Thursday, January 20, 2011

Screencasting for OSX

I spent some time this afternoon evaluating several screen casting apps for my Mac. It cost me a bunch of time, and a little bit of money, so I thought I'd share my notes to potentially save someone some grief in the future.

For those who haven't seen the term before, "screen casting" is recording video of all or part of a computer display, usually with some sort of voice over, for the purpose of doing a demonstration to be viewed at a later date. It's often done to demonstrate the use, or features, of a piece of software, but lately it's also gaining popularity for sharing things like gaming experiences on video sharing sites like Youtube and Vimeo.

There appear to be all sorts of applications for doing this today, where there were only one or two a couple of years ago, and they have a fairly wide range in features and quality. Some of the applications I looked at also do "screen grab" (capturing a still image of the display) but I pretty much ignored this in all of them since MacOS comes with a perfectly good utility for this ( Full reviews below the cut.

Quicktime Player: The latest version of Quicktime Player is capable of recording the full screen with system audio and one other audio input. It's solid as a rock, records good quality, and comes free with OSX as of 10.6 (earlier versions of MacOS used Quicktime 7 which was very limited unless you purchased a Quicktime Pro license from Apple). Quicktime Player is good for what it does, but extremely limited in terms of its features.

Score: C+
Cost: Free

Screenium: This is the first third-party app I tried out. The general quality of the software is good; it's easy to navigate, has a fairly complete user manual available in the Help menu, and has some good features that aren't very common in other similar applications. There are one or two surprises in the user interface. For example, the video recording options are at the top of the main window, and other options like audio settings, whether to capture the mouse, etc. are further down the list. However, when you pick a video recording style it immediately wants to start recording, so you essentially have to do the setup for a particular recording from the bottom of the list up to the top, which is a bit counter-intuitive. On the plus side, it can record several different audio sources in the same video, which most screen casting applications don't seem to be able to do. Most are limited to system audio and one other input, assuming they can even do two at a time. Screenium requires an external driver for recording system audio, but the driver is freely available and easy to install. Screenium also claims to be able to record just a single window (as opposed to the entire display or a selected area of the display) however this feature doesn't seem to work; Screenium just records the entire display when I try to use it. I would probably have given it a higher score if it simply didn't claim to have the "record a window" feature rather than claim to have it but not work properly. Recording an area of the screen that happens to overlap the window you want to record is a viable option, but getting this right is a bit fiddly as it's hard to spot if your selection is off by only a few pixels. Screenium claims to be able to record video through a video camera, but it was unable to find my firewire iSight camera.

Score: B-
Cost: US $30
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 1.3.3

iShowU: iShowU is probably the most robust screen casting app out there. It has a huge number of features and dials for tweaking its behaviour, and comes in three flavours depending on how powerful a programme you need (regular iShowU, iShowU HD, and iShowU HD Pro – I tested out iShowU HD). iShowU can record an entire display (there's a menu option for which display if you have more than one), or a selectable region of a display. It can't record just a single window, but it will let you automatically set the recording region to overlap the current location of any window, so that's really only a semantic difference (as long as you don't move the window during recording). It also has several presets for input recording area and output video formats and dimensions.

iShowU will record simultaneous video from the display and from an external camera, and will let you overlay the video from the external camera anywhere over the display recording, at any size you like. This is particularly useful for pre-recorded classroom type demonstrations where you want the instructor to be visible along with the content of the class or to do something like overlay simultaneous Sign Language translation without post-production editing. iShowU simultaneously records system audio and one external audio input, lets you set the recording level for both independently, and will let you select whether you want to monitor one or both of those inputs through the system audio output (speakers or headphones usually). 

The HD Pro version integrates directly with Apple Pro applications like Final Cut, but is significantly more expensive than the other two options. I think it's worth the extra cost if you'll be doing a lot of screen casting and need to do any post-production editing.

Score: A
Cost: US $20 (Classic) / US $30 (HD) / US $60 (HD Pro)
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 2.1.5

Jing: Jing had me annoyed right off the bat.  When you first start the application it runs a quick tutorial, and then requires you to sign up for a personal account on (Jing's image/movie sharing site) before it will let you even try the application.  This seems to me to be a ridiculous requirement if you have no intention of using their image sharing site.  I went ahead and signed up with some false/throwaway information in order to be able to at least demo the software.

Jing claims to comes in two flavours, Free and Pro, but the free version is essentially just a demo as there are several important features which are disabled, the application overlays ads on your captures, and pushes you to upgrade at every turn.  Shockingly, the Pro version is actually sold as a service, with a recurring fee, rather than as a piece of software with a single payment at the time of purchase.  I refused to pay the cost of the Pro version, so my review is based entirely on the free version.

The free version of Jing is only capable of outputting Flash video, which eliminates most hope of doing any post production editing of your screencast.  The pro version can output MPEG-4 encoding, but it's not clear in what container (mpeg, mov, etc.).  It can only record one audio source, and the system audio doesn't appear to be among the options, so perish any hope of catching sound effects from your application or presentation.  Jing can capture an entire display (but won't let multi-display users pick which one.. it defaults to the display with the menu bar), a screen region, or any single window. 

The one thing Jing has going for it is that it integrates directly with, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr for uploading your captures directly from Jing immediately after you finish them.

Jing seems pretty bare bones, and there don't really seem to be any other features. I didn't try the application long enough to discover if there were any bugs.

Score: D
Cost: US $15/year
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 2.4.30037

Snapz Pro X:  I didn't find this application terribly intuitive.  In addition to When you run it, it doesn't stay put; as soon as you take any action it exits, and you have to run it again to do the next thing.  To me, this seems to require that you do post production editing since there will be a bunch of fiddling around at the end of every video while you try to stop the recording.

Snapz can record full screen or a selected region, can record system audio as well as an external microphone, and has a huge number of output video formats.  It seems to me that it's too expensive for what it is though, which is fairly simple-minded but difficult to use.

Snapz also installs a kernel extension on the system, which I find a bit distasteful considering it's not required by any other screen capture tool I've seen.

Score: C-
Cost: US $70
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 2.2.3

Screenflow: Screenflow is billed as a professional screen casting app, but in my opinion it doesn't quite measure up to that, although it does have several interesting features not present in any of the other applications that I tested.   It will let you do multiple recordings, and edit them together within the application, including doing overlays of camera video and audio; you can add text bubbles and other non-video overlays; add transitions, and make use of several other post-production editing features.  It's missing some obvious things like recording only a region of the screen or only a window, but you can crop video after it's recorded so perhaps this won't feel like a limitation to some people.

The interface is very intuitive and easy to use if you're at all familiar with timeline editors (video editors, audio editors, etc.) but may require some getting used to for the beginner.

As a comparison, it's more powerful than than iShowU alone but wouldn't stand up to iShowU backed by a basic video editor such as iMovie or Final Cut.

Score: A
Cost: US $100
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 2.1.5

Screenflick: Screenflick is basic, but a solid little screen casting application.  The interface is dead-easy to use, it covers all of the basic features (record full screen or selected area, show mouse/keyboard events, export various audio and video encodings, etc.), lets you preview your movies before exporting them,  and it's good and cheap.  If you only have simple requirements (such as showing your friends your latest Minecraft extravaganza) this is probably the app for you.  If you need something more feature rich, then I'd go with one of the others.

Score: A-
Cost: US $25 (seems to be on sale from $30)
Try before you buy: Yes
Version tested: 1.6.15

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