June 30, 2007 · Posted in Tools, Video 

No, this is not a new Web 2.0 technology. In fact, it predates webcasting and podcasting by several years–an eternity in computer time. Screencasting is a term used to describe the act of capturing a still image or a video image from your computer screen. Screencasting is particularly useful for educators in that it provides a way to illustrate documents, PowerPoint slide shows, web pages, or videos with snapshots and videos of how a process is supposed to look on a computer screen. For example, you could illustrate a “how to log on to the file server” or “how to use style sheets in Word” slide show with screen shots of the various steps in the process. With a bit more effort, you could create a video of the entire process. I have found this technique particularly useful in my web-based classes, in which I can provide voice-annotated videos of various tasks for my students.

Both Macs and PCs have had rudimentary screen capture capabilities since their inceptions. Right out of the box, both platforms can capture still images of happenings on the computer screen.

Here’s how it looks on a Mac:

To capture the entire screen:

  • Hold down the COMMAND and SHIFT keys a press the 3 key. An image of the entire screen will be saved on your desktop as a file called “Picture 1.”

To capture a portion of the screen:

  • Hold down the COMMAND and SHIFT keys a press the 4 key. A crosshair cursor will appear that will let you select a region of the screen. As soon as you release the mouse, an image of the selected region will appear on your desktop.

To capture any window or menu:

  • Hold down the COMMAND and SHIFT keys a press the 4 key. When the crosshair cursor appears, hit the SPACEBAR. Your cursor will turn into a camera. Move the camera around. As you do, the window, icon, or menu you are hovering over will be highlighted in blue. Click the mouse and an image of the selected element will appear on your desktop.

On Windows, there are a few extra steps involved, and there is not an option to capture a selected region or a menu. The essential difference is that Macs capture the screen image directly as a saved image file–in Windows, you have to paste the captured image into a document or image editor.

To capture the entire screen:

  • Press the PRINT SCREEN (PRNT SCRN) key. An image of the entire desktop will be captured in your computer’s RAM. It then must be pasted somewhere. You can paste directly into Word or PowerPoint (or virtually any other program) or into an image editor if you need to tweak the image.

To capture the active window:

  • Hold down the ALT key and press the PRINT SCREEN (PRNT SCRN) key. An image of the active window will be captured in RAM, ready to paste into a document or image editing program.

But wait–there’s more!

Not content with simple screen capture of still images, programmers have devised a number of other alternatives for both platforms. There are enhanced versions of still capture for both platforms and a wide variety of video capture programs as well. Some of these programs are free and are worth trying out.

If you’re looking for free software for Windows, look no further than Windows Media Encoder, a free download for XP and Vista from Microsoft. WME will let you capture still shots in a variety of formats, but more importantly will allow you to make voice-annotated videos of screen processes. The many input and output options and technical jargon make it confusing for beginners, but there are wizards available that help you along. The quality of the movies is very good.

The standard for Windows screen capture is Camtasia Studio, a full-featured program that allows many more output options than Windows Media Encoder and is actually easier to use than WME. At $299, it’s very pricey, but it does its job very well.

There are also other free or low cost alternatives for Windows. Take a look at CamStudio, and try a Google search for more.

On the Mac side, the reigning king of still and video capture is Snapz Pro X from Ambrosia Software. It does everything and does it well. It’s easy to learn and easy to use. Of course, it’s not free, but it’s not expensive, either–$69 as a download from Ambrosia. If you see a video screen capture done on a Mac, chances are it was done with Snapz Pro.

There are other alternatives for Macs. Check Pure-Mac’s Screen Capture site for an annotated list of still and video screen capture utilities, both free and commercial. (One note–it lists Snapz Pro X as a PowerPC progam. It has lately been updated to a Universal Binary version that runs natively on Intel-based Macs.)

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