In fact, you can do it for nothing if you download Windows Media Encoder 9.0 ( www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/encoder/default.mspx). This has its own, more basic, screen-capture tool, which saves videos in WMV format. This raw file can be titled and adjusted with another free application: Windows Movie Maker.
Whatever tool you use, there are some critical rules governing good screencasts. First, limit the screen resolution and number of colours displayed - if you can, keep it to 800x600 pixels or lower. This minimises file sizes, which is especially important when dealing with screencasts people want to download. Media Encoder is very unforgiving of large screen sizes.
Finally, I haven't talked much about screencasting audio recording hardware and software. While you should get passable results with a decent webcam's microphone, for professional results we'd recommend the Samson C01 USB - ($199 from www.elfa.com.au). Often, it's worth adding an audio track to the screencast after recording the video, for two reasons. You'll almost certainly have to edit the audio to get rid of the mistakes in your commentary and re-recording snippets of audio over the original always sounds noticeable. Equally, recording the audio later allows you to use the audio tool Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net or off the Cover Disc of the October 2006 issue of PC World Magazine), which lets you tweak the audio track more than in a screencasting application.
Getting it out there
One of the most exciting aspects of creating a screencast is publishing it to iTunes or another podcast service and letting the world see your work.
To make your screencast iPod-compatible, export it from Camtasia in QuickTime (.mov) format and, in the QuickTime options section, select H264 as the compression type, choose a size of 320x240 pixels and render the video (see a screenshot here). A lazier way is to simply create a standard QuickTime video, drop it into iTunes and, with the movie selected in the library window, right-click it and choose Convert selection for iPod.
Another tip: if you're prepared to shell out for QuickTime Pro - which is less expensive than Camtasia - you can convert any QuickTime-compatible media into iPod format simply by opening the screencast in QuickTime Pro and selecting "Movie to iPod menu". To make your screencast available to the wider world, first upload it to your personal web space and use a service such as Feedburner (www.feedburner.com) to create a wrapper that iTunes or other podcasting services can understand.
You can then upload your screencast from inside iTunes' own podcast section. It doesn't cost a cent.
I can't pass by a column about screencasts without mentioning my favourite ways to take standard screenshots, those single-image poor relations of the screencast. Every Windows user should know that the confusingly named <Print Screen> button copies an image of the current screen. But fewer might realise that pressing <Alt>-<Print Screen> grabs the active foreground window only. Even so, this is still pretty limited, which is why I prefer to use a dedicated app like ScreenHunter 4.0 (www.wisdom-soft.com or on the Cover Disc of the October 2006 issue of PC World Magazine).