I have spent the last two weeks switching between Captivate and Camtasia Studio. Talk about schizophrenic. I spent a lot of time trying to remember which command I had to use in which program, but overall it’s been an interesting experience.

For those who are not familiar with either program, they are both programs which allow you create screen-based learning modules. I’d call them eLearning tools.

The marketing material doesn’t always say what a program does, but here is the publisher blurb for each:
•Camtasia Studio gives you the power to easily record your screen, PowerPoint presentations, voice and Web camera video to create compelling video tutorials, training presentations and rich sales demonstrations for web and CD-ROM delivery. (TechSmith)
•Adobe Captivate 3 software enables anyone to rapidly create powerful and engaging simulations, scenario-based training, and robust quizzes without programming knowledge or multimedia skills. (Adobe)

Some history

Captivate started out as a product called RoboDemo, produced by a company called eHelp, whose most famous product was … that’s right … RoboHelp*. eHelp was bought out by MacroMedia, who changed the name RoboDemo to Captivate and added some new features. Macromedia got bought out in turn by Adobe, who added more features.

Camtasia Studio is produced by a company called Tech Smith, famous for one of the handiest pieces of software I have ever used—a screen capture program called SnagIt.( If you have never used SnagIt, I recommend that you try it.)

I started using Captivate a couple of years ago, after a Macromedia consultant gave a very enthusiastic demonstration of its properties. And I found it good. I am currently using Captivate 2, which is one release behind the current version.

I was first introduced to Camtasia Studio by a colleague who had downloaded the demo version, created a couple of video files (.avi format) using it, and then wanted me to turn them into eLearning modules for him. He refused to create the videos using Captivate (of which the company had a full copy) and I couldn’t do much with the AVI files in Captivate so I ended up downloading a trial version of Camtasia Studio and managed to tweak the files enough to produce something not really good but okay enough to get by.

And there I was until two months ago, when a contracting company for whom I do occasional work asked if I would create some screen demos. I agreed, but because this was weekend work, outside of my permanent employment, I needed a program to do it with. Camtasia Studio costs US$298, while Captivate starts as US$699. It was a quick, cheap contract, and wasn’t even going to make $700. You can guess which one I purchased.

Two weeks ago the colleague who had created the original AVI files started producing training material (under contract). I don’t have any control over what he produces—and naturally, he’s producing AVIs. So far he’s created six hours of it, and by my calculations he’s only half-way through. Not to mention—they’re huge. One of the videos comes in at 500MB. I can’t even load them onto the website. We had some animated discussions about it. In the end I agreed—he could make the videos as he wanted (it was the best use of money versus his time) and I would do something to them to make them at least useable.

Comparing Camtasia Studio and Captivate

A note here—I am comparing the latest version of Camtasia Studio (version 5) with a prior version of Captivate (version 2). For the purposes of this comparison, it shouldn’t matter.

Both programs produce eLearning materials—video presentations, training demonstrations and the like. They are often—but not always—produced as Flash files that are embedded into other training materials. Both of them can capture a screen demonstration, both of them can convert PowerPoint files to training materials and both of them allow voice-overs. They both allow you to include quizzes, and if you have access to a SCORM-compliant learning management system you can also track users’ learning scores.

Both are easy to use out of the box; you can create a quick training demonstration in a couple of hours. Even so, it takes time and considerable effort to really get the best out of some of the advanced features.

They are both excellent products.

The major differences are that

•Captivate is slide based, while Camtasia Studio has one long timeline, and
•Captivate also allows you to create simulations, more on this later.

Slide based vs timeline is best described by an example. Let’s say you want to show users how to minimize the ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007. If you do this in Captivate, the end result comes back as a series of slides that you can edit. You edit each slide individually. In Camtasia Studio the end result comes back as a video (.AVI) file and this is the file you edit.

If you’re producing presentations or testing user feedback, you can do pretty much anything in one program that you can do in the other, even if you do it different ways. Captivate, however, goes further. In Captivate you can also create simulations quickly and easily.

Suppose for example you want to show somehow how to save a file in Word. This is pretty basic. All the user has to do is click on the Save icon. But in the simulation you don’t just tell the user to click on the Save icon, they have to click on it. You can set it up to walk them through it once and the let them go solo. i.e. Tell the user, “Now, click on the Save icon” and point the icon out to them. If they don’t click on it you can even give them a tip … “Click here”. Then they can go through it again, without the instructions. You give them a spiel at the start, and let them go solo. “Now, you try it.” Again, if they appear to be struggling, you can give them hints. This is a brilliant feature.

Which one is better?

Neither one is better, and I suspect that for most people who just need to create demonstrations or videos, it will really be that the one they start with, and thus get to know better, turns out to be the one they prefer.

But it also depends on what you are using it for.

Camtasia Studio excels at handling video files. It handled that 500MB AVI file I mentioned before with relative ease. Captivate couldn’t.

As an intermediate level user on both systems, I also believe that you could learn to use the full features of Camtasia Studio a lot more quickly than you can Captivate. Not only that, it costs less. Beware, however. It can create some monster files.

The simulation functionality in Captivate, however, is a wonderful tool for creating eLearning modules.

The verdict

If you wish to create videos, webcasts, podcasts or other demonstrations that are simply viewed (or listened to), then either tool will do it for you. If you’re just starting out, or on a limited budget, you will probably find Camtasia Studio easier to use.

If you wish to create true eLearning modules where the user gets to practise what they learn, go the Captivate route. It’s the only way.

An aside—RoboHelp history

* The RoboHelp history is fascinating in itself. I’m working from memory here, so my facts may be hazy, not to mention I have never actually read up on it, only garnered this from gossip at various conferences. So please don’t take this as gospel, but here’s what I believe happened.

At its peak, RoboHelp had to be one of the largest help authoring tools around and was still used to produce millions of help manuals around the world. Yet when Macromedia bought it, they weren’t interested in RoboHelp. The developers who worked on RoboHelp wanted to keep working on it—and had ideas to improve it—but Macromedia wanted to kill it off. They were more interested in products like Captivate. So the developers banded together and created their own company, called MadCap, and produced an XML-based help authoring tool called Flare, which was all the things they had originally wanted to make RoboHelp become.

Then Adobe bought Macromedia. They resurrected RoboHelp, brought out new versions and even packaged it with Captivate, FrameMaker and Acrobat as a Technical Communications package.

So now we have two excellent help authoring tools.