your display then becomes your fully populated scene in that software. If you have a webcam in the corner and text elements or use a plug-in to monitor your chat, you have to stare at all of that as you play. This might be OK for some but it’s too distracting for me and unfortunately, you cannot use RECentral while feeding the device into another piece of software. RECentral does support live streaming directly from it but you’re very limited on features if you do that and serious live streamers will want their higher-end tools. While all of AVerMedia’s products support both recording and live streaming, some are better tuned to one of the other. You’ll notice the Live Gamer Portable has the word live in its name whereas this is called the ExtremeCap. That’s very key to determining what they’re best suited for and is something AVerMedia does a poor job of communicating clearly. The good news is you can work around this by purchasing a separate HDMI splitter, many of which are dirt cheap. I have this one on order which is cheap, well reviewed and has the added benefit of stripping out HDCP copy protection, making it much easier to hook up things like the PlayStation 3.
Another touted feature of the ExtremeCap U3 is that it has native plug-ins for both Adobe Premiere and Sony Vegas Pro. I’m not sure why anyone would want to capture directly into their editing suite instead of just using RECentral and importing the footage after the fact but I guess there was demand for this. I’m a Vegas Pro guy so that’s the only plug-in I could test but from my experience, don’t even bother. The interface for the plug-in is messy, it only shows the device’s output in a tiny window that can’t be maximised and at least in Vegas Pro 13, the entire application would crash about 40% of the time after recording stopped. Vegas Pro 13 is newer than the plug-in’s latest version so maybe an update will fix that but honestly, this is a pretty useless feature in my opinion.
As for RECentral itself, opinions online seem to be very mixed on it. A not insignificant number of people have reported that it frequently crashes, freezes or otherwise fails to record properly for them. Personally, I’ve found it a joy to use, especially against the Elgato software. It’s been reliable and I’ve never experienced a crash. I do have a powerful, heavily overclocked Core i7 gaming PC and a Core i7 laptop so if you’re running a more modest configuration, perhaps the software’s reliability goes down. Given the number of people with issues though, I would say that AVerMedia probably still needs to put more effort into it. However, one major gripe I have with it that’s existed since I bought the Live Gamer Portable (which was about four versions ago) is that if you are recording your commentary to a separate MP3 file, the commentary will always be about a half second out of sync with your game play audio. Since it’s a separate file, this can be corrected when you’re editing and I’ve got it down to a science. This is incredibly frustrating though and if you just want to capture and upload to YouTube without editing, it’s an even bigger problem. AVerMedia had steadfastly insisted this is a problem with my setup but after testing on multiple computers, I can assure you they are wrong. This is a big and a really frustrating one that they need to correct.
This brings me to their tech support. This is something not often discussed in reviews but an otherwise good product with lousy support can really sour the experience and I think it’s important to know how it stacks up. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan of the Elgato in general but their horrendous support sealed that deal for me. It took them forever to respond when I submitted an issue and not once but twice, they responded answering a question that was so different from what I asked, it made me wonder if they actually read what people submit. AVerMedia’s representatives are both friendly and knowledgeable which is a big plus. However, reaching them is a headache. The support form on their web site is long, complicated and is designed for their entire range of products so it often requires you enter information that’s not really relevant. They will respond quickly but if the can’t answer your question on the first go ground, you can’t just reply to the e-mail or sign in to a portal to submit your response. You actually have to go to the page where you submit feedback on the support experience and at the bottom of that form, there’s a space both for general additional comments or to type a response if your issue was not solved. This is a lousy and overcomplicated way to provide support. We use a free ticket system for IT issues where I work and it puts this to shame. AVerMedia’s tool looks like it was written in-house but with so many off-the-shelf solutions that do it better, there’s really no reason they can’t upgrade to something better. Again, not the end of the world but like most of my issues with this product, they’re little things that aren’t a big deal on their own but are frustrating when you need them.
The last thing of note is probably not important to most but it was to me and that’s the unobnoxious appearance of the ExtremeCap U3. The Live Gamer Portable has a very bright and large ring of light on the top of it that’s always lit up when it’s plugged in and pulses red when it’s recording. It can’t be disabled and I find it very distracting. The ExtremeCap U3 is just a plain black box with a much smaller light that does stay on and also pulses red but it understated and not in your face at all. I’ve ranted before about the lack of status lights these days and I like to know what my stuff is doing but this is the way to do it reasonably. I hope they keep this design going forward.
I’ve accentuated a lot of negatives in this review but overall, I actually like the ExtremeCap U3 quite a bit. I was happy with the Live Gamer Portable as well and the only reason I upgraded was because of the real-time monitoring requirement that’s unique to my setup. Given the relatively small price difference between the two, I would say if you have a compliant USB 3.0 capable system, the ExtremeCap U3 is still the better buy because it supports higher resolutions and frame rates. If you don’t need 1080p/60fps recording capability and have a second HDMI display to use with a pass-through, then the Live Gamer Portable is a fine choice too if you can find it for cheaper. I think that while not perfect, the RECentral software is the easiest and most reliable capture software I’ve used so far and AVerMedia’s support is a little cumbersome but good and they support these products with much more frequent software and firmware updates than Elgato ever did. If you’ve got the system to handle its requirements (and to be fair, mine is well above the system requirements), this does what it says on the tin and does it very well. I will say once again however that I highly recommend you buy this from a place with a no-hassle returns policy because even if you have all your ducks in a row, it may still not work for you and the last thing you want is to get stuck with a restock fee or an outright return refusal.
If you’re a YouTuber or live streamer who is looking for a solid way to capture console footage in any flavour you want, this is a good buy. If you happen to keep all your consoles right beside your desktop PC, you might be best served with an internal card like the Live Gamer HD. If however, you capture off a laptop or your consoles live under your TV which isn’t near your desk, this is a solution that’s fitting my needs well. I don’t always hit it but I try to set and maintain a high quality bar with my videos and this enables me to maintain that. It’s not perfect and it’s not a one-size-fits-all device but it does what it says very well if you’ve got the rig for it. I urge you to watch my video companion above which goes into more detail about the points I’ve made here and has a bunch of demonstration footage as well.