Date: June 30, 2010
Author(s): Rob Williams
For many gamers, the go-to application for performance benchmarking, screenshot capturing and also video recording has always been FRAPS. But if there’s one major thing FRAPS is lacking, it’s competition, something that might end with PlayClaw. This program offers many of FRAPS’ features, along with a couple of unique ones as well.
For as long as Techgage has been online, there has been a handful of applications that we’ve found to be invaluable to our operation, and of these, FRAPS might just top the list. The reason will be obvious to many of our readers… framerate recording. Because FRAPS exists, we’ve always been able to forego running timedemos for every game we test with, which is great, because we’ve always felt that manual benchmarking is far more relatable to a gamer than a timedemo could ever be.
As far as I’m aware, FRAPS remains the only application available that has the ability to not only monitor framerates, but generate reports for further review after the game is exited. The fact that it can do that is the reason it’s proven so useful to us, but understandably, the usefulness of FRAPS tends to be for different reasons to the typical end-user. The reason Beepa’s product has become so well-liked over the years has been thanks to its ability to record game video, and again, that’s one more area that’s had next-to-nothing for competition.
In addition to capturing game video, another common feature of FRAPS is screenshot captures. While most of today’s games have pre-defined hotkeys for accomplishing a simple screen capture. FRAPS made the process even easier by allowing you to use the same hotkey throughout every game. In addition, users were not stuck with the image format the developers chose, as FRAPS allowed saving images to JPG, BMP, PNG and even TGA.
With all FRAPS can do, I found it odd that its developer faced almost no competition. Trust me, I looked. In the past, I have downloaded various freeware applications that promised similar features, but I either ran into issues, or the programs just didn’t work that well, and lacked refinement. To FRAPS’ benefit, where the competition existed, the saying “you get what you pay for” couldn’t have been more true.
But, here we have PlayClaw, the first real competitor to FRAPS I have ever seen. Before I dive into the program and how it compares to FRAPS, I have to explain the reason I cared to look for an alternative at all. As well as FRAPS has served me over the years, I have never found it all too reliable for capturing game video. For lower-resolution video, the program is no problem, but for me, it’s 1080p or bust, and even when trying to record my old-school MMORPG, the lag was usually unbearable. On a high-end PC, I found that a bit strange.
FRAPS users who also try to record at 1920×1080 or similar resolutions will no doubt know what I’m talking about. In order to successfully record at such resolutions, conditions need to be perfect. Ideally, the PC has to be screaming fast, not only with a good processor and lots of RAM, but also with the fastest storage possible. Even then, results are never guaranteed.
Because of all this, it was with surprise when I first spotted PlayClaw. The website touts the ability to record video and stills without slowdown, thanks to the application’s multi-threaded nature. For me, this claim raised an interesting question. Is the reason FRAPS is problematic with recording high-resolution video due to the fact that the application is not multi-threaded? It might well be.
We’ll be tackling all of PlayClaw’s features on the following page, but to kick things off, I offer up a comparative shot of both PlayClaw and FRAPS. Right off, both look quite similar, and I’m willing to bet that even if someone took a look at both, and had no idea what they were for, they could at least figure out that they are competition to each other. The options, the layout… they’re not all too different.
Both applications share sub-menus for videos and screenshots, while the last menu on both similar features, but still differ quite a bit. For FRAPS, that menu is FPS, and as any user of the application knows, that’s the tab for benchmarking and also keeping a framerate counter up in the corner at all times.
For PlayClaw, the menu also includes the overlay for the framerate counter, but a lot more… yes, even more than what FRAPS offers. We’ll tackle all of that on the next page, along with other comparisons between the two applications.
To kick things off, we’ll take a look at the simplest section PlayClaw offers, “Screenshots”. Here, you can choose a folder to output images to, the hotkey to activate the capture, and of course, the format. Like FRAPS, the available formats include PNG, BMP, JPG and TGA. Because I’m a bit obsessive with both picture and video quality, I personally always stick with PNG, as it’s about as lossless as it gets. The downside to that format is filesize, at about 3MB per image at 1920×1200, so if you are not quite as fussy as I am, you could always choose to use JPG and adjust the compression level to your liking.
When a screenshot capture is activated in a game while running FRAPS, the FPS counter in the corner will flash once, or if there is no FPS counter, there will be no confirmation at all – until you look at your output folder after exiting the game. The way PlayClaw captures screenshots is a little more obvious, as a large red see-through box highlights the entire screen and shrinks inward towards the center to ultimately disappear. This sounds like a bizarre method of confirmation, but as the animation takes much less than a second to perform, it’s actually rather seamless, and after using PlayClaw for the past couple of weeks, I have to say I prefer it this way. Because this red box is an overlay, it will not appear in any screenshots, even if you were to rapid-tap the hotkey.
One of the more common uses of PlayClaw will of course be the video capture feature, so it’s no surprise to see many more options available here. Once again, you can choose where to output the files to, and as we look at the hotkeys section, we can begin to see one benefit PlayClaw has over FRAPS. Not only does the software allow you to start and stop the recording as you wish, but you can also pause and cancel it – two very nice perks. The cancel feature would be especially useful for machinima artists who tend to re-take the same scene over and over. Being able to cancel the recording saves the hassle of having to exit the game to delete the file or files.
Also in this same “Videos” pane, the “Number of cores to use” option is without question the most notable. As mentioned in the intro, PlayClaw is a multi-threaded application and is designed to use as many threads (or cores) that you want to designate for the purpose. In the case of my Core i7 quad-core processor, I have eight threads in total, so for the sake of making sure my OS and game have ample CPU power to get by, I only dedicated half of it to PlayClaw to record video.
The optimal setting here will vary depending on the purpose and on your machine. If your PC sports a similar processor as mine, but you’re playing a game that’s also heavily multi-threaded, you may wish to back this option down to 2. If the game you’re playing is trying to use more than 2 full cores (or 4 threads), you may run into a performance issue. Throughout all of my testing, I never once changed this option and didn’t have an issue, but again, depending on many different factors, you may have to tweak a little.
One thing I’ll note is that if you are using an older or lower-end processor, the number of cores you select is going to become even more important in order to retain good playability in a game. If your PC is equipped with a Core 2 Duo dual-core, your only real option is 1, as choosing 2 will undoubtedly result in harsh gameplay and an equally harsh recording experience. Regardless of your setup, I’d recommend setting the number of cores (or threads) to half of what’s available from your processor, then tweak further if the need arises.
Continuing along the road of performance concern, PlayClaw shines with another perk… the ability to choose from between three different levels of compression. As the screenshot shows, the program offers the option to use no compression at all, low compression and then high compression. Just like how the number of cores you choose will depend on various circumstances, so will the compression.
I mentioned above that I’m a bit of a stickler for lossless quality, so for that reason I chose to run with no compression throughout the majority of my testing. Theoretically, this is the most intensive method of recording from a storage standpoint, because the raw data being written to the hard disk is going to be much, much higher than either of the two compression levels. But on the other hand, this type of recording doesn’t seem to nail the CPU quite as hard as the others, because when using a compression level, your CPU is essentially compressing on the fly, whereas with no compression, it’s simply being written to the disk as fast as possible.
To FRAPS’ credit, the program also offers a no compression option, but in all of my tests, is has the ability to slow down or throttle gameplay to a much more noticeable degree than via the default option. This of course will depend on numerous factors, such as resolution and your PC’s hardware. If you’re recording a game at 720p and have a high-end PC, chances are the lossless method with FRAPS won’t be as troublesome as it would be using higher resolutions.
The final sub-menu in PlayClaw is where things get a little interesting, as there are a couple of features not currently seen in FRAPS. Like FRAPS, PlayClaw is able to display a framerate counter on the screen during your gameplay, but in addition, it can also show video information (recording-wise), GPU temperatures and even Teamspeak/Ventrilo overlays.
As I mentioned earlier, while FRAPS offers the ability to record framerates across your gameplay and export the data into reports, PlayClaw doesn’t. Instead, the only option is to have the framerate displayed in the corner to use more as a guideline or for testing purposes where reports (and ultimately, graphs) are not needed.
For clan gamers, the Teamspeak/Ventrilo overlay is going to be one of the most useful features that PlayClaw offers, but as I unfortunately don’t ever use either of those applications, I didn’t test it out. Essentially what it does is monitor your friend’s list from either of those applications, and then overlays that information inside of your games. For example, if you’re in a chat with a couple of friends, their names would be listed to the side of the screen, and icons would appear beside them based on their activity, mostly to denote whether they are talking or not. This feature also monitors people who leave and join the chats as well, so it’s almost just as good as having full access to the applications themselves.
Believe it or not, this feature alone is so popular, that the developer released a completely separate application for it called VoipOverlay, one that costs half the price of PlayClaw, but lacks video recording, snapshot taking, and the other non-Teamspeak/Ventrilo overlays. Both PlayClaw and VoipOverlay allow you to customize where each one of the overlays situates on your screen, which can be an important feature if some game you’re playing has an intrusive or oddball GUI.
Overall, PlayClaw as a whole looks like a rather simple application, and aesthetically, FRAPS looks a bit better to me, but that might depend on your personal tastes. Of course, it’s not looks that matter (your mom should have told you that!), so let’s see if PlayClaw lives up to all of its claims.
Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of PlayClaw, and even after reading the developer’s website, I admit that I remained skeptical. Part of the reason might have been the fact that I’ve been craving better FRAPS video recording performance for a while, so I didn’t want to jump the gun and assume that the program was going to give me a night and day difference. But, after testing the application for just about two weeks, that skepticism has all but vanished.
The first time I tried the video record feature out, I was playing a game I posted a review for just last week, Bizzare Creations’ Blur. After I pressed the hotkey, I had assumed the program wasn’t working, because there was simply no noticeable lag, which as far as FRAPS goes, is unusual. I immediately exited the game, and sure enough, that fifteen second or so video file was sitting on the desktop. So, I hopped back into the game and recorded a much longer one, and again, the fact that PlayClaw was recording wasn’t even noticeable.
I can’t state this enough, because while FRAPS normally gives me a very noticeable reaction to hitting that record hotkey, it was as seamless as could be with PlayClaw. That’s not to say there will never be lag when recording video with PlayClaw, because that’s far from the truth, and again based largely on your system’s specs. But as an example of how seamless it can be, I accidentally hit the record hotkey while playing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction last week, and didn’t even realize until I exited the game and had Windows tell me that a hard drive was low on disk space. No joke… the SSD I was outputting video to was full thanks to the 60GB lossless .AVI file I didn’t even mean to record!
An interesting thing I discovered about both PlayClaw and FRAPS is that they both have the ability to output lossless files that scale to the ability of your storage device. For example, when I recorded a video straight to my OS mechanical hard drive with PlayClaw, the 1m 17s of gameplay resulted in a 6.39GB file, and a bitrate of 711,436 Kbit/s. At that rate, one second of video equaled 83MB. But, when I ran an almost identical recording to an SSD capable of much higher write speeds, the resulting 1m 16s clip weighed in at 12.7GB, with a bitrate of… prepare for it… 1,428,382 Kbit/s. That averaged out to be 167MB per one second of video.
Even as a lossless file, that kind of bitrate seems a little bit like overkill. Bear in mind that Blu-ray movies usually top-out at around 40Mbit/s, and what we’re dealing with here is 1.4Gbit/s! Something I also discovered is that even at similar bitrates, PlayClaw’s resulting file always weighs far more… even as much as 2x. I’m not sure if this is due to an inefficiency in the codec or not, but I’m in the process of awaiting for a response to find out.
Before I sat down to give PlayClaw a more serious test, comparing it directly to FRAPS, I used it across multiple games and was left with quite a good impression. The program isn’t perfect, and I’ll get to why in a minute, but compared to FRAPS, my personal experience is that PlayClaw does a far better job at recording in-game video. As I mentioned, I even accidentally recorded game footage by accident, and it took me to actually exit the game before I could tell. If that’s not seamless, I’m not sure what is.
|(To view a higher quality version, go to the respective video page at YouTube)|
The video above is one that I created in a rather quick manner, so it’s not perfect. It compares recording Blur with both PlayClaw and FRAPS, with and without lossless compression. I’m not entirely happy with the video, because it doesn’t quite show the extent of how much more seamless recording is with PlayClaw, but it will have to do for now. For example, when I was recording with FRAPS, especially with the lossless option, I felt an immediate slow down, but that’s difficult to tell in the video for some reason. I should also note that strangely enough, the recording with FRAPS in the video reflects the best experience I’ve had in a while with the program, as even earlier in the day in some test runs, the lag was horrendous. It’s as if the program was just begging me to give it a second chance!
That aside, and as odd as it is, I even find screenshots to be easier to take with PlayClaw than FRAPS. The reason, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, is that on occasion with FRAPS, and when using high resolutions (almost always 1920×1200 for me), hitting the screenshot hotkey can sometimes lag the game for a moment. I’ve had this issue with FRAPS across different titles, but most recently with Modern Warfare 2. I am unsure of the reason simply taking a screenshot could cause this, but that’s how it is with FRAPS and how it isn’t with PlayClaw. Throughout my testing, I took at least two hundred screenshots with PlayClaw, and never had an instance where the game lagged as a result. But to be fair, I’ve been using FRAPS for years, and PlayClaw for two weeks, so if there is potential for slowdown with the latter, I’m sure I’ll discover it in the weeks ahead.
But as it stands, that’s the thing I appreciate most about PlayClaw… the fact that its features are not that noticeable while using them. With FRAPS, using Blur once again as an example, as soon as I hit the record button, the game immediately slows down. In some cases, it’s not that harsh of an effect, but even a 5 – 10% degradation in speed is hard to ignore, and it makes actually playing the game more difficult. In the second FRAPS run shown in the video above, there’s a part where lag crept up and actually sent me towards the side, causing me to run into a mine.
PlayClaw isn’t devoid of its own issues, though. The most important one to mention is overall stability. While good overall, it isn’t quite as stable as FRAPS, which has the knack of working well in almost every game I’ve used it in. In fact, I can’t recall a single title in recent memory where that wasn’t the case. With PlayClaw, there are a couple games I played through where instabilities would arise unexpectedly, but nothing was 100%, and nothing could be replicated that easily.
One game in particular I had trouble with was Just Cause 2. Here, the game crashed most often after I ended a recording, so while the video would remain in tact, the game would crash. This is the only game that I found I had a real problem with, but I’ve been told that this kind of issue is being actively monitored and will be patched up as solutions are discovered. I should note that this problem only had to do with the video recording… the image snapshots in that game didn’t affect the stability of the game.
Changing the resolution while in a game can also cause it to crash as a result of PlayClaw’s monitoring, but this is more of a minor issue since many people don’t generally change their resolutions after setting it initially. It is a problem nonetheless, however. The last notable problem I encountered had to do with recording games that require compatibility mode to run. This also isn’t going to be a major issue for most people, but it’s worth noting that I have never encountered the same problem with FRAPS.
When I downloaded PlayClaw to test it out, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Who could blame me? FRAPS has been around for longer than I can even remember, and most often when people want to investigate recording game video, that name is one that comes up 99% of the time, with the leading alternative being the usage of another PC to do the dirty work. That’s obviously much more complicated.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve taken full advantage of PlayClaw’s recording feature, and as it stands, I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who needs a reliable tool for that purpose. As I mentioned earlier, the process of recording with PlayClaw is 98% of the time not even noticeable, while it is noticeable 98% of the time with FRAPS.
I should stress, though, that the lone resolutions I tested both applications with was 1920×1200 and 1920×1080. I am well aware that FRAPS does a great job of recording games at resolutions lower than this, but in today’s 1080p world, users today expect a bit more.
One thing I didn’t touch up on much was video quality, but that’s because I didn’t see anything lacking. With PlayClaw, you’re going to get great video quality that’s competitive with FRAPS, even when compressed. And uncompressed, well, there shouldn’t be much of a difference at all, and in personal tests of comparing videos side-by-side, videos produced with both applications looked identical. One just happened to be jerkier in parts than others.
I couldn’t possibly wrap up this review without highlighting a couple of the features that FRAPS has that PlayClaw doesn’t, though. The most notable for me would have to be the lack of benchmarking reports – that is, to push a button and have the program fully monitor the framerate until you push it again. Also, FRAPS recently introduced a neat feature that allows you to pre-record 20 seconds of video at all times, which makes sure you will never miss that perfect capture, and lastly, it also includes the ability to monitor the Windows desktop (DWM), which can be a nice feature in some cases (such as for creating tutorials for friends or to post on the Web).
PlayClaw’s Edward Kozadaev told me that the program will have similar functionality as mentioned above in the future, in addition to some other features that FRAPS doesn’t currently offer. Of course, those were not disclosed to me, and understandably so. On the other hand, PlayClaw offers a cool Teamspeak/Ventrilo feature that FRAPS doesn’t, and for hardcore online gamers, that feature might be even more appreciated than the video recording.
One of the best things about PlayClaw might be the fact that the developer offers a free trial to anyone who wants to give the program a try. That’s right… you don’t have to simply go by what I say, but rather give the program a try yourself and discover its advantages. Speaking of trials, the licensing agreement for PlayClaw is fairly similar to FRAPS. It costs $30 to register, and only “major” versions could require an upgrade fee. By major, the developer refers to a vast overaul (think XP < Vista). FRAPS’ licensing is a tad different, as it costs more up-front, at $37, but promises free upgrades for life.
Whichever application is better for you is going to be a matter of opinion, and based on your needs. Since both FRAPS and PlayClaw offer free trials (primarily with the caveat of forced watermarks), you can easily test out both and see which better fits you. And if you have any questions, or believe I missed an important detail in this review, please feel free to post it in our thread, as we’d love to hear from you.
That all said, game (record) on!
Win a PlayClaw license!
For the week following this review, we’re holding a simple contest in our forums that will give you the chance at winning one of three registered licenses for PlayClaw, courtesy of the software’s developer, Sytexis Software. To enter, sign up for our forums (if not already, required for e-mail verfication) and answer the simple question in the related thread, “What feature would you like to see added to PlayClaw in the future?“. Do this, and you’ll be automatically entered. We’ll perform our random drawing next Thursday, July 8th, at 12:00AM EST. Good luck!
Have a comment you wish to make on this article? Recommendations? Criticism? Feel free to head over to our related thread and put your words to our virtual paper! There is no requirement to register in order to respond to these threads, but it sure doesn’t hurt!
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