Macromedia Captivate

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RECOMMENDED

A brilliantly fresh approach to producing Flash-based computer-based training and demos.

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It should be simple to produce software training and demos. In theory all you need is the ability to record screen activity and a commentary into an accessible video format. In practice however, when you get into the details such as how to add on-screen highlighting and other content, how to correct mistakes, how to add interactivity and in particular how to ensure that all users can efficiently access and view your end results through the bandwidth-bottleneck of the Web, the job can easily turn into a complex nightmare. Until now.

Macromedia provides the near-perfect solution in the form of Captivate – though really the credit belongs to eHelp Corporation who first devised the program as RoboDemo. What made RoboDemo totally different - and persuaded Macromedia to buy the company - was that it was built on Flash. This leads to a host of advantages as we’ll see, but its greatest selling point is that it immediately solves the delivery issue. Flash was specifically designed to provide efficient streaming content over the Web and, crucially, its cross-platform player is now so ubiquitous that 98% of viewers can view Flash content directly.  

Delivering your demonstration is taken care of, but first you’ve got to produce it. This is simplicity itself with Captivate. From the new Macromedia startup screen, hit the large Record New Movie button, set the size of your recording and then specify options such as the target application, whether you want to record a narration now or later and advanced settings such as whether keyboard clicks should be simulated. Click OK, perform the steps just as you would normally (don’t worry about mistakes) and then hit Stop.

As soon as you do, you’re in for two major surprises. The first is that the results aren’t actually saved to a video format at all. Instead, by default, your demonstration appears in Captivate as a storyboard built up of separate static slides with overlaid mouse and keyboard-based animations (though where necessary Captivate now automatically switches to recording full-motion video). The second surprise is that, by default, Macromedia Captivate automatically adds onscreen highlights and text balloons, such as “Select the File menu”, to your demonstration. In a rival program such as Camtasia Studio annotation like this would be a major operation and seeing it happen automatically is one of those jaw-dropping oh- that’s-really-clever computer moments.

Captivate’s slide-based approach makes editing simple.

The problem is that inevitably Captivate doesn’t always get it right – but don’t worry. Perhaps the biggest attraction of Captivate is its focus on editability. Simply double-click on any slide and you are taken into Edit mode. Here you can add and edit highlights, text captions and so on, you can even edit the mouse path (though not your onscreen typing as this is handled via bitmaps). Most impressive of all, all elements are represented on a basic timeline so that you can simply drag to control their appearance and time onscreen. Working like this, it’s child’s play to synchronize the slide’s animation to the audio soundtrack, especially as each slide now offers instant preview playback and scrubbing while new audio editing capabilities let you quickly add silences where necessary and record, or over-record, new sections.

This is impressive enough but Captivate’s slide-based approach and Flash underpinning provides further advantages. To begin with you can quickly add new slides complete with text, graphics, preset Flash animations, video and now FlashPaper print-to-disk output – ideal for adding introductions and other supporting material to your demonstrations. You can also import PowerPoint slides though disappointingly the resulting images are static (to convert PowerPoint slides as animations you need a program like Macromedia Breeze or Articulate Presenter).

Even better, you can take advantage of the interactivity that Flash enables to add buttons and text entry boxes to create quizzes. Or now you can use Captivate’s new Question Slide presets which let you quickly set up multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, true/false quizzes and so on. Most powerful of all is the ability to turn the demonstration itself into a test by adding click-boxes that must be clicked on correctly before you can progress so that end users have to walk through the procedure themselves not just sit back and watch it happen. And any quiz or test can be turned into an assessment complete with SCORM/AICC compliance for integration with learning management systems and direct integration with Macromedia’s Breeze and Authorware. Alternatively, you can set up the automatic emailing of scores.

The secret of Captivate’s success is its Flash output.

When you’re ready to publish your finished project, again it could hardly be simpler. Macromedia has greatly improved the ability to output slides to Word documents (great for handouts), but of course the real secret of Captivate’s success is its ability to output directly to Flash SWF format. And when you see the small file size of the end results (or inspect the streaming requirements in detail in the Bandwidth Profiler) you see yet another massive benefit of Captivate’s overlaid animation approach compared to traditional video. And to make life even easier, Captivate lets you automatically upload the results to an FTP or Breeze server or convert them to standalone Windows/Mac/Linux executables ready for emailing or burning to disk. You can also use the in-built MenuBuilder module to create an attractive front end for your project.

Captivate has one final trick up its sleeve – you can now import Captivate CP files directly into Macromedia Flash MX 2004 for further editing. All objects from the playback controller to mouse path are added to their own layer and you can use the timeline to move through your demonstration and see exactly how it is built. It’s a useful option to have, but when you see just how much is involved in creating the apparently effortless end illusion – a basic demonstration can involved complex manipulations of hundreds of separate bitmapped symbols – you really come to appreciate just how much work Captivate does behind the scenes to keep everything so simple.

Ultimately Captivate’s great strength is that it makes producing advanced software training and demos as simple in practice as it is in theory.

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Features
5
Ease of use
6
Value for Money
5
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Captivate
Software / Upgrade
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System requirements 600 MHz Pentium III , 128/256MB of RAM , 100MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 or XP, SVGA display.

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Tom Arah

Jan 2005


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