Photo by Bijan Stephen / The Verge
As The Verge’s resident live-streaming reporter, I do a lot of streaming on my own time, both because it’s fun and because I want to know a little about what it’s like for the people I cover. That’s meant I’ve gained a healthy appreciation for the various pieces of gear that make streaming possible — because streaming is the opposite of effortless. Things break constantly, and most of the time for no obvious reason. (There but for the grace of god go we, etc.) All of that said, I’ve found that upgrading my stream setup is one of the few true pleasures I have left; there’s nothing quite as satisfying as adding a new camera or microphone or chat command that might elevate a viewer’s experience.
It is in that spirit — the spirit of perpetual tinkering and perpetual upgrades — that I bring you the cheapest, best piece of gear I own. It is a no-brand cam link that retails between $11 (eBay, but beware shipping times) and $26.99 (Amazon). This device is one of those magical things that’s made possible by the confluence of online retail, consolidated manufacturing in China, and a global postal service. It simply couldn’t have existed before.
As a clone of the popular Elgato Cam Link 4K (which retails for $129.99), all the device does is convert HDMI to USB, which is conceptually simple but technically more complex. The best of these devices do this conversion very quickly and at high fidelities; Elgato’s version even handles 4K resolution. Due to the pandemic and the legions of people who’ve joined Twitch and YouTube, however, the brand name models have become difficult to find, which is where this weird little knockoff model comes in. My colleague Grayson, a motion designer at The Verge, tipped me off to it one day in early June, after he saw an excellent video review of the device from the YouTuber EposVox.
I thought the review was convincing, so I figured I’d try it for myself. My friend and fellow streamer MikeAM took the plunge with me; we decided we’d try to upgrade our video streams on the cheap because hey, why not? We each bought a 2018 GoPro Hero, some micro HDMI to HDMI cables, a non-HDCP HDMI splitter, and, of course, one of these cards. The difference was instantly apparent. I’d been switching between my Logitech C922 and a Panasonic Lumix GH5 (which I borrow to shoot a late-night show on Twitch), and I could immediately see how much clearer the GoPro’s video was than the C922. (With a splitter, the HDMI converter doubles as an extremely cheap capture card for a console, though I’d personally recommend shelling out for the more fully featured Elgato HD60 S.) The experiment worked.
Naturally, the star of the show was the capture card. It has a lot of limitations: it can only support 1080p / 60fps input, and its output maxes at 1080p / 30fps or 720p / 60fps. It also converts the image to MJPEG, which means the colors are sometimes a little wonky. (I used a filter in OBS to desaturate the image.) It also sometimes lags, which is a problem because you can’t actually Google how to fix the problem — there’s no manual, really, and troubleshooting is nonexistent. The other thing to remember is that not all of these cheap cards are created equal; if you pick up one that’s billed as USB 3.0, or one that looks a little different, that is an entirely different device.
But if you can work within those limitations, the device is a dream. It’s plug ‘n’ play: the card shows up on your computer as “USB Video,” and it works anywhere you’d put a webcam, which includes Zoom, Discord, OBS, and more. The price point is also unbeatable. Lately I’ve been using it with the Lumix. It’s always a joy to plug in because I know it’s going to work. If you want to see what it looks like in action, feel free to follow me on Twitch.
Otherwise, if you have a camera that outputs HDMI and don’t want to (or can’t) shell out for an Elgato, I’d say pick this little guy up. It’s a cheap upgrade that, for me, has absolutely been worth it. Go see for yourself.