AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable Review
For quite a while now, the general rule has been that if you just casually want to record some gameplay off of a console, you got some kind of easy-to-use USB device and use a PC to record. If you wanted to get serious with archival-quality video or a really good-looking livestream, then you had to go the route of an internal capture card complete with drivers and codecs and all that complexity that made for much better video, but also kept good-quality video recording of gameplay out of the reach of most gamers. Over the last couple years, companies like Elgato, Roxio, AVerMedia, and others have tried to change that with ever-improving USB devices that can do just as much as the more complicated solutions out there.
Last year, I reviewed the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro and found it to be a good device with solid value for those wanting to capture video and didn't mind going through the effort to upload that footage to YouTube themselves; it was bad at streaming and was inflexible because the device was inextricably locked to Roxio's rather limited software. Sure, it could capture well enough to make videos and toss them on YouTube, but the footage wasn't crystal-clear, and the streaming interface proved to be quite disappointing - and Roxio never bothered to update the GCHD Pro's drivers to interface with today's best livestreaming programs.
Apparently my complaints about devices like the Roxio GCHD Pro were echoed by many gamers around the world, because AVerMedia just released a new USB-powered box called the Live Gamer Portable that has all the ease-of-use a novice needs to get going, but it also offers some great advanced options over the competition - especially for those trying to capture console footage at local events or for those who are serious about livestreaming.
The slick packaging for the LGP houses the rather small device itself - it fits in your hand and only weighs a few ounces - along with a code for a three-month subscription to the XSplit livestreaming software, and a full set of cables that'll get you running, complete with HDMI passthrough, with an Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, or a PC. Most of the cables are a decent length with the exception of the one-foot HDMI cable, but anything that's too short can replaced cheaply with a longer version if you need to.
AVerMedia offers a full PDF datasheet and spec sheet fully detailing the LGP's capabilities, but let's go through a quick run-down of the features: The LGP will take in HDMI or Component video up to 1080p at 30fps (passing through at 60fps) or at 720p, both passing through and recording up to 60fps. The video signal gets sent as a passthrough to your monitor or TV without any noticeable lag that I could see, and with optional use of its SD card slot, can actually record either with or without being hooked up to a PC or laptop. Power it any way you can over USB - off of the console you're recording from, for instance - and the LGP can record directly to a Class 10 (and no less!) SD card. There are a few limitations on SD card recording which I'll detail later.
When properly hooked up to a PC through USB, the full power of the LGP is unlocked. Video can be recorded to the PC's hard drive - just a hard drive, no SSD needed since the video isn't uncompressed - at a bitrate of up to 60Mbps (that's 60 Megabit) over TS or MP4 formats, always using the H264 codec, along with AAC audio at up to 256kbps. At bitrates this high, you'll get excellent-quality video at a filesize that's still manageable: If you've got 2TB of free space on a hard drive, you could capture weeks of HD footage at max quality before running out of space.
RECentral also will livestream with a basic, no-frills set up that works with Twitch.tv, UStream, or a custom RMTP service - you can use a microphone for live commentary and additionally tweak resolution, frame rate, bitrate, and more. Finally, encoding latency is around 300ms which is faster than any other USB capture card I've played with, but it's not fast enough that you'll be able to reasonably play directly by watching your capture or livestream software - you'll still need the passthrough, but it does at least mean that if you're livestreaming with a webcam in OBS or XSplit, there won't be a multi-second delay between what people see and hear from your webcam and mic, and what happens in-game. And I did see some dropped frames when using the 60Mbps setting, but I was never able to confirm what the issue actually was, so I will just consider it a fluke. Anything at 50mbps or below worked absolutely perfectly.
(See the bottom of this article for links to example videos I recorded. Both the originals are there - just beware of large downloads - as well as YouTube versions to see what the footage looks like when you upload it for mass consumption.)
Streaming or recording console games with the LGP is really pretty easy, although the Xbox 360 and Wii U are probably the easiest since you can use HDMI cables for a very simple setup. Plug in the LGP to your computer, download and install the software, take the HDMI from your 360 and plug it into the LGP, then plug the HDMI out to your TV or monitor to make use of the pass-through system. The software has a newbie mode for a setup that simply asks questions like a software wizard, and either way, it can get you recording or streaming with a few clicks - or with a single tap of the actual big button on the LGP itself, which will light up to clearly show you when you're using the built-in RECentral software to record or livestream.
Things get slightly more complicated with the Wii or the PS3, which require you to use the component cables. Yes, even PS3 has to use component, because unlike with other consoles, Sony uses something called HDCP to encrypt the signal on HDMI cables all the time, and it's a big mess that's entirely the fault of Sony and the overbearing TV and movie industries that this freedom-killing technology is still around. (Unfortunately, it's almost assured that both next-gen consoles will use HDCP over HDMI as well. We understand there might be cheap hardware-based workarounds that strip HDCP, but none were tested for this review.)
So officially, you have to use component video on a PS3. The LGP comes with two ways to plug component cables into it - the first is just a small adapter with five female RCA connectors, which you could use to plug the component cables from anything that outputs via component - like a Wii or a very old Xbox 360 that lacks HDMI. For the PS3, though, AVerMedia included a special cable that lets you plug the LGP directly into the PS3's component video port. It should work on a PS2 as well since it's actually an identical connector, but I no longer have a working PS2 so I can't test it myself.
So now we come to the bad news about component video. The simple fact is that component video is an analog technology which will never look as crisp as HDMI, and it's a shame that it has to be used on PS3. That's not AVerMedia's fault, though, and I did find that the LGP did a really solid job maintaining as much quality as possible both when recording/streaming as well as when passing through. Oh, one last detail - the pass-through actually comes out of the HDMI out port, not through a component-out port. Yep, the LGP converts component to HDMI for the purposes of plugging your TV in, so this is actually one round-about way to plug in something like a PS2 or Wii via HDMI. (It'd be silly to buy this device just for that, but it's possible.) As far as I could tell, no lag was added in this conversion, but my reflexes and eyesight aren't what they once were, so it's possible there's some very tiny delay.
Sure, you could use software like OBS to record or stream your games directly off of the machine you're playing them on, but as anyone who streams will tell you, that often makes for choppier or slower gameplay as the same PC has to balance the workload of both playing a game and encoding video. One solution is to use the LGP either on the same PC or on a second machine that's dedicated just to capturing or livestreaming. You can use the HDMI passthrough system like you would with a console, but there's another solution: most of today's decently-powered video cards allow you to plug in two monitors and then you can set them in your control panel to a "mirrored" setup so that it's outputting the same screen to both your normal monitor and the LGP at the same time.
But there's another pitfall, sadly: sound. If you're going to use the HDMI connection to record or stream off of your PC, then you probably want the sound from your games to come through, right? Well, with most default PC gaming configurations, if you do that, then you won't be hearing the sound over your speakers - and if you try to use the sound coming from your capture software, it'll be around half a second behind what's actually happening on your monitor, creating a very noticeable and annoying desync. AVerMedia's got you partially covered for this scenario by also including an 1/8" headphone input and output for a similar setup for recording and pass-through. But this won't work for a lot of people's PC setups, including those that use USB headsets.
There is a range of solutions to this issue, including using the "Stereo Mix" recording device on some motherboards' sound cards to simultaneously output to your HDMI audio port along with a standard non-USB wired headset. You can also use software like Virtual Audio Cable, or even external devices or sound cards, too. Going into step-by-step instructions for each solution is beyond the scope of this review, as it's already long enough, but do prepare to deal with this issue if you're going to do a two-PC streaming setup.
One of the most interesting and unique features of the AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable is its ability to capture video over HDMI or component without the use of a PC at all. The SD card slot will take up to a 64GB SD Card and it must be Class 10, and although my 32GB Class 10 Samsung MicroSD card doesn't quite get up to the 10MB/second write standard that Class 10 requires, it still worked fine. All told, at the maximum bitrate in SD card mode, you can get 8 minutes or more of 720p 60fps footage for every gigabyte of space on your SD card, and if you need, you can push that further with a PC utility to drop the bitrate (and quality).
To switch to SD card mode, all you have to do is flip a switch on the LGP itself. This disables the LGP as a USB device entirely, and turns its USB port into a simple power port instead that can connect to a PC, the game console you're recording from, or even a simple AC wall adapter. Then, just tap the big circular button on top of the LGP to start recording.
There are some limitations using this SD card feature that you won't get using a true capture PC. First, obviously, is that you can only record video, not livestream it. Second, the bitrate is limited to four selections: 4, 8, 12, or 16Mbps, which you have to set using your PC ahead of time with the installed software. Third, in SD card mode you can only capture into a .ts file using the H264 video and AAC audio codecs - in PC mode, you can at least choose between .mp4 or .ts (although H264/AAC are the codecs that are used no matter what, and AVerMedia does offer a utility to re-mux .ts to .mp4). Finally, SD card mode means you don't get any options or tweaks and you can't see what you're recording, but thankfully the device does use colored LEDs to tell you whether you're recording or not, and even blinks in certain alternating ways as a form of error code. For example, when I plugged in a Class 2 SD card to see what the LGP would do, it spent a few seconds thinking - presumably doing a quick write speed test - and then flashed an alternating red and blue light while refusing to record.
You might read that the LGP doesn't support 1080p in SD card mode, but that's outdated information: the recently-released v7 firmware on AVerMedia's site enables 1080p 30fps capture in SD card mode, with the same 1080p 60fps HDMI pass-through you get in PC mode.
If you've only got the one PC, then the Live Gamer Portable can still be helpful. You can use the SD Card mode to record with basically no effect on performance or frame rates, but there's something else you can do: you can actually feed the HDMI out from your PC into an LGP that's connected to the same machine, and while that might not sound like it makes much sense versus just using capture software like Dxtory or Fraps, it actually helps quite a bit by requiring less disk I/O than a lossless video capture codec would, all while offloading the CPU power you'd usually need encoding H264 video. SD Card mode is limited to 16mbps which still looks great and goes far beyond what we currently get from YouTube, but if you want serious archival quality, then you'll want to use the 40-60mbps settings from the PC mode. On top of this, using the LGP in this "Same PC" mode makes it easy to play at one resolution and frame rate while recording in another, all without seriously affecting performance.
I put the LGP in this Same PC mode up against a few programs to compare. First, it completely blew away the performance of Dxtory or Fraps by basically not impacting the frame rate at all and giving more options for encoding. Sure, you can use lossless formats in Dxtory or Fraps, but don't expect too much of a performance benefit from doing that - it'll still cost you in terms of frame rates. The only software that rivaled the LGP in its ability to capture video without killing game performance was the streaming program OBS set on local video capture mode, and even there you're looking at much lower bitrates and video that looks like it's about YouTube quality at best. Of course, if you only have the one PC and want to stream rather than capture video, then you don't really need the LGP - OBS alone is probably your best bet.
There are three programs I'm going to detail here, all of which I used extensively along with the LGP to capture and stream footage. First, there's AVerMedia's own RECentral software, which is a pretty barebones program for capturing and streaming, admittedly with extremely low CPU usage. Then there's XSplit, which the LGP can interface with directly - and each LGP comes with a code in the box for a three-month introductory subscription to XSplit. Finally, there's Open Broadcasting Software, which is a free and open-source program to stream with, and AVerMedia supports it through a piece of unfinished software called Stream Engine that's currently in closed beta testing.
First, we'll look at AVerMedia RECentral, which comes packed in with the drivers from AVerMedia's site. No software disc comes in the LGP's box; instead, a pamphlet directs you to the website where you download RECentral and the driver in one file for a very simple install. Once it's up and running, RECentral has sections for both Capture and Streaming, each with a separate set of options and multiple profiles so that you can quickly switch between, for example, component video at 40mbps and HDMI at 60mbps. Profiles for streaming are set separately as well, and you can stream directly to Twitch, YouTube, UStream, or a custom RMTP service.
There are no "scenes" here like you get with more advanced streaming software; you can use any microphone device to add in live commentary, but in RECentral, you can't make any changes to the video like adding logos, text, or webcams. That alone means that many streamers will count out RECentral, but that's precisely why AVerMedia made the LGP one of very few USB capture cards that works with more popular streaming software. Despite this, there are some useful little features that you usually only see on the big-name streaming software, though, like a bandwidth test and Twitch server selection so that you can get the best possible quality on your stream. And as capture cards and streams go, I have to say that RECentral is extremely easy on your CPU, so if you're on a relatively weak PC, it might be the only viable option. RECentral uses a small fraction of the CPU time that XSplit or OBS use at the same quality settings because it's not re-encoding the video that's pulled in a direct transfer from the LGP's encoder chip. Image quality at the same bitrate is a bit lower, but it's passable - even for something as deadly serious as broadcasting live video games on the internet.
Next, XSplit. I don't want to go too far into a full review of XSplit since it's a separate app made by a different company, but I'll do a cursory glance since the LGP comes with at least a starter subscription. I started out with a bad impression of XSplit, but it won me over with its excellent use of scenes and solid device support. I don't recommend XSplit for capturing PC games directly, but for a device like the LGP, it worked well - better than OBS in some cases - and had full compatibility with hardware like the microphone on my Astro A50 headphones, which gave me all kinds of grief in OBS for some reason. If you do get the LGP primarily to livestream, I urge you to try both XSplit and OBS, since you'll have access to both at the start, and test them both so you can choose for yourself.
Finally, we have Open Broadcasting Software. AVerMedia recently released a closed-beta version of the LGP Stream Engine software, which is an additional utility designed to open up the LGP to more programs including OBS, and while the current beta of the Stream Engine software is a little finicky, it does what it says. I had to experiment with resolutions and frame rate settings to get it to show the LGP's captured video properly in OBS, but it does work. My tests with OBS were limited because I have an un-partnered stream on Twitch (which limits you as far as bitrate and quality, it seems), but what I found is that while AVerMedia's own RECentral will stream with a very tiny amount of CPU usage, OBS delivers much better video quality at the same bitrate with only a few tiny frame rate issues during that - and those are mostly only visible if you're trying to stream at 60fps. I've done a lot of testing on this and still don't have a definitive conclusion, but here's what I gather: if you don't need scene transitions and only want to use a microphone without a webcam, RECentral will do what you need for very little CPU usage. On the other hand, if you are going to use a webcam or if you need advanced stream features, then go with OBS or XSplit as long as you have the CPU horsepower to run it.
There are other programs you might want to use for capture, like high-end video editors or other alternatives like AmaRecTV (which is very popular in the speedrun community), but for now, the LGP doesn't work with them because even the above-mentioned Stream Engine software doesn't make it as compatible as a webcam. Now, if you desperately need to capture video from the LGP in unsupported software, the RECentral software does show you a window with the incoming video, and it's conceivable for you to capture that window directly. But doing this drops a lot of frames and very rarely makes for good video, so I won't even go into trying that; for the amount of money you'd be spending on the LGP, direct support is what matters most.
Unlike some of its competitors, AVerMedia does not include any kind of video editor with its software. Unfortunately, this is one place where the open source community continues to lag behind commercial software companies, as there is simply no free video editor that I find to be even halfway as good as the software made by Sony and Adobe. Considering how so many of even the most basic YouTube gaming videos include transitions, titles, and more, the reality might just be that if you want your videos to look as good as those of your competition, you're going to need to do better than a free program like VirtualDub. Sony Vegas is around $600, so that's not something I can recommend with a straight face. I'd rather stick with the software that's either reasonably priced or free and that does nearly everything an amateur game-based YouTuber should want. I'm no expert on video editing and I know there's a range of Mac products, but the Live Gamer Portable only supports Windows as it is, so I'll stick with that platform.
Adobe Premiere Elements 11 ($100): I was able to import videos recorded at any bitrate from the RECentral capture mode in both .ts and .mp4 format just fine, and quickly seek through them in the timeline even without rendering them first. You can do non-linear editing, add a logo, drop in intros and outros, fade sound, and do little transitions easily enough. Overall, Premiere Elements is a very viable piece of software for those who want to make professional-looking YouTube gaming videos, as they have nearly every feature you'd likely want if gameplay footage is the primary focus of your videos.
Lightworks: This free video editing software includes a trial for a pro version, but I don't think most people using the LGP will need the features in the paid version. Lightworks takes some getting used to as it's got a significantly different interface than software like Sony Vegas and Adobe Premiere have, but it's worth a try for free, and the footage captured with the LGP loads up into Lightworks with no problems that I saw.
There are a few interesting reasons to keep your LGP hooked up at all times to your TV or home theater setup, and you could even set this up with a gaming PC. For example, you could send your HDMI cable that usually goes from your console to your TV into the LGP instead, do the HDMI passthrough to your TV, power the LGP from a USB port on the TV itself, and then leave it in SD card mode - you'll be able to record anything coming through that's not HDCP protected, all while only having to tap a single button, with no PC around, to start and stop recording.
Let's say you've got a beastly gaming PC and are thinking of livestreaming your gameplay, but you don't want anything running that slows down your game. The LGP can do this on a secondary PC that is made just for streaming, where you set up a wired headset so that the headphone port plugs into your gaming PC, the mic plug goes to the capture PC, and a webcam is connected to the capture PC. (USB headsets make this much more complicated, so it can be tough to recommend them at this point.) Meanwhile, you've got a mirrored HDMI out sending video of your gaming over to the LGP while streaming. This will be an expensive, complex setup and you will likely need two monitors, but you'll also get smoother gameplay than just running OBS off of the same PC like most streamers are doing now.
I found a few quirks with the LGP that require workarounds, like the way that the HDMI and component passthrough won't work unless the LGP is getting power - so if you have a separate capture PC and want to turn it off while gaming off-stream, you might need to put a powered USB hub in between the LGP and capture machine in order to keep it powered up all the time. There's also the complete rat's nest of wires you're going to need to maintain in order to use a secondary capture PC, but that's not really the LGP's fault, and the passthrough does at least mean you don't necessarily need HDMI splitters and the like just so you can see what you're playing.
Not everyone that wants to record or livestream their gaming needs to buy a device like the Live Gamer Portable just to do what they want. Obviously if you want to livestream console gameplay here in 2013, you're going to need some kind of capture card - and the LGP is the best choice in the USB variety - but if all you want is to casually record or livestream just PC gameplay, OBS is efficient enough that you can do direct game capture and streaming without the need of any extra hardware. (I wouldn't have made a statement like this a year ago when high-end Intel CPUs were a little less widespread and XSplit was much less efficient and was pretty much the only feasible game-streaming solution, but times have changed.) Streaming directly from the PC that's playing will still affect the responsiveness of your games at least a little bit, though, as it will be using at least some portion of your CPU power to compress that footage either for storage or streaming.
If you want absolutely the smoothest gameplay on one PC while capturing video on another, it's hard to go wrong with the LGP's ease of use, feature set, video quality, and solid interface. Sure, there are better capture cards, but they're internal PCI-Express cards that must be installed and used only with a desktop PC. And if you're recording console gaming, the LGP is about as convenient as it gets, especially if you use the SD Card mode - the fact that the videos produced can be dropped directly onto YouTube or video editing software for easy editing (something that not all capture cards do well) makes things easy, too.
AVerMedia does charge a pretty penny for the LGP. The MSRP sits around $180, and coupon codes are released occasionally to bring it down to $140-ish. Either way, the Live Gamer Portable is going to be worth every penny for someone who wants a USB device to capture game video with fewer compromises than the competition offers, and the unique feature of recording without even having a computer around can prove to be extremely convenient. The LGP's fairly impressive streaming and capturing software support is a good consolation for the lack of included editing software, and the solid performance and impeccable quality of capture - H264 compression and all - make this the best USB capture card I've seen yet. The Live Gamer Portable comes highly recommended, even over cheaper solutions by the competition. But if you are patient and would like to save some money, make sure to wait for a coupon code - say, during a Team Sp00ky stream - to bring the price down a bit.
Mega.co.nz directory with examples of footage with zero editing or re-compression
YouTube playlist of the same files (note: YouTube severely compresses the video and reduces 60fps to 30fps)
Twitch.tv archives with past broadcasts of livestream footage. Some 60fps. Notes in descriptions.
Disclaimer: This review is based on hardware purchased at retail. It was not provided to us for review.