Allow Me to Demonstrate

When your many job responsibilities include "teacher," these demonstration tools can help get the message across.

[EDITORS NOTE: At the time of publication an updated version of Camtasia was released. To read a review of this version, click here.]

As the IT guy, you're always asked to do a little bit of everything. Server provisioning, network maintenance, snaking new network cables through the walls and out to the cubes -- those are the obvious and expected parts of the job.

When you're also asked to be a teacher -- to explain to users how they should operate their applications and practice secure e-mail habits -- that may seem above and beyond the call of duty. But you can actually reduce your workload if your users know what they're doing: fewer potential problems, fewer support issues, fewer silly questions.

Don't start planning your classroom sessions just yet, though, because there's a more efficient way to educate the masses. One of the best approaches is to provide them with short, simple, step-by-step demonstrations they can watch on their own time and from their desktops. Create a simple, how-to demonstration just once, and you can use it to help your users time and time again. Developing these teaching presentations as quickly and easily as possible is where this small category of demonstration tools comes into play.

TechSmith Camtasia
Camtasia is essentially a screen recorder. While there are several products in this category, Camtasia is easily the most well-known and probably the most widely used. Its popularity is largely due to its ease of use. The whole process of capturing on-screen step-by-step work, adding other explanatory elements and assembling all that into a single video file is fairly straightforward.

Camtasia Recorder will capture everything you do on screen. It will even pay attention to things like mouse clicks, which you can highlight in the final product. You can also record voice narration as you go. You essentially just do whatever it is you're trying to teach your users how to do, and Camtasia will capture the entire experience.

Together as one with Camtasia!
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Figure 1. Camtasia lets you assemble multiple video segments into a single, consolidated video presentation.

Once you're finished, it can save the presentation in one of several video file types, but typically it's saved as an .AVI file. Camtasia can also package videos as standalone .EXE files.

Next, you'll fire up Camtasia Studio, which operates like Windows Movie Maker (see Figure 1). Here you can assemble multiple video clips into a single, complete video and export the whole thing as a finished movie. You can also use Studio to add extra educational elements, like callouts to highlight or comment on what's happening in your demonstration. Everything is bundled into the final video for users to watch and learn.

Camtasia is easy to use, and produces almost any type of file format you'll need. The ability to add extra elements, such as callouts and highlights, is nice. You can even move them around on the timeline after creating them, which gives you good editorial control.

You do, however, have to create those callouts. This can be time consuming, especially if you want to add enough of them so that every action you make is documented. If you mess up in the middle of capturing a video, you're either going to have to start over, or perform some very precise editing in Studio to hide your mistake.

Redmond Roundup Ratings
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My biggest complaint with Camtasia is not with the software itself, but video file performance. An 800 x 600 dpi (dots per inch) video capture, even at a paltry five frames per second (which looks jerky at times when demonstrating drag-and-drop operations), creates a huge video file. And 800 x 600 isn't much screen space -- try demonstrating something interesting in Outlook or Excel and you'll see what I mean. A 1024 x 768 file is the minimum size I'd consider practical for demonstration purposes, but the resulting video file is truly enormous.

Plus, distributing these massive video files poses several problems. The bigger the capture area, the less likely an underpowered computer will be able to play it. That means not all your users will be able watch it successfully.

Also, the capture quality is typically poor with standard video codecs. Playback can show significant amounts of screen artifacts and blurring, so the final product can end up fuzzy. The problem there is that video codecs are intended for video, not animated screen shots.

TechSmith has countered this limitation by developing its own TSSC screen capture codec. The output is far superior, but in order to play back files, your users have to download and install the TSSC codec. Otherwise, Windows Media Player will refuse to play the file. That's another potential distribution and software management headache.

It can also be difficult to incorporate other instructional media you may have, like PowerPoint decks. To use slides in a Camtasia production, you either have to screen-capture the slide show and edit the resulting video or export the slides as .BMP files and load those into Camtasia Studio. Either way is awkward. The screen-capture method produces somewhat fuzzy results, while the .BMP way produces odd-sized files (which is PowerPoint's fault) that you'll have to individually paste into your video within Studio.

Camtasia is great for capturing small-scale or short tasks, especially those that don't require you to capture the full screen. You can add highlights and callouts to increase the educational impact, but the size of your final files could pose a challenge for widespread distribution.

Macromedia Captivate
You can think of Macromedia Captivate (originally called RoboDemo) as a Flash-based version of Camtasia. Like Camtasia, you start by capturing on-screen action. Unlike Camtasia, Captivate doesn't save this information as a video file.

Captivate takes a static screen shot (a simple .BMP, in other words) each time you do something on the screen. It also follows your mouse and keyboard movement and uses all of this data to generate an editable Flash movie that precisely duplicates your on-screen movements.

Captivate your audience.
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Figure 2. The editing component of Captivate is like a simplified version of a Flash editor.

You can include callouts and highlights in your presentation, and Captivate can actually generate them itself. For example, record yourself selecting Options from the Tools menu in Word, and then clicking OK in the Options dialog. Captivate will produce a movie that includes the directions, "Select the Options item," "Click OK" and so on. These directions pop up for a few seconds right before it demonstrates the appropriate action.

The subtle beauty of this approach is that you can zoom through creating your actual demo as fast as you want. Captivate slows things down and adds directions automatically, keeping it at a step-by-step pace for playback.

You end up in the Captivate editor, which is a vastly simplified Flash editor (see Figure 2). You can use the editor to rearrange, edit, add and remove callouts and highlights; import other media (such as .AVI or Flash files); and so on. You can even start from an existing PowerPoint slide deck to give your demo a framework. Just add Captivate recordings in the appropriate spots. You can also add voice narration wherever you like, either as you capture or while you edit.

Because it uses .BMPs and not video files, final presentations done with Captivate are absolutely clear. One exception is that any drag-and-drop operation is captured as an .AVI video file and inserted into the final product. This causes a "jump" in the final output, as the movie jumps from a static .BMP to an .AVI file. It's less elegant, and I found myself avoiding drag-and-drop operations as a result.

Captivate generates native Flash files, so you can distribute them to anyone with Flash Player 6 or later -- which means practically anyone. Even large screen sizes play back smoothly because Captivate's actual bit rate is quite low. Unlike in a pure video file, Captivate isn't consuming processor power if nothing is happening on screen.

As an extra bonus, you can add "question slides" to Captivate. This lets you build little self-quizzes for your users, including a final wrap-up score and summary of results. This takes Captivate beyond being a mere screen-capture utility and into being a more complete educational tool.

You can even make Captivate's movies compliant with Section 508 -- a technology-access standard for the physically disabled. You can also publish quiz output to conform to the SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model) standard for distributing training materials. These extras are big plusses for large organizations.

TurboDemo uses Captivate's method of grabbing screen shots, rather than full-motion video. Unfortunately, it's significantly less automatic. You have to configure TurboDemo to grab a new screenshot when you click the left or right mouse button, and you can force a screenshot by pressing Pause. This makes the process less intuitive than Camtasia (which motion captures everything) and Captivate (which automatically figures out what to do).

You can set TurboDemo to take screenshots on a timer by pressing Ctrl-Shift-T. This will capture screen shots every half second until you press that keystroke combo again. The practical upshot of this is that it generates a bazillion screenshots (120 per minute), and you can't accurately capture drag-and-drop operations.

You can also add a variety of callouts and other on-screen elements to increase the educational impact, although I found the interface for doing so to be a bit primitive compared to the other two products.

Twice is just as nice.
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Figure 3. You can set TurboDemo to automatically capture screen shots at the rate of twice per second.

When editing a slide (see Figure 3), you can insert a "typing demo." This is meant to accommodate TurboDemo's inability to capture typing (except as a series of two-frames-per-second screen captures). However, going back and typing -- rather than just getting it during the initial capture -- puts a lot of extra work on you because you basically have to go through your demo twice.

You can export TurboDemo presentations in a variety of formats -- Flash, a standalone Java applet, a standalone executable, .AVI files or even a PDF. It lacks a quiz capability, and you can't incorporate any other existing media apart from .BMP files, which you'll have to import as "slides."

Now Playing
Captivate is the most full-featured and easy to use. Camtasia is close in price, but it's significantly less functional because it's primarily a screen-capture utility. Captivate's ability to automatically generate callouts, include quizzes and generate vastly smaller files of noticeably high quality all place it above Camtasia.

TurboDemo took the most effort to generate a presentation. I couldn't just do whatever it was I was trying to demonstrate and have the application seamlessly capture everything. Instead, I had to capture each screen, go back and add typing, add callouts and then play back the results to get everything working. It's far from the near-effortless experience provided by Camtasia or Captivate.

The right tool can make it extremely easy for even time-strapped administrators to produce useful, professional- looking training materials. If you can capture yourself showing how to enter the correct proxy information into Internet Explorer, for example, you may never have to actually do it again.

Camtasia's Latest -- version 3.1: Roundup Follow-Up

In the Redmond Roundup that appeared in the February issue, I tested three products that can help you create demonstrations and tutorials -- Captivate, Camtasia and TurboDemo. Right before that piece came out, TechSmith released a major new version of Camtasia. In this follow-up, I'll look at Camtasia 3.1 with an emphasis on how it differs from the version reviewed in the February roundup.

Changes to the new version are mostly focused on ease of use, which has gotten better with the new crop of tools. The ability to produce professional-looking results goes up a notch as well thanks to clearer output quality, even in a format intended for video rather than screen captures.

Camtasia is indeed a screen-recording application. One potential downside to this approach (as I pointed out in the February roundup) is that by recording at five frames per second, the resulting files can be quite large. That's no different in version 3.1, but Camtasia supports a variety of video formats that can help alleviate that issue. For example, by having Camtasia output to a Shockwave Flash (SWF) or Flash Video (FLV -- new in version 3), the resulting file size is much smaller.

Camtasia v3.1 vs. Captivate
Ease of use
Ability to produce professional-looking results easily
Ease of distributing final results
Ability to incorporate other educational media
Ability to capture everything you do, with consistent results
Educational extras
User interface
1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

Camtasia's screen-capture method still differs from something like Macromedia Captivate. Captivate captures the screen each time you do something. Camtasia captures at a default rate of five frames per second no matter what you're doing. While you can compress the output of your Camtasia presentations, it typically produces larger files (in my tests) than Captivate simply because it's recording more data.

Camtasia Recorder specifically warns you if you're grabbing an area of the screen larger than 1024x768, "Proceeding with these dimensions will work, however for improved performance it is suggested you reduce the recording area." Since you'll often record tutorials and demonstrations at or just below 1024x768 (anything smaller makes it difficult to demonstrate applications like Microsoft Office, since the toolbars and other interface elements take up so much real estate), you should keep this in mind.

You should also bear in mind that larger videos may record fine, but may not play back well on older hardware. Be sure to test your results and capture at the smallest practical size. Camtasia saves files are in an intermediate format called .CAMREC. You'll still need to "produce" the file (after editing, if you choose) to create a format you can share.

The core editing functions are similar to earlier versions of Camtasia, although there is now more robust tiling. You can trim clips, add highlights and other on-screen annotations, transition between clips using fades and other effects and so on. Because you've essentially captured a video, you're not able to do much in the way of changing what you captured. For example, if you mistype something as you're recording, your typo will be permanently recorded. Your only option is to re-record that bit of your project.

With Captivate, you do have some ability to fix this type of mistake during the editing process. However, Captivate doesn't preserve your timing. In other words, regardless of whether you type at one or 60 words per minute, Captivate will "play back" your keystrokes at a fixed speed. Camtasia preserves your speed at the time of the recording, which is helpful.

When adding highlights and other on-screen callouts with Camtasia, you need to slip into a "Callouts" screen where you can move through your video and add or modify callouts. In Captivate, you simply drop new callouts onto your video at will, without entering a specific mode for doing so. Also, Camtasia does not automatically create callouts based on your on-screen actions (as Captivate does). This was a real timesaver in Captivate.

I produced a test, one-minute video of Microsoft Word at 844x876, as an AVI, a WMV, and an SWF file. The AVI was 4.42 MB, and exhibited less of the blurriness and screen artifacts I noted in the February roundup. The SWF file was 946KB -- markedly smaller and crystal-clear. You'll obviously need the Flash Player installed to watch it. The WMV file was also 964KB, although the video showed obvious signs of compression in the color palette and some areas where there was a lot of motion. If producing to the Flash Player format is acceptable, that seems to be the way to go in terms of file quality and size.

Camtasia 3.1 includes a friendly "Production Wizard" which helps you make decisions regarding output format when you tell it how you'll be distributing your video. However, when told that my recording included only screen captures and narration and that I'd be saving it to CD, the Wizard selected the AVI format (there was no option for "intranet" for "file share" distribution). I would have preferred SWF given the clear quality and compact size. Selecting Web distribution gave me the SWF format option.

Camtasia does have a PowerPoint add-in, which lets you record narration and your slides at the same time. This is good for re-using a deck you already have, although it does require some planning. You should record your slides and narration first, and then cut in any screen captures you want to have interspersed throughout the deck.

Although this wasn't considered when calculating the scores in the February roundup, Camtasia has included SCORM compatibility in past versions and continues to do so. You can also add Flash-based quizzes with Camtasia.

Camtasia is much improved with the 3.1 version. I still prefer Captivate in terms of ease-of-use and functionality -- at least for producing simple in-house tutorials. Camtasia does have other uses beyond that, so it may be at the top of the stack for your organization.

Distribution seems on-par given that either Captivate or Camtasia would require the Flash Player (if you used the SWF format in Camtasia). If you're willing to sacrifice a bit of quality, Camtasia can also produce WMV files which require no specific player.

The educational extras in Camtasia are on-par with Captivate. This should have been listed as s in the February roundup, as Camtasia version 2 does support SCORM and the like. However, these features (including the ability to add quizzes) are harder to find in Camtasia, so be sure to read the documentation.

Either Camtasia or Captivate will suit your needs. The main differences are in usability -- and those differences can be very personal. You'd be well advised to take advantage of a trial period for both to see which product suits your particular work style best.


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