Screencasts are becoming the way of the Web and are a great way for people to visually explain how to do something. A screencast, for those people unfamiliar with them, is a recording of a user’s computer screen that is often used to demonstrate the capabilities and features of a software application. Anytime I see a software product that I’m interested in I always look for a screencast because it will give me a better idea of whether the software is right for me, without even downloading it.
As far as professional screencast software goes there are two that I recognize as the industry leaders: Techsmith’s Camtasia and Adobe’s Captivate. Before you pull out your checkbook to purchase these it is probably good for you to know that Camtasia busts-the-bank at $300 and Captivate doubles that at $600, making these two software packages unreasonable for most home users. That is why I wanted to focus more on the great freeware solutions that are available for you to use.
–Cropper (Homepage/GIF Plug-in)–
Out of the three solutions that I am going to discuss Cropper is the most unique. It doesn’t create a video or Flash file like the others and the actual purpose of Cropper is to capture screenshots. It is written in C# so the program will only work in Windows but the true power isn’t applied until you get the Animated GIF plug-in. Once the application and the plug-in is installed you’ll be able to create animated screenshots like this one:
CamStudio, not to be confused with the non-free Camtasia mentioned above, is probably one of the most popular screencast applications available. Using the software you’ll be able to record portions of your monitor or even the entire screen if you desire. After everything has completed and you’re done recording you can have it save the video as an AVI or generate a Streaming Flash (SWF) file.
The SWF file is particularly useful if you want to host the video yourself because it is a compressed version of the video, but then again the AVI file is great if you want to upload it to a video site like YouTube. Another way to knock down the size of the output file is to make the region your capturing a little smaller and then enabling the autopan to move the recording area with the mouse.
I had some problems getting CamStudio to record a screencast in Windows Vista despite it looking like it worked. The output would be a video that is all scrambled and switching codecs resulted in the same mess. The CamStudio blog has announced that version 3 of the software is just around the corner with a target release date in January of 2007 (it has been 3 years since a new version was released) but no details are given about what new features to expect. I’m crossing my fingers that Vista-compatibility is on the list.
Wink is probably my favorite screencasting software out of the ones that I have mentioned here. It has an extremely large set of features and a unique frame-by-frame editor. Another really nice thing is that you can have it export your screencasts not only as a SWF flash file but also as a standalone EXE file that anyone can just double-click on to run. Or you can even have it generate an HTML file that will embed the screencast into a website for you which saves even more time. There are just too many features to sit here and name so here are the ones that Wink highlights:
- Freeware: Distributed as freeware for business or personal use. However if you want to redistribute Wink, you need to get permission from the author.
- Cross-Platform: Available for all flavours of Windows and various versions of Linux (x86 only).
- Audio: Record voice as you create the tutorial for explaining better.
- Input formats: Capture screenshots from your PC, or use images in BMP/JPG/PNG/TIFF/GIF formats.
- Output formats: Macromedia Flash, Standalone EXE, PDF, PostScript, HTML or any of the above image formats. Use Flash/html for the web, EXE for distributing to PC users and PDF for printable manuals.
- Multilingual support: Works in English, French, German, Italian, Danish, Spanish, Serbian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese and Simplified/Traditional Chinese.
- Smart Capture Tools: Capture screenshots automatically as you use your PC, based on mouse and keyboard input (great time saver and generates professional captures).
- Performance/Quality: Creates highly compressed Flash presentations (few kbs to few hundreds of kbs, much smaller than competing commercial products) ideal for using on the web.
- Navigation buttons to move to next/previous/random frames in the presentation, you can use custom bitmaps for these buttons (full transparency/alpha channel support).
- Callouts and shapes for displaying text explanations. The inbuilt Callout Editor is used to create custom shaped callouts as you want.
- Intuitive drag-n-drop editing of the frame, callout, cursor, navigation buttons and the title elements.
- Advanced features like templates, cursor editing, palettes, background images, control bars & preloaders for the flash output etc.
- Completely PC and Web ready with exports to PDF, HTML, SWF and EXE formats.
- Innovative compression techniques applied to reduce filesize of output Flash file. Generated flash file plays in Flash players from version 3 and above, giving you widest array of target audience.
- Uncompressed output to allow you import the output of Wink into other Flash editors.
That’s quite an impressive list, huh? It’s hard to believe but Wink is missing something that I think is crucial for a lot of people using screencast software. While it can export a screencast to a SWF file it does not support AVI at this time. That means you would have to get your hands on an SWF to AVI converter if you want to upload the screencast to a video hosting site like YouTube. I tried to find a freeware converter that worked but I came up empty handed (I tried several, including SUPER, and they all gave errors for some reason). If Wink ever gets AVI compatibility then I will be really happy.
There you have it, three great ways to demonstrate something to your audience without ever having to pay a dime. Of the three Wink is my favorite but the lack of AVI compatibility is really disappointing. I couldn’t even get CamStudio to work properly on Vista so I couldn’t accurately compare the output of the applications but it seems to have a lot of similar features to Wink. If you know of another great freeware screencasting utility make sure you let us know so that we can try it out!