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BB Flashback 1.4.5
$199 / £99 + VAT


Screen recorders have been around for decades but in recent times they have taken on a new lease of life thanks, largely, to the use of the Flash format which provides a convenient way of embedding animations into web pages for viewing across the Internet. Flash format screen recordings are often called ‘screencasts’.

Once you've recorded a movie, you can edit it in the Flashback Player. Notice the frame-by-frame movie, mouse and keyboard tracks towards the top of screen. The movie itself is in the main part of the screen. Mouse-click highlighting has been enabled which is why a red circle has appeared over the mouse pointer, showing that the mouse was clicked here.

Last month we reviewed the latest version of one of the most established of screencasting tools, Camtasia. This month we take a look at a relative newcomer, BB Flashback, from the British company, Blueberry Software.

There are many reasons why you might want to make a recording direct from the screen of your PC. Possibly you want to create a demonstration of some software or a tutorial. Or you may want to record a problem which you are having to help a technical specialist to diagnose it. We use them ourselves on Bitwise for providing short software demos and tutorials. See HERE.

The Recording menu pops up from an icon in the Task Bar

At first sight, BB Flashback looks broadly similar to Camtasia. Both programs provides a screen recording tool plus a separate application for playback, editing and file saving. You can either record the whole screen, a selected area or a specific window or pane.

BB Flashback exports to AVI, WMV and SWF (Flash) but not to MOV (Quicktime). It also exports movies for use within a Powerpoint presentation and to standalone EXE files. When exporting, you have options to use the full frame rate, half or quarter frame rate. You can also specify a custom number of frames per second. The lower the frame rate the smaller the file, though this may sacrifice smoothness of the animation. Other export options let you scale down the physical dimensions of the movie, highlight mouse clicks with an animated red circle, adjust the audio quality to reduce file size and autoscroll so that only the part of the screen around the mouse pointer stays in view; this gives the impression that a rectangular viewport around the mouse pointer is scrolled over the screen as the mouse moves. You can record with or without a narration or you can select other sound sources such as a CD or line-in.

Unlike Camtasia, whose recording application has a standard user interface with its own main window and menu system, the BB Flashback Recorder hides itself away as an icon in the system tray. To access its menu, you click the icon. This causes the menu to pop up from the system tray. From this you can select items to record or play a movie or set various options. You can also press user-defined hotkeys to start, stop or pause a recording without having to use the menu.

When you start a recording, a dialog pops up in which you can optionally enter a name and directory for the new movie. If you don’t enter these, default values are used. You can choose from three recording technologies - Capture Driver is standard for Windows 2000 and XP or DirectX and GDI for older versions of Windows. The dialog also lets you set an option to record the whole screen or selected a region or window. Once you’ve set these options, you press the Record button to start recording. You can specify a short delay of up to five seconds between clicking the Record button and the recording actually beginning. Alternatively, you can bypass the dialog altogether and use the defaults by pressing a different hotkey. Once you end the recording process the movie is saved to disk. There is no option to back out of saving the file or automatically delete the recording (as in Camtasia) so if you make lots of stops and starts you are likely to end up with a large number of ‘scrap movies’ stored on disk. Another feature which I find irritating is that each movie you record and playback starts up a new instance of the Player. If you record and play ten movies, you’ll end up with ten Players! Personally, I’d prefer one Player at a time.

Flashback use proprietary file format (FBR) for its recordings and this is the only format which can be directly loaded into the Player. Blueberry Software tells me that FBR “provides lossless quality, from which you can experiment with exporting to other formats, and also it’s a lot easier for us to implement editing features that work on FBR – so it allows us to develop requested features quicker in house.” However, standardising exclusively on the FBR format does mean that you cannot load existing files in other video formats such as AVI or WMV as you can in Camtasia.

To record a window, you can click an icon in the recording bar seen here at the top and then click a window. This sizes the selection frame around the window.

When you decide to record an area of the screen or a specific window, a selection box appears before the recording process begins. You can either drag the corners of this box to mark off an area or you can drag a button onto a specific window. This highlights the borders of each window or window ‘pane’ (e.g. the text entry pane of a word processor). Once you’ve highlighted the desired window, you can release the mouse button to select it. When the recorder starts, only the selected area is recorded. However, if you move the window outside of the rectangle initially selected, you will end up recording the area of the screen that the window originally occupied. As in Camtasia, the BB Flashback recorder does not track the window when it is moved.

One deficiency of the BB Flashback recorder is its inability to record across extended screens spanning multiple monitors. If you have two monitors on your PC, you will only be able to record from the primary screen.

The Player application has a simple timeline (like a sort of ‘progress bar’) across the top of the screen. This shows the position of the movie as it plays. A more detailed timeline, called the ‘Frame Bar’, shows a frame-by-frame view of the movie in three tracks - one of which contains any sound such a narration while the other two display mouse and keyboard events. Mouse moves and clicks are shown as coloured dots while key presses are shown as text such as [Ctrl]+[E]. This is useful when you need to locate specific parts of a movie to edit.

Need to re-record the mouse? No problem. You can do this in the Flashback Player.

The editing features are, in some respects, better than those provided by the Camtasia player. Not only can you delete portions of a movie and add images such as JPEGs and GIFs from disk but you can even re-record new mouse pointer movements (either for a selected section or for the entire movie) and toggle mouse-click highlighting on or off. When this feature is on, a red ring appears around the mouse pointer when a mouse button is clicked. The ability to rerecord the mouse pointer gives it an advantage over Camtasia which permanently records mouse events and highlighting into the original movie making it impossible to alter them later. The BB Flashback Player also lets you re-record a narration and selectively add or delete sounds.

You can add annotations to a movie by entering some text into a dialog box and placing the resulting caption on an area of the screen at the desired location in the timeline. Annotations can be displayed inside four different types of box - plain rectangle, rounded rectangle or a rectangular or rounded ‘speech bubble’. You can alter the appearance by using different fonts, colours and text alignment or adding gradient fills. You can save all the currently selected annotation effects as a named style which can be selected from a list when you want to apply it to other annotations.

You can add annotations by writing text in a dialog box and setting up visual effects such as colours and fills...

...then just drop your annotation into your movie at the desired screen and time location.

Click Here to view a BB Flashback movie showing annotations and mouse highlighting. This will load into a separate window.

Blueberry Software claims that “Because Flashback records only screen changes and uses a custom compression engine, you get the smallest movie files possible.” While this may indeed, be true, in some cases, you should not invariably expect to achieve very small Flash files. In particular, when making recordings or video or photographs, BB Flashback’s compression does not rival the customisable JPEG compression provided in Camtasia 3. As a test I made a 14 second recording of some editing actions in Microsoft Word and a 26 second recording of some photographs being viewed in the Microsoft Picture Manager. When exported to Flash with medium image compression and half the original frame rate, the file size of the Word movie was a decently small 278K whereas the Picture Viewer movie was over 9 MB (9,415K).

Note: Blueberry Software informs us that it will be adding new image compression capabilities, multiple monitor support and other features to forthcoming versions of BB Flashback. Free updates are available when minor additions to the software are made but an upgrade fee (unconfirmed) will be charged when a major new version is released.

I decided to see what I could do to reduce the size of the 9MB movie. When I selected high image compression and exported it again, the file size barely changed (9,407K). To get more compression I reduced the frame rate to one quarter. But this still resulted in a fairly big file of about 6MB (6,182K). When I recorded a similar movie in Camtasia (the same photographs and the same size of window but, at 22 seconds, 4 second shorter than my Flashback recording), I was able to reduce the size of the Flash movie from 12.6MB to a JPEG-compressed version at 1.36MB. While the compressed movie is observably less crisp than the original, in my opinion the quality is perfectly acceptable. I haven’t found any way of achieving comparable compression with BB Flashback.

When exporting to Flash, you can set a number of options to reduce the size of the movie. These aren't so effective when working with recordings containing photos and videos, however.

Overall, BB Flashback is a fairly easy to use recording, editing and playback tool. It doesn’t have the same broad range of options as Camtasia. For example, there are no fancy menu generating tools, no clickable-URLs and rather a limited range of speech bubble styles available for annotations.

Three video-style control bars are provided as standard (and, if you are prepared to put in some effort, custom-designed bars can be imported too).

On the plus side, however, its Flash movie control bar is embedded into the same SWF file as the main animation so it is a trivial matter to import a BB Flashback Flash movie into an HTML page, even when that movie is in a different subdirectory. So, while it doesn’t have anything like the same range of features as Camtasia, it is nonetheless a good value, easy-to-use program for making Flash format movies. Moreover, BB Flashback costs $100 less than Camtasia. If this is still beyond your budget there is also a low-cost version called BB Flashback Express ($39 or £19). This has all the recording and playback features of Flashback but lacks the editing and some export options (see here for the full feature list: http://www.bbsoftware.co.uk/BBFlashBackExpress/FeatureList.aspx).

For real examples of BB Flashback movies, see our short review of Serif's Movie Plus and our tutorial to Squeak Smalltalk. These will pop up in a new window

Keeping It Simple

One of my criticisms of Camtasia was that a single movie is often made up of several different Flash files 'welded together' with some complicated HTML and XML files (see my Camtasia review). This makes it difficult to keep Flash files in a separate directory from the web page containing them. It also means that you have to cut and paste Camtasia's HTML into your web page designer (e.g. Dreamweaver). By contrast, BB Flashback creates one Flash file per movie and generates very simple HTML. To load a BB Flashback movie into Dreamweaver, you just load it direct from disk. No HTML copying necessary....

This is the auto-generated BB Flashback HTML
<!-- saved from url=(0013)about:internet -->
<BODY bgcolor="#FFFFFF">
<OBJECT classid="clsid:D27CDB6E-AE6D-11cf-96B8-444553540000"
codebase="http://download.macromedia.com/pub/shockwave/ cabs/flash/swflash.cab#version=5,0,0,0"
<PARAM NAME=movie VALUE="word_test.swf"> <PARAM NAME=quality VALUE=high> <PARAM NAME=bgcolor VALUE="#FFFFFF"> <EMBED src="word_test.swf" quality=high bgcolor="#FFFFFF" WIDTH=640 HEIGHT=498 TYPE="application/x-shockwave-flash" PLUGINSPAGE="http://www.macromedia.com/shockwave/download/index.cgi? P1_Prod_Version=ShockwaveFlash"> </EMBED>


Note: we have also reviewed the Camtasia screencast program and shall shortly be reviewing Captivate

Huw Collingbourne

July 2005


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