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nVidia ShadowPlay Pseudo Review

Launched on October 28, ShadowPlay is a video capture feature built into the GeForce Experience app, nVidia’s video card control panel.  According to nVidia, it records and encodes H.264 video at 1080p and 60 frames per second on the fly, utilizing a hardware encoder called NVENC.  NVENC is built into graphics cards based on the Kepler architecture—in other words, the GeForce GTX 600 and 700 series.

nVidia claims that this hardware encoder results in only about a 10% performance hit in the worst case scenario, which is a much smaller impact than video capture programs such as FRAPS.  Many video capture apps and devices save uncompressed video at full resolution, meaning that if you plan to save a lot of video or upload clips to share, the files must be encoded to reduce file size.

ShadowPlay—which is currently in beta—aims to streamline the capture and encode process, providing high quality video, modest file size, and negligible gaming performance impacts.  You can begin recording manually, or use the Shadow feature to save your last few minutes of gameplay on demand.

To set up ShadowPlay, you need to install the latest version of the GeForce Experience application.  In the upper right corner, you’ll see a Shadowplay button.  Click that, and you’re presented with a control panel with a few options.  There’s a big switch to turn ShadowPlay off and on, and four other buttons to control various aspects of the capture process.

The ShadowPlay control panel doesn't have much to tweak

You can choose whether ShadowPlay starts and stops recording via a manual shortcut or whether it watches your gameplay and dumps a clip when you press the hotkeys.  The first option offers functionality much like FRAPS; if you know you’ll be recording a Let’s Play episode or if you want to show the next section of gameplay, you’ll be using that choice.  The second option, Shadow mode, is handy for saving those serendipitous moments that often escape us.  It will continuously buffer the last few minutes of gameplay, and spit out a video file at the moment you choose.  By default, both manual and Shadow recording are turned on, so you have some flexibility in how and when you record.

You can set the Shadow recording period from 1 to 10 minutes on Windows 7, and up to 20 minutes on Windows 8.  More on that in a bit.  I have mine set at 5 minutes, so I have a little time after something crazy happens to dump the footage.

There’s another button for video quality, which has low, medium, and high options.  It’s not clear what the quality settings change, though I suspect it’s the bitrate.  There are no options for changing the recording resolution or frame rate; those are set to 1080p at 60 frames per second.  Hopefully nVidia will offer expanded options in future versions of ShadowPlay.

Lastly, you can choose to capture in-game audio or...no audio, I guess.  Other users have reported that this setting will record anything running through your Windows sound output, so your Teamspeak conversations and Skype calls will be included in your ShadowPlay recording.  Unfortunately, there’s no option for recording sound via a microphone or other input, though I can’t imagine nVidia won’t rectify that.

As mentioned before, Shadow recordings are limited to 10 minutes on Windows 7, though that’s a little misleading.  The actual limitation isn’t recording time, it’s file size.  Currently, ShadowPlay can only record video files that are a maximum 3.8 GB in size.  Depending on the game you’re playing, this might be more or less than 10 minutes, but once that limit is reached, ShadowPlay stops recording in both modes.  This issue seems to be due to ShadowPlay’s use of the Microsoft .mp4 muxer.  Apparently this muxer can’t output files larger than 3.8GB in Windows 7.  Again, I imagine that this is on nVidia’s radar and it’s something that they’ll be able to remedy before ShadowPlay leaves beta.

Up to this point, I’ve primarily used FRAPS as my screen recorder of choice.  The output is very high quality, and it’s easy to add a voiceover on the fly.  I was curious to see how ShadowPlay’s recordings fare.  Watch the video for a quick comparison of quality and color.  The clips were both recorded at 1080p at 60 frames per second, combined in Sony Vegas, and rendered at 720p at 30 frames per second.

To my eyes, the quality of the clips is very similar.  The ShadowPlay recording is a bit lower in contrast and saturation, but the sharpness seems similar to FRAPS, if not a touch better.  If it bugs you, the color is easily corrected in your video editor of choice.

Ok, so ShadowPlay’s output is almost as good as that of FRAPS.  How does it affect game performance?  Not much at all.  While manually recording, it had an almost imperceptible impact on framerate in the ad hoc benchmark I ran.  Granted, I only tested Far Cry 3 (I'll post more tests soon), but I wasn't anywhere close to a 10% performance hit.  FRAPS, on the other hand, with its uncompressed video filling up my dedicated video hard drive alarmingly quickly, dropped the average framerate about 16 frames lower than my baseline.

Baseline

2013-11-12 20:21:52 - farcry3_d3d11
Frames: 3730 - Time: 60000ms - Avg: 62.167 - Min: 43 - Max: 77

FRAPS

2013-11-12 20:20:17 - farcry3_d3d11
Frames: 2776 - Time: 60000ms - Avg: 46.267 - Min: 35 - Max: 63

ShadowPlay

2013-11-12 20:23:21 - farcry3_d3d11
Frames: 3671 - Time: 60000ms - Avg: 61.183 - Min: 43 - Max: 76

And here’s the real kicker: the video file generated for almost the same length of footage was twelve times larger when output from FRAPS.  That hardware renderer does a bangup job of encoding video.

FRAPS
Length: 30 seconds
File Size: 2.34 GB

ShadowPlay
Length: 32 seconds
File Size: 201 MB

So what’s the takeaway?  ShadowPlay is an extremely promising technology that aims to make game capture simple for mainstream users, as well as significantly easing storage requirements for high quality recordings.  Its main limitations are the recording size limits in Windows 7, the lack of external audio recording, and the slightly inferior color profile.  Recordings can only be made from DirectX 9, 10, and 11 games, and only if they're fullscreen.  If nVidia offers OpenGL support and these few other niggles are fixed, it’s going to be pretty easy to recommend ShadowPlay as the best gameplay recording tool for Windows PCs with nVidia GPUs.

All testing for this article was performed using the Steam version of Far Cry 3 at 1080p and maximum quality settings. Vsync was turned off.

Test Rig Configuration