The best PC game video capture software: 5 free recording tools compared
For an emerging Twitch broadcaster, or any gamer eager to share epic highlights with pals.
Whether you’re an emerging Twitch broadcaster or simply a gamer who wants to share your epic gaming highlights with pals, recording your video gameplay is all the rage these days. But which recording solution should you use if you’re just dipping your toes into capturing gaming videos? There’s no shortage of video recording tools out there vying for your attention, many with unique hooks or features.
We played with five of the most popular free gameplay capture tools around—Open Broadcast Software, Nvidia’s ShadowPlay, Raptr, MSI Afterburner, and Plays.tv—to try and answer that question. Each serves a different purpose, such as recording and sharing highlight clips, broadcasting your gameplay to the world, or creating a complete archive of your favorite game. This guide will point you toward the best recording software for your needs.
Let’s start with an overview of each of the programs in no particular order, followed by a look at what sort of performance hit each program inflicts on games.
If you’re looking to start livestreaming specifically, be sure to check out PCWorld’s guide to game streaming with Twitch.
Of the five game recording programs we’re covering, Plays.tv is by far the easiest to use. It makes it really simple—and fun—to post short gaming clips online, and it barely affects your game’s frame rates (which we’ll get to later on).
But Plays.tv isn’t just a video capture tool; it’s hooked into a website that’s sort of like an addicting Instagram for gamers. When you first boot up Plays.tv, the program presents you with a dashboard of popular gameplay clips from the Plays.tv website. Click on a clip you’d like to see and your browser will open to the video’s page.
As for the actual game recording features, when the app is running it starts recording your gaming sessions automatically. By default, Plays.tv will record up to 10GB of gameplay at 720p resolution and 30 frames per second. If you’d like to tweak the maximum storage capacity, resolution, bitrate, recording framerate, or other technical aspects of the video, all those options can quickly be changed in the software’s settings. The settings also let you disable automatic recording of full gameplay sessions if you’d like, and allow you to enable configurable hotkey-based video capture instead.
Once you’re done with your gaming session, Plays.tv pops up a window with your recorded gameplay, offering very simple tools for cutting down your video into a shareable 30-second clip. (If you’re playing League of Legends or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, the client will even automatically flag key moments like deaths, kills, and bomb plants.) Once that’s done, you add a title, a description, and upload it to Plays.tv with one click. The URL for your new clip is automatically copied to your clipboard for easy sharing on email, instant messaging, or social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software looks straightforward, but it’s not always the simplest to use. The interface can be confusing at times, and it may take a minute to understand the inner logic of the program. Like Plays.tv, GFE does more than just record video. It’s Nvidia’s hub for all kinds of graphics cards settings and for automatically optimizing your games’ graphics settings for maximum visual effect.
To get started with ShadowPlay you first have to click the ShadowPlay button in the upper right corner of the GFE window. A small pop-up window opens; flip the faux mechanical switch to turn on the feature. Once it’s active, you’ll be able to tinker with the quality, audio, activation, and length of recording options in the pop-up panel. If you close the small ShadowPlay pop-up and navigate to Preferences > ShadowPlay in the main GFE window, you’ll find additional settings options.
By default, ShadowPlay records up to five minutes of gameplay at any given time unless you turn on the manual recording feature, which captures your action until disabled. One nice touch: ShadowPlay will save the last five minutes of your gameplay if you press Alt + F10. That’s an important feature if you do something cool, but forgot to hit record first. You can also configure ShadowPlay to stream your gameplay to your Twitch account.
Raptr/AMD Gaming Evolved
Raptr, the company behindPlays.tv, has a desktop client of the same name that also records your gaming. Making it more confusing, Raptr is also bundled with Radeon drivers as AMD Gaming Evolved.
The Raptr client used to have its own dedicated game recording software, but now has Plays.tv integration currently in beta. Like Plays.tv, Raptr automatically records your gaming sessions by default when you start a game. Tapping Ctrl + F2 saves your last 30 seconds of gameplay, and those clips can then be easily uploaded to Plays.tv. Raptr can also optimize your games for you, just like Nvidia’s GeForce Experience.
Raptr also comes with built-in Twitch.tv integration, allowing you to broadcast your live gaming with just a few clicks. It’s unbelievably easy to start. All you have to do is log into your Twitch account via Raptr, turn off Raptr’s automated game recording settings, and start your game. Once you’re in the game, tap Ctrl + [, and your live broadcast begins.
If you’ve been thinking about getting into Twitch broadcasting but you’ve been putting it off because of the technical hassle, or because you think you need a dedicated broadcasting PC to get going, Raptr kills all those excuses for you. I was broadcasting in no time. The only trouble: At first it wouldn’t recognize my webcam, but after I chucked my eight-year-old webcam and bought something that wasn’t pre-Windows 8 it worked just fine.
Open Broadcast Software
OBS is a popular open-source solution for recording gameplay, and specifically, for blasting it out to the world. As its name suggests, OBS can be used to broadcast your game streams on platforms like Twitch, and OBS is also used for creating screencasts. It’s a powerful program, but OBS is most definitely not recommended for anyone who just wants a quick and easy game capture solution.
For starters, OBS is very complex, and that complexity is not a result of the program’s powerful features but its design. It’s not at all obvious, for example, how to start simply recording gaming sessions. That means you’ll have to do a little research.
And once you do figure out OBS it gets worse. Essential parts of the set-up process to record a gaming session are buried under a right-click. That’s a cardinal sin of software design. Yes, it helps to have extra features hidden away for power users, but essential basics that everyone needs should not be hidden beneath the non-obvious right-click.
In my tests, I also had serious trouble getting OBS to record my gaming session, succeeding only after setting OBS to capture my entire monitor. Now to be fair, I tested OBS on a laptop with an e-GPU set-up, and OBS’ guide says it has trouble dealing with laptops running two graphics processors. That said, OBS is the only program I tested that had an issue figuring out which GPU to use.
Unless you’re willing to put in some time to learn this software or have needs beyond simple game recording—professional Twitch streamers swear by OBS and its deep, configurable power—look elsewhere.
This program isn’t exactly game capture software, but it is a popular program with gaming enthusiasts, and anyone who already has it could just use this instead of downloading a separate piece of video capture software. MSI Afterburner is predominantly a graphics card overclocking suite—not just MSI graphics cards, either—that comes with a second download called RivaTuner Statistics Server. RTSS is a great tool for limiting the frame rates of your games if your GPU is working harder than necessary.
In the current version of Afterburner—version 4.2.0—you can get to the video capture settings by clicking on the Settings button at the bottom of the main dashboard. Then use the scroll arrows in the window that opens to get to the Video capture tab. By default, you use F10 to start recording, but you can also set it to automatically start recording every time you start a game. There are other settings below that if you want to change any video capture settings, such as the recording frame rate or the default video file type.
Recording gameplay can potentially take a toll on performance, so we benchmarked what sort of frame rate drops you can expect from using these particular programs.
We didn’t use a top-of-the-line rig for our tests, but a laptop with an external GPU set-up. The point wasn’t to see a tremendously powerful system can do, because tremendously powerful systems won’t have much of a problem running anything. Using this setup shows how a mid- to low-end system fares while gaming and recording at the same time.
Take these numbers with a slight grain of salt, though. The performance hit created by video capture software can vary wildly among different PC configurations. Your CPU, graphics card, and even graphics card brand can greatly affect results. GamersNexus’ prior testing of AMD Gaming Evolved vs. ShadowPlay showed Nvidia’s software performed far better with GeForce graphics cards, for example, and AMD’s recording solution shone brightest on Radeon graphics cards. Likewise, when my editor conducted some quick tests on a more powerful gaming machine with an overclocked Core i5-3570K and a GTX 980, the performance hit was far less severe than I saw with my system.
In a nutshell: It depends! But these benchmarks still provide a helpful general idea on recording software performance. And note that the unique features of each of the gaming capture programs discussed here may lead you to pick one over another regardless of potential performance concerns.
Our test rig was a Lenovo X220 laptop with 8GB of RAM, a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel “Sandy Bridge” Core i7 2620-M processor with HyperThreading, and an Asus GeForce GTX 750Ti overclock edition with 2GB of dedicated onboard memory. Game-wise, we used Metro: Last Light Redux’s built-in benchmarking utility running on High graphics settings at 1080p resolution. Pretty much everything else that could be turned off was turned off, including SSAO, motion blur, tessellation, V-Sync, and Advanced PhysX. The utility was set to run the scene three times for each test.
Simultaneously recording and playing a game can hammer PCs, particularly the CPU. Activating many of the recording options on this dual-core Core i7 system invoked a serious decline in game performance despite its HyperThreading—but not all of them. The best all-around performer was Plays.TV, which lost a little less than 6 percent of performance compared to the baseline. Nvidia’s ShadowPlay was a close second, with a performance hit of a little over 8 percent. The worst performer was Raptr, which lowered performance by more than 40 percent. But remember that Plays.tv integration in Raptr was still in beta; soon, it’ll include the full, efficient Plays.tv client as its default recording solution. OBS (full monitor capture mode) and Afterburner created healthy performance hits too, with both underperforming the baseline by about 31 percent.
Gamers with a budget system will have to be prepared to suffer a performance hit of varying severity running recording software at the same time as a game—but that’s the price you pay for a video folder full of memories and the ability to share your greatest gaming moments with the world.