Imagine that you work at a firm that develops and sells some type of computer software — a desktop program, or a Web application, or even a dedicated device, such as a medical instrument. Your boss asks you to produce some videos showing how to operate the software, with the idea of using those videos in training seminars and on the company's website. You could use a camcorder to record the software in action on your monitor, but the image quality would likely be very poor — especially when later compressed in order that the downloadable video file would be of a manageable size, and displayed within a limited region of Web browser windows.
There are countless other possible scenarios in which you might want to record what is happening on your computer screen, and also be able to add audio, such as a voice-over. For instance, if you are the designated technical support specialist in your family, it would be terrific to be able to send your parents (or whomever else needs help) a video in which you demonstrate how to accomplish whatever task with which they are struggling. This would be far less aggravating (for both parties!) than trying to step them through the process, over the phone, one menu selection and mouse click at a time.
If you are knowledgeable of a subject that would lend itself to video-based teaching, you could start your own business making and marketing instructional videos. (You would not even have to create and ship DVDs, but instead could have a member-restricted and paid part of your website.) Another example would be reporting a problem that you are experiencing using someone else's software, in which case capturing the misbehavior in a video would be much more convenient than detailing the steps, in writing, that evoke the software bug.
Fortunately, there is a way to accomplish all of the above, using a process known as "screencasting", which has nothing to do with trying out Hollywood hopefuls. Wikipedia defines a screencast as "a digital recording of computer screen output, also known as a video screen capture, often containing audio narration." This preeminent online encyclopedia also notes that "Just as a screenshot is a picture of a user's screen, a screencast is essentially a movie of the changes over time that a user sees on his monitor." As opposed to storing a single moment of a computer's video output into an image file, a screencasting program will record a continuous sequence of such images, in a digital video file.
There are numerous screencasting programs available for Windows PCs, with some costing hundreds of dollars, and others being given away at no charge. In this article, I will examine one that belongs to that latter category: CamStudio.
Full-on Features for Free
CamStudio — not be confused with Camtasia Studio — is a highly capable screen-capturing tool, loaded with features found in paid products. It can easily record all screen and audio activity on a computer, and then save it as a file in AVI (Audio Video Interleave) format, a standard for storing multimedia content on disk. A downside to the AVI format is that it stores all of the video and audio data, quickly resulting in huge files, which tend to consume too much space on disk and can take a long time for Internet users to download from a Web server, thus making them inappropriate for most online purposes.
CamStudio solves this problem with its built-in functionality for converting AVI files into SWF (Streaming Flash) files, which take up a fraction of the space, and yet still retain enough audio and video quality to be quite usable. In addition, CamStudio is able to offer higher-quality results for the same file size, by using a proprietary lossless codec (in this case, the term "codec" refers to software for compressing and decompressing multimedia content without losing quality).
Another valuable feature found in CamStudio is the ability to supplement the video output with screen captions, which will not contain any of the rough edges seen in captions that do not employ anti-aliasing technology. Captions give you additional options, such as offering language-specific versions of the same video, with each individual version displaying captions in a particular language. A single video presentation could be used as a foundation for all the captioned versions, with no re-recording needed.
Just as people are now accustomed to having picture-within-a-picture as a standard feature on high-end digital televisions, CamStudio allows you to embed a second video picture within the primary one that is showing your computer's desktop. This ability could be used for displaying a small movie of yourself as you speak the audio portion of the presentation. Alternatively, the smaller picture could be used to show the results of what operations are being done in the main video. For instance, an instructional video on Web design could, in the main window, display the Web code being edited, while the smaller window could show the resulting Web page, reflecting the design changes as they are being made (and the browser is refreshed as needed).
Your Own Studio in a Box
Let's step through the process of obtaining and trying out CamStudio. Start by visiting the project's website. To optionally donate to the project, simply click on the large orange button, which takes you to PayPal, where you can designate any amount you wish.
Then go further down the home page, and you will see four blue links. The last one takes you to the support forum, where you can read questions and answers posted by other CamStudio users, and also post your own, once you have signed up for a (free) account.
Click on the first of the four blue links, to download the latest version, which as of this writing is 2.0. Save the installation file to somewhere on your computer where you can find it later. Do the same for one of the lossless codec files, which give you the choice of a Zip archive file or an executable file. In this article, I will use the latter.
Note that CamStudio is an open source product, which means that the source code is publicly available. If you are interested in seeing the programming logic that runs behind the scenes, you can obtain it from the SourceForge project page.
Run the two installation files that you downloaded, starting with the main one (named "CamStudio20.exe"), since that one creates the installation folder, which by default is C:\Program Files\CamStudio. The installation process should be straightforward, as seen in the screenshots below.
The program then opens a Windows Explorer screen containing links to the CamStudio product file, two different movie player files, the Flash converter, and a utility for uninstalling CamStudio.
The installation process for the codec is equally straightforward, as illustrated below.
To start running CamStudio, double click on the CamStudio shortcut shown in Figure 7, which should then display to you the product's main window.
All of the major operations can be done using the six icons in the toolbar, starting with the red button on the left, which begins the recording process. But before trying out your first recording, decide whether you want to capture the entire screen, or just a portion of it. Then go to the Region menu, and select one of the three options: Region, Fixed Region (the default), or Full Screen. That third one is obvious, but the first two should be tried just to see how they work and what is possible. For instance, using Fixed Region, when you click the red button to start recording, you are shown a rectangular region, which you can resize.
After optionally resizing this region, click your mouse (or other pointing device) once, and you will be shown four green flashing corners, which indicate the region now been recorded.
If you click the second toolbar button from the left, you pause the recording process, and can see how much time has elapsed, among other data.
Once you have finished recording everything desired, click the Stop button, and you will be prompted to save the recording to an AVI file. After doing so, you will be shown the results in a Player window.
In the screenshot above, we see the first frame of a test recording that I did, starting at the upper left-hand corner of the Web page displayed by CamStudio when you choose Help from the Help menu. Be sure to read through all of that information for more details, such as the video and cursor options available, how to record audio from your computer's microphone (or speakers!), how to use auto-pan, keyboard shortcuts, and how to embed screen annotations. Those topics are beyond the scope of this article. But let's concluded by converting our test AVI file into a Flash file.
From the Tools menu, choose SWF Producer, which starts up this conversion program.
Using its File menu, open the AVI file you wish to convert to Flash. Then from the same menu, choose Convert To Swf. The dialog box that pops up has a wide range of options, and you can read the details about those in the help information. After making any changes to the settings, continue with the conversion process, and the program will eventually produce SWF and HTML files with the same base names as the original AVI file, by default. To add the Flash file to a website, use the code found in the HTML file. The code will work in Internet Explorer without change, but to work in Firefox and Opera, you will need to set the height and width attributes of the "embed" tag to match the correct values in the "object" tag.
This is but an introduction to a powerful and free screencasting tool that makes it possible for you to save all sorts of computer operations in video format, and perhaps even save your sanity when it comes time to do future family tech support!