CamStudio: Quick 'n' dirty (and free) screencasting

With slick mouse and annotating effects, CamStudio releases an upgrade to its free screen recording software. Is it good enough to save you $300?

Want to save $300? I'll let you in on a little secret. For most users creating Web site demos, the powerful, professional Camtasia Studio 4 (read hands-on review) could contain more fireworks than you need (if you're not sure, try it--CNET trials are always free). The free, open source CamStudio better serves casual users requiring a quick and dirty screencast.

Developer Nick Smith has just released the long-awaited beta version of CamStudio 2.5, which includes some enhancements and bug fixes, and new effects that add captioning and watermarks. Here's what you'll find.

Only a few things have changed from version 2.0. The compact, single-pane recorder is now a flat whitish gray instead of black, though the large, blocky buttons for controlling major recording functions remain unchanged.

The three capture settings of CamStudio 2.0 are joined by a fourth: capture by window. There's the same decent array of video, cursor, and program options that I had hoped would gain greater codec support and compatibility beyond AVI and SWF (Flash) formats.

CamStudio cursor feature
A new feature changes the highlight color with every left or right mouse click. (Credit: CNET Networks)

Instead, CamStudio seems to compensate for the restriction by adding a very useful mouse-click option (entitled "Enable visual click feedback") to rich cursor options, including over 30 alternative cursor graphics. Choosing a color that the cursor highlight will flash to when the left or right mouse button is clicked truly shows the viewer a step-by-step process.

Other new features include "preset time," on the Options menu, which allows users to preprogram how long a session lasts (up to 75 seconds.) A subtraction rather than an addition, this version of CamStudio scaled back on audio recording options, temporarily removing support to record audio with speakers due to inadequate source code procurement.

In the SWF Producer, which essentially just converts CamStudios AVI videos to the SWF (Flash) format, Smith added a URL function to whisk viewers from the playback to a particular Web address, and a simple mechanism for canceling an AVI-to-SWF conversion.

CamStudio preset time
Choosing the length of recording time and automating the file naming features practically automates CamStudio. (Credit: CNET Networks)

As with CamStudio 2.0, users should peruse the options before beginning their first screen grab, choosing cursor and audio video settings, and guiding what happens to the video once you've stopped the capture; for example, displaying a preview, setting a file path for saved movies, and choosing how a file is named. Novice users will have to independently research the pros and cons of some choices, and also frame capture details, if they want to deviate from the default settings.

While the CamStudio blog and FAQ answer some pressing questions about performance and troubleshooting in posts and tutorials, CamStudio isn't yet providing a comprehensive help file on Screen Recording 101.

My biggest, loudest gripe, and the main criticism holding me back from recommending CamStudio 2.5 (beta 1) as a potential replacement for professional software for semiprofessional users is that the noticeable lack of a video editor makes it impossible as a full-featured solution. Users won't be able to trim videos, compile separate clips, or add audio and visual effects inside the program. Instead, they'll need to seek out freeware, shareware, and commercial video editors and converters (browse free downloads), adding another few steps to the process of, for example, creating an edited Quicktime video comprised of multiple clips.

Hopefully the CamStudio community will address this in the next major release.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.