Macromedia Captivate review

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Producing software training and demos should be simple. In theory, all you need is the ability to record screen activity and a commentary into an accessible video format. In practice, however, when you get into the details, such as how to add onscreen highlighting and other content, how to correct mistakes, how to add interactivity and, in particular, how to ensure that all users can view your end results through the bandwidth-bottleneck of the Web, the job can easily turn into a nightmare. Until now, that is.

Macromedia Captivate review

Macromedia provides the near-perfect solution with Captivate – though the real credit goes to the eHelp Corporation, which first devised the program as RoboDemo. What made RoboDemo different – and persuaded Macromedia to buy the company – was that it was built on Flash. This leads to a host of advantages, but its greatest selling point is that it solves the delivery issue. Flash was designed to provide efficient streaming content over the Web, and its cross-platform player is now so ubiquitous that 98 per cent of users can view content directly.

Delivering your demonstration is taken care of, but first you have to produce it. This is simple with Captivate. From the new Macromedia startup screen, hit the large Record New Movie button, set the size of your recording and then specify options such as the target application, whether you want to record a narration now or later, and advanced settings such as whether keyboard clicks should be simulated. Click OK, perform the steps just as you would normally (don’t worry about mistakes) and then hit Stop.

As soon as you do, you’re in for two major surprises. The first is that the results aren’t actually saved to a video format at all. Instead, by default, your demonstration appears in Captivate as a storyboard built up of separate static slides with overlaid mouse and keyboard-based animations (though where necessary, Captivate automatically switches to recording full-motion video). The second surprise is that, by default, Captivate adds onscreen highlights and text balloons, such as ‘Select the File menu’, to your demonstration. In a rival program, such as Camtasia Studio, annotation like this would be a major operation and seeing it happen automatically is one of those jaw-dropping oh-that’s-really-clever computer moments.

The problem is that inevitably Captivate doesn’t always get it right – but don’t worry. Perhaps the biggest attraction of Captivate is its focus on editing. Double-click on any slide and you’re taken into Edit mode. Here you can add and edit highlights, text captions and so on – you can even edit the mouse path (though not your onscreen typing as this is handled via bitmaps). Most impressively, all these elements are represented on a basic timeline so you can simply drag to control their appearance and time onscreen. Working like this, it’s child’s play to synchronise the slide’s animation with the audio, especially as each slide offers instant preview playback and scrubbing, while audio-editing capabilities let you add silences where necessary and record, or over-record, new sections.

This is exciting enough, but Captivate’s slide-based approach and Flash underpinning provides further advantages. To begin with, you can quickly add new slides complete with text, graphics, preset Flash animations, video and now FlashPaper print-to-disk output – ideal for adding introductions and other supporting material to your demonstrations. You can also import PowerPoint slides, though disappointingly the resulting images are static. To convert PowerPoint slides as animations you need a program such as Macromedia Breeze or Articulate Presenter.

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