Adobe Captivate 4 Review, Part I

I’ve been using Adobe Captivate 4 for a few months now and just completed a fairly extensive project that I built entirely with this latest version.  So here are some thoughts for those of you who are considering upgrading or who are curious about screencasting software in general.  

Good Things:

  1. PowerPoint Import:  The PowerPoint import feature works as expected now.  Previous versions lost so many features of the PowerPoint file (including really basic things, like colors) that I had often resorted to exporting my PowerPoint projects to images and importing those individually into Captivate (read: no fun).  It also supports PowerPoint 2007 files (*.pptx). Previous versions did not.
  2. TOCs:  Previous versions of Captivate didn’t have a viable option for creating tables of contents.  Version 4 has a very nice TOC creator.  You have a lot of control over the look of the TOC.  You can modify the colors, fonts, and other design features.  You can put it on the left or right.  You can also float it on top of your project with a little show/hide button.  Unfortunately, you can’t modify the width of it, and it takes up, by my count, 260px.  That needs to change. But, overall, it’s a big value add.  
  3. Aggregator Projects:  It’s always wise, when creating elearning, to break up content into small, reusable chunks.  The aggregator helps you do that, because it lets you combine the output from multiple projects into one master project.  TOCs of the child projects are nicely integrated into the master TOC. For me, this is the single-best new feature, as it encourages sane production and delivery workflows. 

Promising Things that Still Need Work:

  1. Round-trip PowerPoint editing:  Instead of creating a PowerPoint and then importing it, you can, essentially, link it to your project (this is now the default). Right-clicking the presentation in the Library gives you the new “Edit with PowerPoint” option, which lets you make changes that are then automatically synchronized with your poject. I have no gripes with the functionality itself, but the GUI that you get when you edit this way is considerably less rich than the native PowerPoint GUI.  But, for quick edits, it’s great.  
  2. Full-motion Editing:  Captivate is unlike other screencasting software packages in that it doesn’t just shoot an AVI of your screen, as, TechSmith Camtasia Studio does.  Rather, it records significant changes and then uses it’s Flash-based vector graphics to create the frames in between.  This saves file size, of course, and offers greater flexibility in editing.  The mouse is captured as a separate object.  It’s origin, destination, and pace can be changed after you’ve shot a sequence (ponder the amazing value of this). Ditto for text entry:  you can change the text you typed and the speed with which you typed it after the fact.  But, there are certain things which are automatically captured as full-motion (heretofore non-editable) SWFs.  Scrolling is the main culprit. And there are other interactions which can trick Camtasia and, in order to record them well, you must switch manually into full-motion mode (e.g. long drop-down menus with scroll bars). The trouble is, sometimes you really need to be able to edit those full motion SWFs.  Previous versions didn’t provide for that.  

    Version 4 gives you an odd little editor which makes quick trimming easy–you just set some start and end points and chop out or keep the parts you want.  The trouble is, you can’t edit audio and video together.  So, if  you’ve talked your way through something and then need to make a quick edit to the video, you’ll have to guess your way through editing the audio to match.  That pretty much limits full-motion editing to really simple edits.  But it is, at least, as step in the right direction.  

  3. Reviewing:  Version 4 includes the ability to send out projects for review.  This functionality is implemented via an Adobe AIR application called Adobe Captivate Reviewer and a special project-specific Captivate Review File (*.crev).  When you choose to send a project out for review, Captivate prompts you for a location for the files, a location for the reviewer’s comments, and gives you the option of attaching the reviewer application along with the CREV as an attachment.  Then you just address the email and hit send.  The reviewer application itself is slick.  It makes it very easy to comment on a file as you watch it.  And multiple users can comment, creating little comment threads tied to specific frames of the screencast.The problem is the publishing process itself, which suffers from two issues (these might be due to my own ignorance, as I’m still new to this feature). The first is, defining a location for the review files also changes whatever path you might have had set for the project output files.  So, if you’re developing locally but want to publish a version for review, you have to modify your path if you want to continue working locally.

    That’s just a silly limitation.  There’s no justification for the extra typing and potential for confusion. I suspect most developers will work as I do, developing locally and publishing iterations once in a while to a network share for review.The other problem is the paths themselves are specified via drive letter, rather than a UNC path.  This means confusion if you and any of your collaborators have the drive where the review copy lives mapped with a different letter.  There may be a simple workaround to that one; I’m still experimenting with it.   

  4. Zooming:  Captivate implements zooming via it’s clunk “Magnification Area” feature, which looks sort of like picture-in-picture on television sets, except that the secondary window doesn’t display a different chanel; it displays a zoomed-in version of the same one.  You define an area to be magnified and then draw a box to display that area. There are situations where it works well enough–where, in fact, it is superior to a traditional zoom.  But, there are quite a lot of other situations where zooming the entire window would be preferable.  Being able to shoot an establishing shot and then zoom in on the important area of the screen is very useful, and most other screencasting software packages support it.