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Review: TechSmith Camtasia 5

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TechSmith Corp.’s Camtasia is one of my "go-to" tools that lives on almost every Windows-based computer in my office. I use it for a range of screencam projects, from informal "here’s how you use the review feature in Microsoft Word" videos to send to authors I’m working with to polished screencams for clients, magazine websites, and my own DVD-based tutorials. So when new versions of Camtasia come out, I get pretty excited.

As it turns out, there’s a lot to get excited about, but there are also some caveats. The new SmartFocus feature should help all producers, as will the lower profile but equally important Restore Cursor Location after Pause feature. I also like the new streamlined recorder window, though some of the related features didn’t fully work for me. Throw in a new AutoSave feature and there’s more than enough to justify the $149 upgrade price ($299 retail) and to keep Camtasia at the top of the heap for those capturing, editing, and producing screencam-based presentations on Windows.

For those new to the market, Camtasia is a full-featured screen capture and editing program with outstanding output capabilities. The program can capture screens and voice, and it can also merge PowerPoint presentations with recorded narrations, so you can present live once and distribute a narrated PowerPoint presentation, complete with talking head overlay, if desired, from your website many times.

Most projects involve screen recording, with and without real-time narration, since you can easily add narration in Camtasia’s editing application Camtasia Studio. Studio is like many timeline editors with tracks for different content. It can add callouts, transitions, captions, and even a picture-in-picture video to your presentation. Like Adobe’s Captivate, Camtasia can produce quizzes and surveys, though Captivate is probably a better choice for all but the simplest quizzes. Captivate also goes much further with scenario-based training.

On the other hand, Camtasia’s output capabilities are much more comprehensive than Captivate’s, which can produce any streaming format you’d like as long as it starts with FL and ends with SH. In contrast, Camtasia can produce Windows Media, QuickTime, AVI, and RealMedia streaming video, as well as animated GIFs and iPod output. This is not academic stuff; I use the QuickTime output to output video that I can edit in Adobe Premiere Pro, and I use other editors when my editing needs exceed those offered by Camtasia Studio. Camtasia can also produce polished Flash presentations with linkable tables of content, and you don’t have to be a programmer to do it.

As a company, TechSmith talks the talk and walks the walk, and its website is complete with lots of useful tutorials and other presentations, mostly screencam-based. There are also very active forums and other avenues to get questions answered, as well as a full-featured, 30-day downloadable trial version of Camtasia. Overall, Camtasia is a complete package, and TechSmith is a great company to do business with.

With this as background, let’s discuss the new features in order of importance, starting with SmartFocus.

One of Camtasia’s most powerful features (especially as compared to Captivate) has always been the ability to pan and zoom around the captured screen, which is particularly important when capturing large screen resolutions and producing for smaller windows. For example, many applications simply don’t function properly at resolutions of less than 1024x768 or even 1280x1024. Publishing at these resolutions would require too much bandwidth, so most screencams are produced at 640x480 or smaller. At these production resolutions, however, a 1280x1024 screen would look squished and illegible, which is why the ability to zoom into the screencam in order to highlight critical operations or controls is so important.

While desirable, panning and zooming has always been time-consuming. The promise of SmartFocus is to automate this process, and it largely delivers. Briefly, SmartFocus works by analyzing input such as cursor movements, mouse clicks, text entry, and window opening and closing and then shifting the display window to focus on those activities. It’s applied as a post process while editing in Camtasia Studio, so you record your file as normal.

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