All-star cast

  • Tom Gorham (PC Advisor (UK))
  • 23 October, 2006 12:45

From Lazarus to Leo Sayer, there's nothing quite like a good comeback. Over the past few months, we've been delighted at the return to popularity of screencasting - the process of recording your screen's output and turning it into a movie.

Screencasting is a new name, but it applies to a concept that is far from new - it was called screen recording when it first became popular a decade ago. The reason for its renaissance is tied to the growing appeal of broadband and streaming video, the booming popularity of video-capable MP3 players, and the arrival of technology that allows people to subscribe to video feeds and automatically download them.

Put these factors together and suddenly screencasts are hot. Two of the most popular - and presumably lucrative - video podcasts on iTunes at the moment, Screencasts Online and One Minute Tip, are home-created screencasts.

For many, this appeal might be surprising. Screencasting is popular with software developers, of course - they use it to promote applications in a far more enticing way than a text description would provide. But members of other professions, from teaching to business, can use screencasts to produce and distribute great multimedia presentations.

One of the most popular screencast tools, TechSmith's excellent Camtasia Studio 3.1 (www.techsmith.com), contains a plug-in that lets you create screencasts from within PowerPoint and repackage them as a movie file.

Camtasia is a complete package (the trial version is on the Cover Disc of the October 2006 issue of PC World Magazine, but if you kept your February 2005 issue, you'll already have an earlier full version). Aside from its screen-recording functions, it includes a timeline editor, so you can post-edit your recording's video and audio tracks and add supplementary video.

A titling tool and a menu-creation feature add polish (see Figure 1). It's not hard to see even a beginner producing a professional-level screencast after only a few hours' work.

You can export in most popular video formats. It's always a matter of some debate as to which format is best. If you're creating screencasts for a Web site, Flash probably affords the best mix of flexibility and power.

By exporting in Flash and embedding your screencast into an HTML (hypertext markup language) page, you can produce smaller files, accessible by just about anybody. If you haven't noticed the video walkthroughs we're putting on the Cover Disc these days (click on From the mag-Here's How Flash tutorials), these are also Flash-based.

Quiz show

There's another advantage. By keeping things in Flash, you can make use of Camtasia's amazing Flash animation effects and its built-in Flash Quiz tool - see Figure 2. This lets you build multiple-choice questions and drop them in the video's timeline, adding interactivity. If that isn't the ideal teaching aid, we don't know what is.

There are other impressive features available in all projects, including watermarking and callout tools. But our favourite is the ability to pan and zoom in a screencast, again from the timeline editor. You select a key point in the timeline, draw a rectangle over the area to zoom into and choose a zoom out point - see Figure 3. The result is a smooth transition.

Camtasia is a superb package; if only it was cheaper than $460 (www.microway.com.au). But this column has always been about getting something for nothing if you can, and there's no need to go to the expense of Camtasia to produce a quick screencast.

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Free range

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.

Screenshot Tip

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).