I make a fair number of video tutorials. A few people told me about a new application for Macs called Screenflow ($100) by Vara Software and there seems to be quite a bit of buzz around it. I love playing with new toys so I immediately downloaded it. One thing to keep in mind during this post is that I am not a video “master.” I can’t even keep codecs straight. I wanted to make videos to show people things and so I learned how to use the tools I had to get them made with the least sweat on my part, but still at a quality that I’m happy with.
My needs and existing tools
Before I start delving in to Screenflow itself, it is important to talk about what I currently use because this isn’t just about Screenflow for me, this is about how Screenflow compares to my needs and what tools I already use. My current toolset is a combination of iShowU ($20) for video capture and iMovie for editing, which came with my Mac. Screenflow endeavors to replace both of these tools with one. My normal workflow for making a video is this:
- Select iShowU preset for recording settings.
- Get my recording area aligned with the material I’ll be covering on screen. Adjust application window sizes as needed (e.g. change browser to 640×480.)
- Record and I immediately have my .mov file when I stop.
- Open iMovie and open my “botcast” project which has all of my intro and outro stuff on it.
- Edit the title text and save that as a new project. Close iMovie.
- Drag the .mov file into the new project’s media folder. (I do this weirdness so iMovie won’t do mangling compression as on normal import.)
- Open the project and start editing the video.
- Once the video is cleaned up, I record audio, often in multiple pieces stitched together.
- Render with settings that I like.
So nine steps overall. Not that bad really. My final output for most of my videos has been at 640×480 since this is the size we use on lullabot.com so that we could embed and not break our theme. I recently did a little theme tweaking on the site so that we can do 800×600 videos, which will be norm from here on out. I never make videos at higher resolutions that that. I should also note that I do not change my display resolution when recording. It may just be a quirk of mine but I’d rather resize the few app windows I’m using rather than reset the whole screen. I find it annoying when everything comes back in funny sizes and my desktop items have shifted after switching display resolutions. Its my quirk, but it does factor into this review.
The first thing you may notice is the difference in price. Going from $20 to $100 is not a small leap. For some folks that already puts it out of range. Since I do this as part of my job though, if I can find a tool that makes this whole process easier/better then I’m totally willing to pay that amount. If it saves me time and frustration, it pays for itself very quickly. OK, so let’s fire up Screenflow and see if its worth it.
Now, the first time I downloaded Screenflow I couldn’t even use it. It crashed every time I tried to use it. Every. Time. I was ticked and quickly developed a dismissive attitude about the app. Crashing, buggy apps do not save me time or frustration. I checked back a few weeks later though and they did have an update so I gave it another shot. Since that upgrade it hasn’t crashed on me once. Whew.
First, I’ll start off with a comparison of the video capture aspect of Screenflow versus using iShowU. Screenflow’s idea of dealing with size is to simply capture the whole screen and then do callouts and resizing later to get it the way you want. This is great for just hitting record and going but for me it is also not very useful. I want my videos at 800 and I tend to have lots of text up on the screen. I can’t have scrunchy hard to read text and recording high and shrinking output to the right size makes it harder to read anything. Yes I can use the callouts but I find that distracting and sometimes to get things big enough it pixelates pretty badly. Bottom line is that I wasn’t a fan so I ended up changing my screen to 800 and did the capture at the size I wanted. I liked the results better but I really don’t like changing my screen resolution.
One thing I wasn’t sure about was how Screenflow would handle my external monitor. Would it try to record everything or just my laptop screen or what? Well when I fired it up, it simply detected my monitors and let me choose which one I wanted to use for capture. That worked nicely since I could just change resolution on the external only and do all my captures there.
Once I stop capture (either using the menu bar or a keyboard shortcut) Screenflow opens the editor and loads in the video (and audio, if any.) It is really nice to have recording end and put you seamlessly into editing. I played around with the fun features and callouts for a while and there are some nifty things that are built right in and work really well. Definitely things that can make a video look really darned slick.
Once I played around I turned my attention to actually editing things up the way I wanted them. I did a little chopping up; removing bits that were mistakes or just too long. Then I went to add a mouse highlight to on of the screens and that was cool, but the spotlight wasn’t quite a big enough radius to get it all. I went to change the radius and discovered there is no way to do that. That was a serious bummer so I just scrapped it. I don’t normally add those kinds of things anyway so it wasn’t huge. If I do really want that kind of thing in a video I normally use Omnidazzle while doing the capture and it would be awesome to be able to have an Omnidazzle-like toolkit in the editing side.
I normally lay audio over the video after I’ve got it all chopped up nice and neat. You can record audio during the capture and add audio afterwards in editing. When adding in editing you can either bring in external media (audio or video) or record new stuff directly in. I went ahead and recorded new audio, which I normally break up in to several bits rather than one long run. When I went in to make sure the audio lined up nicely I was slightly horrified to see that I had no waveforms. I have come to rely heavily on seeing the waveforms for audi editing so I can see gaps rather than playing a listening game trying to catch them. Now I don’t always need this level of control but it happens fairly regularly that I do and this was a real blow for my way of editing. I emailed Vara Software to ask about this feature and they said it is on their radar to add but they have no ETA for it.
The other thing that I need to do with my videos is add a standard intro and outro. Adding images, video and audio clips is pretty straightforward. I brought in my intro image along with the intro/outro audio. The next step I do in iMovie is add a title to the intro and then add scrolling text for credits in the outro. I clicked through every setting in Screenflow several times before it dawned on me that I simply can’t do it. I could add the title to the image in a graphics editor and I guess I could simulate the scrolling credits in Keynote but the idea is to not have to do more work to get the same results so I’m not inclined to do all that when I can do it quickly and easily within iMovie. So at this point I decided that I would need to go ahead and render the video as it was and then finish editing in iMovie.
When I use iShowU to capture I immediately get a .mov file when I stop recording. I then do a little backdoor futzing to get it into iMovie without compressing the hell out of it and making it basically look horrible. My backdoor method does give me nice, clean results but it is a bit of a pain. Every time you render/process/breathe on video/audio you lose some quality along the way. Being able to edit the video directly from capture, before rendering is nice. In circumstances where I could actually do that and be done it would be really nice.
When it comes to getting the actual video Screenflow has some nice basic selections that cover most needs (PAL, NTSC and a few web choices) and then there is an Advanced button if you want to get in and monkey around with the output settings. You can customize all of the things I’m used to seeing like streaaming, compression type, frame rates, etc. Since I am mostly rendering to put into another editor right now I try to get the highest quality output from Screenflow that I can.
At the end of the day Screenflow does not replace my existing tools. I’ve already purchased it but given my particular needs, it isn’t worth the money right now. It does have some really nice stuff though and hopefully over time, if they add more editing features to it, it will become a robust solution. For now, I am using Screenflow to do nice live captures of slideshows but the rest of my process is going to stay the same unless I really have a need for some of the fancy callout features. They are nice but just not things I use very much and if I were to use Screenflow’s callouts they need to be more flexible for my needs in many cases. Now outside of my “meat and potatoes” published video tutorials, Screenflow is nice to just do quick captures where I don’t do any editing beyond maybe some quick end cropping and resolution is not an issue. Screenflow is on a really nice track here. In its current state it will be very useful to a lot of people, I just have a particular way of doing things with particular needs for the bulk of my videos and Screenflow isn’t fully addressing my use cases yet.