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.
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
|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
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
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
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
<!-- saved from url=(0013)about:internet -->
<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"
Note: we have also reviewed the
program and shall shortly be reviewing Captivate