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TUAW Faceoff: Screenshot apps on the firing line

Whether you want to post something to a web page or blog, or show off an application element in a presentation, taking quality screenshots is becoming an increasingly common task for lots of different Mac users. Although OS X comes with its own built-in screenshot utility, Grab, and onboard F-keys for the task, there are lots of third-party options as well. Contrary to popular belief, not all screen capture applications are created equal.

So what program is the best for taking quality screenshots off of your computer? To find out, I put five screen capture programs through their paces to try to find the "ultimate" screen-capture program.

The programs I used:

Read-on for my analysis and take a look at the gallery for screenshots from each program, as well as head-to-head comparisons.



About the testing process

To accurately test each screenshot application, I took, or attempted to take, a screenshot of the same screen or screen element with each program. I then compared the screenshots from each program side-by-side.

These are the test shots (the complete set, in larger sizes are available in the gallery) I used for each program:

Leopard Dock


Taken with Grab

Desktop Image


Taken with SnapzPro X

Overlaying Program Windows


Taken with InstantShot!

iTunes video playback


Taken with Skitch


iTunes window and Preview window

Taken with SnapzPro


Taken with QuickSnap

Leopard Toolbar

Taken with InstantShot!


Front Row (if available)


Taken with Skitch

Various toolbar elements

Taken with Grab

Additional Application Features

Screenshot applications have come a long way from the old System 7 days (although the default shortcut keys, Command-Shift 3, are the same). Applications can do much more than just take full-screen images, and some of the programs I tested have even more advanced features (Skitch has instant edit abilities and SnapzPro can take full fledged screencasts).

Some of the most common features:

Selective window/element capture

Every program was able to do this to a certain degree. Essentially, this means choosing to select only one window or toolbar or toolbar element from a program to capture. Skitch and Grab did the best job with this, because they automatically add a shadow to the image windows, which looks nice displayed on the screen (you can add a shadow to SnapzPro, but doing that adds a white border to the image, whereas both Skitch and Grab are transparent). Additionally, Grab was the only program that could capture a window sitting BEHIND another window, without capturing the overlapping window. Every other program would also capture the overlapping window.

Grab also excelled at capturing elements of toolbars or programs. Aside from Skitch, no other program came even close in this category. In fact, if I needed to take a screenshot of the Leopard Dock or an element of the toolbar, Grab would be the only program I would be willing to use, especially if that shot was going to be used in print or in a presentation.

Save as various formats

Again, each program could do this to varying degrees. Snapz had some of the most verbose format options, with TIFF, PDF, PICT, PNG, PSD, BMP, GIF and JPG all available as default save options. Grab saves full screen and timed captures as *.tiff by default, and windows or isolated elements as PNG. InstantShot! can save files to PNG, JPG or TIFF. Skitch can use JPG, PNG, SVG, PSD, SKITCH, TIFF and PDF. QuickSnap uses JPG by default, but can also save to TIFF, PNG, GIF, BMP, SGI, TGA, PICT and PDF.

Timed Capture

Every program except SnapzPro can take timed screenshots. This is useful when trying to capture an element of the screen that is usually not visible without cursor interaction (like part of a drop down toolbar) or for programs like Front Row, which are not accessible using typical screen capture hot-keys. InstantShot! can even do multiple timed shots, every few seconds, which could be useful if trying to capture multiple or screens of a program that change too quickly for manual clicking.

I found QuickSnap's timed show dialog to be cumbersome and difficult to use. Skitch, had the easiest timed display, simply pressing shift while clicking on the screen or element.

Custom sizes

Both Skitch and SnapzPro have the ability to automatically save captured elements at smaller dimensions. SnapzPro can even capture the file automatically at a smaller size and you can preview the size before saving. This can be EXTREMELY useful if trying to get a screen to use on a website that may have smaller dimensions than the object itself. It saves one more step of having to scale-down the image in Preview or Photoshop.

Selected Screen Areas

Every program had the ability to only select a portion of the screen, although SnapzPro's method was the best and most adjustable. The other programs generally worked by dragging the mouse around the area you wish you capture, releasing the cursor and then having that element select itself.

Individual program thoughts

SnapzPro

Going into this "shoot-out," I had a clear favorite screenshot application in mind: SnapzPro. I've been using Snapz on and off for years and years (I remember using it back during the System 7 and OS 8 days) and pretty much considered it the defacto screenshot program for the Mac.

Now, I'm not saying Snapz isn't a good program, but after going through all the tests, I found that while it is quite a good program, it has started to lag behind the other offerings. For instance, the lack of a timed capture feature makes it impossible to use SnapzPro to capture screens in Front Row.

Although the element selection tools were generally very good, Grab and Skitch still looked better when capturing individual windows. Additionally, Snapz was only able to capture half of the Leopard Dock, which I think may be the result of the element window being written for OS X Tiger (which was not 3-D and would have fit in the same spot).

Those downsides aside, Snapz still has some pluses that make it unique in the screenshot software market: customized sizing and lots of format options. Snapz has the most extensive list of supported file formats to take shots in, and the ability to take screenshots at scaled down sizes is a great convenience. Additionally, because Snapz uses the same default OS X capture shortcut keys, the program is very, very easy to use and you don't risk having selected menus appear in screenshots.

Recommendation: If you also need a screencast application, Snapz is a good deal and certainly a very useful tool. If you are looking to buy a program today and strictly want screenshots, I'd pass on even the $30 version. Apparently the next version is on the way soon, and that's the version I would wait for.


Skitch

Skitch is a GREAT program, even if you ignore its great screen capture abilities. Skitch can automatically upload images to Flickr, Skitch.com, S/FTP, .Mac and WebDAV. You can also instantly crop, highlight, annotate and draw on images before uploading them. Image sizes are also easily changeable and lots of different file formats are supported.

Most importantly, Skitch is a GREAT screenshot program. If you want to take timed shots, pictures of individual windows or elements, Skitch is one of the best and most elegant options. Skitch even has the ability to add in a border of your wallpaper to a window or screen element. Although Skitch wasn't able to take a shot of the dock as well as Grab, it matched Grab in most other areas. Plus, by being able to edit an image as soon as you capture it, Skitch really streamlines the work-flow, which is important if you are taking lots of screenshots.

Recommendation: Skitch has quickly become one of my "must-have" programs. Even in beta form, the program is a gem. It's free right now (although that may not always be the case), leaving absolutely no reason why you shouldn't at least try the program out.

QuickSnap


QuickSnap is a pretty nice little program, and at $14 is certainly inexpensive. That said, despite its range of features, I can't really see any reason to use this over any of the free alternatives. Capture quality is fine, but the timing feature is convoluted. Plus, even though the program supports tons of different file formats, the default is JPEG, whereas most other screenshot programs offer PNG.

Recommendation: It's worth trying QuickSnap to see if it fits your needs, but there isn't really thing that the program offers that free alternatives don't offer.

InstantShot!

As a free program, InstantShot! offers one key feature that makes it potentially useful: multiple timed shots. Being able to do a sort of "stop motion" screen capture could be really useful in some situations and InstantShot! automates the process.

Aside from that feature, the program is less easy to use than the others I reviewed and although it did a pretty good job with certain non-standard elements, it didn't come close to Skitch or Grab.

Recommendation: If you want to take multiple timed screenshots (especially useful for tutorials), this is a great fee way to do so. As far as actual screen capture, Grab and Skitch both offer more features.

Grab

Coming into this, I considered Grab a pretty flimsy tool; I was totally wrong. Although the default full screen grabs are nothing that special, Grab really excels when capturing individual elements, like toolbars, parts of toolbars and program windows. Grab was the only program that could capture the Leopard Dock in all of its glory and the only program that could perfectly capture the CoverSutra menu bar without any background noise. Grab also has timed-shot support and can capture selections.

Recommendation: For a built-in tool, Grab is surprisingly robust. In fact, when combined with Preview, there isn't much that Grab can't do.


Final Thoughts

For most users, the combination of Skitch and Grab will fulfill every screenshot need. While SnapzPro is a great tool (and again, if you need screencasting software, give it serious consideration), the combination of those two free tools is a pretty perfect combination.

Update: For anyone interested in the wallpaper I used for the test, you can grab it here.

Update 2: Jing will be covered in an upcoming screencast software round-up.

Take a look at the gallery and leave your comments on your favorite ways to capture screenshots.





Whether you want to post something to a web page or blog, or show off an application element in a presentation, taking quality screenshots...