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TUAW Faceoff: Screencasting

Screencasting -- the not-so-ancient art of recording the computer screen for the entertainment and enrichment of others -- has evolved into quite a Hydra of options. How do the myriad gladiators in this arena stack up? I've tried everything I could find that could record a little movement on the screen, and selected 8 contenders for the matchup. We'll start this boxing match off with the free apps, and then see if the "money" apps stack enough features on to make them worth the cash.

Check out the chart for a quick overview of the contenders:

Copernicus

I was tempted to leave Copernicus out of the running, but it's good ground on which to build. No matter how I tried, I couldn't get what I consider to be a decent video capture out of this thing. It has minimal settings to play with and way too much overhead to handle long recordings. Unfortunately, I also find it practically useless even for short recordings. At least the screenshots it can take don't jitter.

Copernicus
Cost: Free
Capture Types: Selection
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: 30?
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full Selection
Input Visualization: No
Audio Options: None
Editing: No

Jing

Jing is a 'casting app that serves a rather limited purpose, but it does it well and it does it for free. It also does it with an unconventional interface, which some may enjoy. In my old age I've come to appreciate a certain amount of conformity in application interfaces, so I personally find the "Sun" theme to be obtrusive and annoying. Lucky for me, you can swap out part of the gaudy interface for a menubar-only version. It doesn't get rid of the giant fireball of a main window, but it gets the fluorescent sunburst off of your desktop. What Jing does have going for it is smooth recording and fast encodes, and great sharing options. Jing records to Flash SWF files and can upload to various services, providing code for embedding uploaded video. The player is branded at the end, so there's no lying about whether you used Jing, and it's limited to relatively short movies. It is, however, absolutely perfect for tech support and showing Aunt Marcy how to mount that DMG. And it does a pretty slick job of keeping track of your movies and screenshots with a built in library.

Jing
Cost: Free
Capture Types: Selection
Follow Mouse: No
Max FPS: ?
Output Format: SWF
Compression Options: None
Input Visualization: No
Audio Options: Mic
Editing: No

Screenium


I haven't quite figured out what's taken this app so long to get out of beta (or "preview," as Synium calls it). Screenium does a good job of capturing full screen video for relatively long periods without using up a ton of system overhead. The options are full-fledged and include picture-in-picture iSight recording and mouse click visualization. There's a "HotText" function that lets you assign popup text to a hotkey, but it's a little limited and it doesn't show the text you've triggered until the recording is played back. Overall, excellent quality and low overhead with great full screen recording and full options for selection, single window and mouse area recording. Seems like a worthy contender at $20.

Screenium
Cost: $20
Capture Types: Selection, Window, Screen
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: 60
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full Selection
Input Visualization: Mouse, "Hot Text"
Audio Options: System, mic, input
Editing: No

iShowU

iShowU is updated regularly, but its feature set has been pretty stagnant in the broad scheme of things. It works, and it works well. On-the-fly encoding causes a little more overhead and fans kick up pretty quickly, but recording quality is excellent and the presets are very inclusive. iShowU allows for a flexible recording area, multiple audio inputs and mouse click visualization. Because it encodes as you're recording, you have to determine your final output format before you start, and if you should happen to change your mind ... forget it. There's no up-res for an H.264 320x240 video.

iShowU
Cost: $20
Capture Types: Selection
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: 40
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full selection
Input Visualization: Mouse with left/right differentiation
Audio Options: System, mic/input
Editing: No

Screenflick

Screenflick has a beautiful interface, at least by my aforementioned conformist standards. It gets non-conformist in creative and endearing ways, such as the film-style countdown before a delayed recording. It offers the option to display the recording length and consequent file size in the menubar. I especially like that Screenflick records uncompressed and at full resolution, allowing for multiple output formats from one source file and reducing overhead during the actual recording. Of course, you pay at the other end with long encode times, but that's when you go off and celebrate your Oscar-winning performance (what, you didn't know about the new category?). Screenflick also provides a library of your recordings in their original format, so you can go back and output with different dimensions and compression settings later. And, to top it all off, Screenflick has great keyboard and mouse callouts, making it a very smooth operator at the $29 price level.

Screenflick
Cost: $29
Capture Types: Selection
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: 30
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full
Input Visualization: Yes, colors for left/right mouse, configurable shortcut display w/exceptions list
Audio Options: system, mic
Editing: No

Screen Mimic


Screen Mimic follows Screenflick's modus operandi and steps it up a little, recording everything up front and sorting it out later, including mouse clicks, keystrokes, et cetera. Screen Mimic can output to SWF, FLV, QuickTime and its own proprietary archive format. It comes the closest to allowing editing out of the apps we've looked at so far, but really only allows configurable transitions between segments (where you hit "Pause"). There's no linear editing within the application. I don't own this one, so I worked with the demo. The demo was limited to 30 seconds of record time, which was long enough for me to experience painfully slow encodes with choppy results overall.

Screen Mimic
Cost: $65
Capture Types: Selection, Window, Screen
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: ?, variable frame rates
Output Format: SWF, FLV, QuickTime, archive
Compression Options: Basic
Input Visualization: Mouse
Audio Options: Uses System Preferences
Editing: Sort of, transitions and external audio tracks

Snapz Pro X


I've had Snapz in my arsenal for a long time, and I don't like it any more today than the first day I used it. It was a little counterintuitive then, but it's just plain outclassed now. I know there are a lot of people using it, but in a feature-to-price comparison, it's really not worth it anymore. Snapz Pro X is becoming a dinosaur in a rapidly evolving world, even compared to a free app like Jing ... and especially next to applications like Screenflick at half its price. It does have a nice smooth-pan feature, and auto mic gain. Moving on.

Snapz Pro X
Cost: $69
Capture Types: Selection
Follow Mouse: Yes
Max FPS: 30
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full
Input Visualization: No
Audio Options: System, mic
Editing: No

ScreenFlow


I may have mentioned ScreenFlow once or twice before. At $99.99 it's not exactly a casual hobbyist's application, but it's not out of reach for those who can make good use of its capabilities.

One of the major differences between ScreenFlow and its competitors is simply the fact that it has a built-in editor that can do things with your ScreenFlow recording that no other editor could do. Things like calling out whichever window was in the foreground at a specific point in time by magnifying or highlighting it, or giving you various effects around the mouse cursor that can be transitioned in and out at any point in the playback. All of the mouse movements, keystrokes and window focus changes are recorded in the background along with input from your iSight or external video source and -- for the most part -- you never know that ScreenFlow is running while recording. It generally keeps the fans quietly content, even on longer recordings. It only records full-screen, but should you only want a portion of your screen, just expand the recorded track in the editor and output it at a smaller size.

Like a couple of the other programs, ScreenFlow handles iSight and external video sources, but it records them as a separate track that can be repositioned, tilted, shadowed and mirrored during editing, allowing you to fade your picture in and out in post and move it from side to side to avoid blocking live areas of the screen.

Export times can vary depending on the output and compression settings -- of which you have a full range to choose from -- but speed and stability have greatly increased in the latest version. ScreenFlow is a hard app to compare to the others because it's really a studio, not just a screen capture application. Which is why I personally feel it's fairly priced.

ScreenFlow
Cost: $99.99
Capture Types: Full screen, tracks foreground window, mouse and keystrokes
Follow Mouse: n/a
Max FPS: Variable
Output Format: QuickTime
Compression Options: Full
Input Visualization: Yes
Audio Options: System, mic, external camera
Editing: Extensive

Envelope please ...

We're actually going to have to break this down into categories. 3 of them, to be precise, based on usage scenarios. We'll start with the first group: they rarely need to record and when they do it's for short lengths of time (under 5 minutes). Their masterpieces are usually sent to a co-worker or family member. As much as they love their co-workers and family members, it's not worth a huge investment. Plus, there are a few tricks that can bring a free application up to feature parity with some of the paid varieties.

Taking the low(-cost) road

First of all, and I think it's obvious at this point, Jing is my pick for free screen recording. It lacks the output options, but it provides a format that is widely accepted and cross-platform.

Taking note that some of the lower-cost applications lack features like mouse click callouts and full compression options, there are a few additional applications worth mentioning. For some mouse magic in your presentations, options range from the $16.95 Mouseposé (which features hotkeys, many visual configurations, spotlight effects and keystroke visualization but kind of defeats the purpose of using a free program) to the $10 PinPoint (lots of visual effects; mostly corny but some practical) and on down to the completely free Highlighter (which just places a red circle around your cursor). If you combine Highlight with the free (but somewhat buggy, in my experience) Keycastr, you can have all the glory of keyboard and mouse visualizations in any screen recording software ... or maybe you just want to track your cursor on your quad-display gaming setup. Why not, it's free.

Another useful feature found in several of these apps is the picture-in-picture recording of the iSight. A couple of programs exist for adding this functionality, my favorite being PiP. It's simple, free and intuitive, allowing for easy positioning and sizing of the picture and fading it in and out with a hotkey.

Compressing and converting a file that's already squashed into an FLV or SWF isn't going to improve your results any, and there's no cheap way that I know of to convert an SWF to QuickTime. FLV's are easy, but the SWF format that Jing produces is pretty much what you're stuck with. But it will play in your Aunt's web browser, and you can share online quickly and easily.

The semi-casual user

If you're recording regularly and need a more professional overall look, sound and production, you're going to want to step it up. Screenium is good, but Screenflick is just $9 more and adds enough features to be worthwhile. So a $29 investment will make your presentation professional and appealing, and it's got enough tricks in the bag that you won't need any extras.

You will want to edit, though, and Screenflick won't help you out much. But if you record in multiple takes and import the files into iMovie, you can edit, add titles, record a new voiceover, even write yourself a Garageband tune and import it. You've got everything else you need, assuming you didn't delete the iApps to save space ... you're probably regretting that right now, huh?

The 'casting connoisseur

If you want it all -- and are getting paid enough for your screencasting endeavors that $99 is a worthwhile investment -- ScreenFlow is the crown champion for full production. Its built-in editor is simple and intuitive and allows for multiple takes, voice overs, soundtracks, etc. But its real benefit is the post-production callouts and highlights that it can provide, saving you from having to think about hotkeys at all while recording. Yes, Camtasia Mac is coming to fight for the crown, but for now the reigning king is ScreenFlow.

May your screencasts always be thrilling (and short, please), whichever tools you choose!

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