We've all had to Alt-Tab. Whether you're driving down the streets of Liberty City wondering how to pass a mission or twiddling your thumbs waiting for a raid to start in World of Warcraft, the temptation to Alt-Tab out of the game to switch to the Web browser is something we've all faced. Unfortunately, Alt-Tabbing is also a toss of the dice, but gamers are gamblers, willing to hit Alt-Tab with iron wills and steely gazes at the ready. When we're lucky, the windows flicker around in a voodoo-like fashion and take us to the desktop safe and sound. More often than not, the game will just crash on us or ignore the command altogether. And then there are times when lady luck spits in our eye, and the computer locks up completely--which is precisely the moment our steely gazes come into play.
A few companies have been toiling away on in-game Web browsers to make Alt-Tabbing a thing of the past. They figure you shouldn't have to leave the game and tempt lady luck to hawk a juicy one your way if you want to check a few scores, and find a FAQ. Programs like PlayXpert, Rogue, Xfire, and even Steam let you hit up the Web without leaving the action. All of the solutions are fairly young and consequently have their quirks (think gleek rather than loogie), but they are getting better over time. Read on to learn about four of the more promising in-game browsing applications.
More than just a browser, PlayXpert acts as your one-stop hub to the outside world all within the confines of a game. Through PlayXpert's taskbar-like menu, you can access all sort of tools. You can easily browse the Web, play music, and chat over IM with your buddies right out of the initial install. According to PlayXpert CEO Charles Manning, "The program has broad compatibility and minimizes hits to performance by injecting its UI into the DirectX command stream as the information goes to the GPU." When translated into English that means that PlayXpert does not trigger anticheat software, and it doesn't need an update for new games or recently patched games.
You'll find quite a few widgets to download on PlayXpert's Web site to further enhance the program. Examples include Gmail, Pandora, TeamSpeak, iTunes, and Google Gadgets, which unleashes many of Google's tools. Installing widgets isn't difficult, but the process isn't entirely straightforward. We had to rename the ZIP files we downloaded to .pxpwid files to get them to work. All the gadgets we tested worked as advertised after we renamed the files. We found the in-game IM support for Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo, AIM, ICQ, GTalk, and Xfire absolutely indispensible.
Our older Pentium 4-based system stumbled despite PlayXpert's lean system requirements. Counter-Strike slowed to a crawl, and interactions with PlayXpert felt like a breast stroke through molasses. PlayXpert more than lived up to our dreams once we were on a quicker quad-core machine. We lost a few frames, but the added functionality was well worth it in games with a lot of downtime. PlayXpert also worked in just about every game we tried it in, although performance in some games did waver. Most of the time frame rates stayed close to default, but playing videos through YouTube killed them. The folks at PlayXpert mentioned that a forthcoming update to the program should address the issue.
Valve has been steadily adding features to Steam, its popular game content delivery service. The company unveiled an in-game browser in the middle of January. It's a far cry from what either Rogue or PlayXpert endeavor to accomplish, but it's rock solid by comparison. The browser comes with Steam, so you don't need to install anything extra to get the functionality.
Steam's browser doesn't take a toll on performance, because you can't play the game and run the browser at the same time. You can enable the browser by pressing the Web button in the Shift-Tab menu. The entire screen darkens a bit and lets you interact with all of Steam's functions and the browser at the same time. You can use the browser in games that aren't on the service (like World of Warcraft) by using the add-game function in Steam.
Rogue is purely an in-game browser that recently arrived in beta. The small company currently focuses on making the browser compatible with massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online. Once the company has those games nailed to the wall, it intends to focus on other popular games. The company has its work cut out for it with only a handful of employees.
Rogue works in World of Warcraft and Counter-Strike: Source. Eight other games we tested crashed to the desktop or completely halted the computer. We're not surprised, as the folks from Rogue essentially said as much. However, when Rogue did work, the performance hit was tremendous. Leaving the browser window up and running nailed performance somewhere in the 70 percent range. We recovered a handful of frames by minimizing the browser, but the hit was still atrocious. Representatives stated that a new build will be released shortly that should improve overall performance. Rogue is worth taking a look at if you play MMORPGs and is probably good to keep an eye on to see how the program progresses.
Xfire started life as a gaming-oriented IM program, and it has been evolving ever since. Over the years the program has gained the ability to take screenshots, record videos, organize guilds, and more. Very recently (and by recent we mean February 9, 2009) Xfire got a new feature: an in-game Web browser.
Like Rogue, Xfire seems to be game dependent. We had luck with a few games, such as Left 4 Dead, but support was hit or miss. Enabling the browser seemed to be just as sketchy until we mapped the command to a key combination that didn't interfere with normal game functions. Once it was running, the browser worked like a charm. Much like with the other programs, performance dropped considerably if we left the browser window open during gameplay.
We're pretty far from a clear-cut winner, as none of these programs are perfect at the moment. Heck, half of them jumped onto the scene in the last 30 days. But unlike Alt-Tabbing, compatibility and performance for in-game Web browsers will keep improving. Hopefully that means our steely gazes will stay saliva-free. Depending on what kinds of games you play, the performance hit might be worth the trouble to check out a few of these programs, especially PlayXpert. For the frame rate nuts, it's probably best to keep these at the back of your mind until they're mostly snag-free.