The best PC game recording software: 5 freeware capture tools compared

For an emerging Twitch broadcaster, or any gamer eager to share epic highlights with pals.

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Game video recording benchmarks

Recording gameplay can potentially take a toll on performance, so we benchmarked what sort of frame rate drops you can expect from using these five programs.

We didn’t use a top-of-the-line rig for our tests, but a laptop with an external GPU setup. The point wasn’t to see what 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 modest system fares while gaming and recording at the same time.

[Further reading: The best graphics cards for PC gaming ]

Nvidia AMD graphics cards Brad Chacos

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 other hardware can greatly affect results. 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, and all video capture systems were set to record at their default settings whenever possible.

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.

frame rates benchmark Ian Paul/IDG

In-game frame rates while recording. (Higher results are better.)

frame rate performance loss Ian Paul/IDG

In-game performance loss while recording. (Lower results are better.)

The best all-around performer was Nvidia’s ShadowPlay (aka Share), which lost a little more than 8 percent of performance compared to the baseline. I didn’t have an AMD graphics card handy so I couldn’t test AMD ReLive; however, the general consensus is that ReLive offers similar performance to Nvidia ShadowPlay, as Gamers Nexus reported in late 2016. (PCWorld’s past experiences with ReLive correlate Gamers Nexus’s claims.)

OBS Studio in recording (not broadcasting) mode was a distant second, with a performance hit close to 23 percent. That’s far better than OBS Classic used to perform, and I’d expect a more powerful machine focused on broadcasting to handle OBS Studio and a game just fine. That said, many of the top Twitch streamers have a two-PC setup with one machine dedicated specifically for OBS.

Surprisingly, Plays.tv had a weak outing this time around, with a performance hit of 29.41 percent. When we last ran these tests in early 2016, Plays.tv’s frame rate drop was a single digit percentage. I performed the benchmark several times and on different days just to be sure, since the difference was so dramatic, but the result remained consistent. MSI Afterburner scored the same as Plays.tv.

Surprisingly, the best performer in our tests is built right into Windows 10—though some usability quirks keep us from recommending it outright.

Other options

If none of the above programs suit your needs, here are two other popular choices. One is built into Windows 10, while the other will cost you money.

Windows 10 Game DVR

divisiongamebarshortcutsIAN PAUL/IDG

The Windows 10 Game Bar.

Windows 10 includes a native feature called Game DVR that performed even better than ShadowPlay—though only slightly. In my tests using the same Metro Last Light benchmark, Game DVR dropped frames by just 5.14 percent compared to the baseline. That’s really good. The downside is that sometimes Game DVR can be a little finicky, as we’ll see in a moment.

To get started, open Windows 10’s native Xbox app and click on the settings cog icon on the bottom of the left rail. Click Game DVR from the top menu under Settings and turn on the slider labeled Record game clips and screenshots using Game DVR. If you want Game DVR to automatically start recording while you’re playing, scroll down the page a little bit more and under Background recording, activate Record in the background while I’m playing a game

xboxwindows10 Ian Paul/IDG

Windows 10’s Xbox app settings.

Below that, under Game clips, you’ll also find the maximum recording times for each manually activated recording session. You can set it for 30 minutes, one hour, or two hours. There is no way to stream video directly to Twitch or YouTube, though the Windows 10 Creators Update lets you stream to Microsoft’s own Mixer service.

Here’s where Game DVR runs into problems.

To manually record a game clip, simultaneously press the Windows keyto call up the Game Bar and then hit the record button. But sometimes it just plain doesn’t work and the Game Bar fails to appear. When that happens, you’ll have to use the keyboard shortcut Windows keyAlt + to record the last 30 seconds of gameplay, or hit Windows keyAlt + R to just start recording. Game DVR “confirms” that it’s recording by blinking the screen, similarly to what happens when you take a screenshot in Windows 10 using Windows key + PrtScn. But the Game DVR blink is more subtle and easily missed.

Because of these basic issues—plus the fact that it’s limited to Windows 10 and Mixer streaming—we put Microsoft’s homegrown solution down here in the “alternate” section. Its performance is fantastic, but when you can’t use the Game Bar you never really know if you’re recording until the gaming session is over.



The open source Fraps is a popular choice for benchmarking games that lack a benchmark tool. It’s also an easy way to display a frame rate counter in the corner of your screen. Fraps can also capture gaming video, but unlike the other tools mentioned here, you have to pay for access to extensive video recording. 

At this writing, a lifetime license for Fraps cost $37. That’s a pretty fair price for a piece of software that’s very easy to use, but when you can find tons of game capture tools for free, paying a premium is a pretty hard sell.

If you just use the free version, you can capture video but your clips are limited to 30 seconds, and they’ll have a Fraps watermark on them. If you want to give the recording tools a try, open the program and click the Movies tab. Here you’ll find all the settings for recording games. By default, videos are saved to C:\Fraps\Movies. Videos are saved at 30fps, and F9 is your video capture hotkey. Make sure you only minimize Fraps to your taskbar while running games, as the program does not run in the background once dismissed.

Bottom line

So there you have it: PCWorld’s look at the top video capture tools for PC gaming.

Gamers with a budget system will have to be prepared to suffer a performance hit of varying severity to record your most glorious gaming moments. Due to their mixture of ease-of-use and minimal performance impact, we’d recommend Nvidia ShadowPlay or AMD’s Radeon ReLive for most users, though specific features in the other software may sway you to another option. You’ll still take a small hit in frame rates, but that’s the price you pay for a folder full of gaming memories.

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