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Why PC Games Struggle With Alt+Tab and How to Fix it

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You’re playing a game and you Alt+Tab to use another program, but there’s a problem. The Alt+Tab process may be extremely slow, the game may crash or freeze, or you may see graphical corruption.

If you’ve played games on Windows, this is probably familiar. Even when Alt+Tab works properly, it may take several seconds to move back and forth — something which can be frustrating if you want to quickly switch between applications.

Why is Alt+Tabbing Out of a Full-Screen Game So Problematic?

It’s not just pressing Alt+Tab that’s a problem — pressing the Windows key may do the same thing, as it takes you out of the game and back to the Windows desktop. This isn’t a problem when you play a game in windowed mode, where you can Alt+Tab easily. But full-screen mode seems to be different — full-screen games can’t be Alt+Tabbed out of as easily.

The real question here is why games run in this full-screen mode in the first place, if the full-screen mode itself is a problem.

When a game runs in full-screen mode, it can gain exclusive access to your graphics hardware — this is known as running in “Exclusive Mode.” Windows won’t render your desktop in the background, which saves on hardware resources. This means you can squeeze the most gaming performance out of your graphics hardware by running the game in full-screen mode, and that’s why games run in full-screen mode by default.

Windows doesn’t just have to switch from one window to another when you press Alt+Tab. It has to minimize the game and start rendering the desktop again. When you switch back to the game, the game has to restore itself and take control away from Windows. For a variety of reasons — especially problems with the way some games are coded — the game may encounter a problem while doing this.

You can see this in action when you have a game running in full-screen, exclusive mode. If you Alt+Tab out of it, you can hover over the game’s taskbar icon or press Alt+Tab again. You won’t see a preview of the game’s display area like you would for other windows. The game running in full-screen exclusive mode doesn’t redirect its output through the desktop’s display manager, so the desktop display manager can’t display a preview.

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How to Quickly and Safely Alt+Tab Out of a Game

Let’s say you want to play a game but you also want to Alt+Tab and use other windows without the risk of crashes or delays while switching. There are several ways you can make this happen:

  • Play in Windowed Mode: Games often have a windowed mode, where they render themselves in a window on your desktop. Games running in a window won’t have exclusive access to your graphics hardware, so they won’t perform quite as well as they would in full-screen mode. However, you can more easily switch between windows. A windowed game probably runs at a lower resolution than a full-screen game, so you’re gaining some more performance there — at the cost of a smaller game screen with less graphical quality, of course.
  • Use Full-Screen Windowed Mode: Full-screen windowed mode, also referred to as “Full screen (Windowed)” or “Windowed (Fullscreen)” mode, compromises between the two. When you select this mode, the game will take up your entire screen, making it appear as if you were using Full-screen mode. However, the game is actually being rendered as a window — without title bars and above your task bar, but a window nonetheless. This means that Alt+Tabbing out of the game will be very quick — you can even have other desktop windows appear above the game. The game will run a bit slower as it doesn’t have exclusive access to your hardware, but this setting is often ideal if you have enough graphics power and want to easily Alt+Tab.

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  • Disable Windows Key and Alt+Tab: You can also disable the Windows key so you won’t accidentally press it while playing a game. If you find yourself pressing Alt+Tab accidentally while playing a game, you may want to try changing the game’s hotkeys or even consider disabling the Alt+Tab keyboard shortcut.

Recovering From a Crash

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If you ever find yourself staring at a frozen game or an empty black screen after pressing Alt+Tab or the Windows key, don’t panic! Pressing Alt+Tab or the Windows key again may not help you if the game is misbehaving. Instead, press Ctrl+Alt+Delete — this keyboard shortcut is special, and Windows will respond to it even if other keyboard shortcuts aren’t working. Click Start Task Manager when the menu screen appears, select the frozen application in the Applications list, and end it. If this doesn’t work, visit the Processes tab, locate the game’s running .exe file, and end the process.

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Full-screen windowed mode offers a great compromise and is often the ideal setting if your hardware is fast enough and you want the freedom to Alt+Tab. Not every game offers full-screen windowed mode — it’s more common on newer games, so older games especially may not offer it.

Image Credit: Dāvis Mosāns on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/8/14

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