Camtasia has been my go-to screen recording application on Windows since forever, and I have at least 200 Camtasia recorded projects under my belt. But seldom, if ever, have I edited and produced my project in Camtasia, preferring the more familiar environs of Adobe Premiere Pro or Apple Final Cut Pro. To be brutally honest, in previous versions, Camtasia’s editing application, Camtasia Studio, felt clunky, inefficient, and frequently dysfunctional, as if it were created by engineers who had never really edited video. Its resemblance to consumer video editor Microsoft Movie Maker did nothing to dispel that notion.
So when I started this review of Camtasia Studio 7, I assumed that the screen capture omponent of the product would be as good or better than version 5, the version I had standardized on. But I really wondered if Camtasia Studio had advanced enough to make it edit-worthy. In short, it has. Even with Premiere Pro CS5 installed on the same HP Z400 workstation, when faced with editing a screencam-based project, I’ll use Camtasia Studio going forward.
Figure 1. The Camtasia Studio editing application, showing off the new sketch motion effects.
Why? In a nutshell, while Premiere Pro (and Final Cut Pro on the Mac) are clearly superior general purpose editors, TechSmith has optimized the most frequently used screencam-related editing functions-features such as pan, zoom, and adding callouts-so that they’re more accessible, faster to apply, and more feature-rich in Camtasia Studio than in any other general purpose editor. You can see a good example of this in Figure 1, which shows off Camtasia’s new sketch motion effects that you can hand draw on the page while you’re speaking; a great way to hold the viewer’s attention.
TechSmith has also improved basic functions such as trimming and cutting and pasting, making these operations efficient as well. Overall, now that TechSmith includes highly competent screen capture and editing functionality, it’s a lot easier to justify the $299 price. That’s the short answer. Let’s take a closer look at the components of Camtasia Studio 7. If you’d like to see an example of some of the components that I’m describing, check out this tutorial on Adobe Creative Suite 5.
When you first run Camtasia Studio, you see the splash screen shown in Figure 2, which identifies most of the key functions. Most users will start their projects by recording the screen. Though it’s nice to know that with the proper microphone hookup, you can also convert PowerPoint presentations into an easily editable screencam.
Figure 2. The Camtasia Studio opening dialog identifies the program’s key functions.
There are several new features in version 7, including a sleek new editing interface, the aforementioned sketch motion callouts, the ability to save media assets and callouts to the media library for simple reuse, a new keystroke callout that makes it easy to highlight keystroke combinations used to drive operations in the program that you’re recording, rubber band controls for audio, and a few dozen media assets from Digital Juice, including animated backgrounds, music tracks, sound effects, and title backgrounds. I’ll discuss most of these new features during the course of this review, starting with the recording application, where most screencam projects begin.
Recording Your Screencams
One of Camtasia’s strongest components has been its screen recording utility, with several features that most other programs can’t match. One example is the ability to pause and resume screen recording via the F9 and F10 keys. Say you’re recording a screencam and your phone rings. With most other programs, you would have to stop the recording, deal with the phone call, and then start another recording.
That sounds simple enough. But when you start recording the second screencam, you have to make sure that your cursor is in the same position it was when you stopped the first recording; otherwise, you get the dreaded “mouse jump” between the end of the first screencam and the beginning of the second. I say dreaded because a sudden, unexplained change in mouse positioning can be confusing to viewers and has been voted “deficiency most likely to cause a client to ask you to re-record the screencam” the last 4 years running. With Camtasia, you click F9 to pause the recording hen you have to stop, and then click F9 again to resume. Camtasia automatically restores the mouse to the proper location when you begin recording again.
Another great feature is the ability to lock the recording to an application so you get perfect edges around the application that you’re recording. If you specify the size (say 1024×768) and then lock the recording to the application, you’re guaranteed a perfectly edged recording at the required size (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Camtasia’s Screen Recording application.
With most other screencam recording programs, you either record the entire screen, which creates extra cropping work during editing, or you have to manually adjust the edges of the recording zone to match the application and then somehow get both to match the desired recording resolution. Typically, this leads to either some extra pixels outside the application window or inadvertent cropping of the application you’re recording.
To my dismay, when I first started working with version 7, I thought TechSmith had removed this feature because the familiar check box on the front of the recording application was gone. TechSmith had, in fact, moved it to a menu option, a puzzling decision that makes the application harder to find and access.
While discussing negatives, I should point out that although the “Force popup dialogs into region” option sounds great, it doesn’t work reliably, at least with the applications that I spend a lot of time recording. Here’s the problem. Say you’re recording a screencam. You click File > Import, and the import window opens outside of the recording zone. In theory, checking the “Force popup dialogs into region” option should prevent this problem. But as you can see in Figure 4, Premiere Pro’s preview window’s “wing” menu appears outside the recording zone shown by the white brackets highlighted by the red arrows. I get the same result with the Import dialog, which is a stand-alone pop-up window.
Figure 4. This Force popup dialogs into region option has never worked reliably for me.
I first reported that Camtasia didn’t reliably perform this function back in my review of Camtasia 5. To which TechSmith responded, “Yeah, it seems to be a balancing act of trying not to betoo obtrusive with other apps processes, so yes, we need to do a better job of trapping and will address this in a minor upgrade ASAP so most likely right away in 5.0.1.” Still waiting, guys. For some perspective, however, as far as I know, no other screen recording program has this feature, so Camtasia’s lack of ability to perform it reliably isn’t a competitive disadvantage. Just don’t pull your hair out trying to make it work if it doesn’t while you’re recording.
As a workaround, when I know a pop-up window is going to open outside of the recording zone, I pause the recording just after clicking the menu option that opens the window (and before he window opens), resize and reposition the window as needed, and then resume recording; this offers a great example of how Camtasia’s ability to pause and restore cursor positioning can simplify your life. When working with an attached menu as in Figure 4 or with right-click menus that appear outside the recording zone, you have to force the application to position the menu within the recording window.
In the situation shown in Figure 4, for example, I would move Premiere Pro to the right edge of the screen and record from there because Adobe would force the menu to display within the recording zone. If I were recording right-click menu commands that extend beneath the application window, I would record the application on the bottom of the screen.
By the way, if you’re doing lots of screencam work, I recommend using a 30” monitor such as the HP LP3065, which I’ve used for the past couple of years. That way, you have plenty of room to position the application you’re recording, any notes that you’ve jotted down digitally to guide your workflow (Google docs is ideal for this), and any other necessary ancillary applications. Since I’m on the subject, those who are new to producing screencams with Camtasia should check out my 2008 tutorial, “Producing Screencams in Camtasia Studio” to see a good overview of the techniques and procedures that I use. OK, with that diversion aside, we now return to the regularly scheduled review.
During recording itself, I found the operation unchanged from previous versions. But I captured my test project at 1280×720 at 15 fps, which isn’t all that demanding. For this release, TechSmith claims that capture rates have been boosted by up to 50% “for smoother motion when recording things like 3D design software, real world video, or Flash animations.” To test this, I recorded a 720p video from YouTube that had embedded timecode so I could easily see if any frames were dropped during capture.
I recorded first at 854×480, and Camtasia captured most frames. There were occasional dropped frames that likely related more to synchronization than capture performance because Camtasia can’t sync its precise 30 fps capture rate to the frames displayed by YouTube. Then I captured at 1280×1024, and Camtasia captured only about one in three frames. The ideo was still smooth enough for casual viewing, but some stutters were evident. Captured file sizes were quite large, however, with a 90-second file consuming about 1.3GB in disk space at the lower resolution. Obviously, I don’t advocate illegally copying and distributing streaming video. But if you’ve got the disk space and can live with 854×480 resolution video, Camtasia can capture a very good quality stream.
With the recording done, let’s move to editing.
Editing in Camtasia Studio
Camtasia Studio has a three-window interface comprising a timeline, a preview window, and a utility window that serves as the repository for all content as well as configuration options. In most projects, I start by cutting away unwanted sections of the screencam. Here, operation has been enhanced by the ability to easily set in and out points via in and out markers on the cursor. You can see this in Figure 5, where the green marker is the in point, and the red marker is the out point. To delete the “um” you see on the audio timeline, set the green marker where you want the cut to start, set the red marker where you want it to end, and then right-click and choose Cut (or click the scissors icon). The unwanted frames are gone.
Figure 5. Setting in and out points using the cursor.
This is an excellent idea in concept, though operation could be improved in a couple of ways. First, there’s no way to preview what the edited video will look or sound like after the cut; you can preview, but the playback stops at the out point, which can make it hard to see or hear if you’re cutting at the right place.
Second, Camtasia doesn’t leave an edit mark like a split at the deletion point-if you cut away a section from a single video, you’re left with a single, shorter video. This has two implications-one good, the other bad. The good implication is that it’s much easier to apply pan and zoom effects to a single video rather than to the dozens of videos you’d have on the timeline if this tool left a split. The bad one s if you later discover that you inadvertently cut out some necessary footage, you may have no way to undo the deletion without undoing all the intermediate steps, which is an option you lose if you save the file and close the program.
Of course, you can use the Split tool to trim away unwanted footage and leave an edit point on the timeline. However, this gets complicated if you apply lots of pan and zoom effects. Choice is good; just make sure that if you use the scissors tool, you mind the old carpenter’s redo to “measure twice and cut once.” The consequences of a mistake might be severe.
Zooming and Annotating
Once you’ve cut away the chaff, it’s time to start editing your screencam into its final form. When you’re outputting your screencam at a smaller resolution than the capture resolution, one of the most valuable techniques is panning and zooming around the interface. To explain, I captured my test screencam at 1280×720 resolution, but I produced it at 854×480. Rather than scale the entire captured video to fit into the smaller window, which makes the text harder to read, most producers prefer to follow the action around the interface and show the most relevant regions at as close to 100% as possible.
You can see this in Figure 6. On the left, the red box indicates the portion of the video actually being displayed at that point in the timeline, with the Scale control set at 100%. In the preview window on the right, the text in Premiere Pro’s preview window is very clear and easy to read because it’s displayed at 100% resolution.
Figure 6. Panning and zooming in Camtasia Studio.
With Camtasia Studio, when you first drag a video into a project, you choose the output resolution. If it’s smaller than the capture resolution, Camtasia will apply SmartFocus to pan and zoom around the interface and optimize the presentation. SmartFocus is a good starting point, though most producers will want to adjust the parameters selected by Camtasia and add more pans and zooms. Camtasia makes this quite simple; with the Zoom-n-Pan workspace selected, you can play the video and pause at any point in the timeline. If you move the red box in the workspace (it’s actually grayish in the actual program) or change the zoom parameters, Camtasia automatically creates a keyframe. Obviously, you could do the same type of panning and zooming in Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro, but it’s quicker and easier in Camtasia.
Titles and Callouts
Where Camtasia really kicks butt is in the callouts and titles arena, where it offers more effects that are easier to apply than any other editor. Beyond the new sketch callouts shown in Figure 1, the most killer new addition is eystroke callouts like that shown in Figure 7. These are totally automatic-if you record in .camrec format, Camtasia captures all keystroke shortcuts used while recording the screencam. While editing, choose Edit > Generate Keystroke Callouts, and Camtasia Studio will insert them for you. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like this on the market. It’s a great way to transfer knowledge to your screencam viewers, especially considering the minimal effort required to input the callout.
Figure 7. Camtasia Studio’s new keystroke callouts.
Moving on to other new features, the rubber band controls for audio work as advertised, and they are a useful (if long overdue) addition. I did play with some of the new content from Digital Juice and found it useful, if not life changing. This is true particularly because all the new video assets were 800×600 resolution (4:3 mode), and I had a 1280×720 project. Therefore, I had to zoom in on the movies to use them, which cost me some detail. I ended up using a static title and music from Digital Juice at the start of my project.
Overall, in terms of editing, the most significant remaining drawback is the inability to fade easily to or from black at the start or the end of the project. These are edits most producers make on every project. With virtually every other editor on the planet, you simply insert a dissolve or fade transition at the start or end of the movie, and that’s it. With Camtasia, you have to insert a short black clip at the start and the end and then transition from that clip at the start of the movie and at the end, which is irritating. It’s not so much that this produces extra work, it’s that most first-time users will spend 5 or 10 minutes trying to figure out how to do this, which is a phenomenal collective waste of time that TechSmith could easily resolve by enabling dissolve transitions at the start and end of the movie to produce the desired fade-in/fade-out effects.
Rendering and Output
The primary new rendering-related feature is HD upload to YouTube, which proved a bit rocky in my tests. My first hurdle was the error message shown in Figure 8, which advised me that my video contained “at least one feature not supported by the YouTube plug-in.” I clicked OK to encode anyway, but I got another error message stating that “An error occured and the video did not upload.” Note that this occurred after the upload started, indicating that login and password weren’t the issue.
Figure 8. The first of my problems with uploading to YouTube.
Camtasia allowed me to save the file it produced, which I manually uploaded to YouTube without a problem. Thinking that the problems might have been project-specific, I attempted to upload the test project that Camtasia supplies with Studio to YouTube, and I got the same error. I’ve asked TechSmith about these issues, but I haven’t heard back from them.
What’s the verdict? Despite the bumps in the road mentioned throughout this review, Camtasia is the most functional screen capture utility around, with several unique features that dramatically promote efficiency. With version 7’s additions and improvements to Camtasia Studio, it’s now the best editor for most screencam projects. If you’re serious about producing screencams on the Windows platform, this is he tool you need to get.