Free Online Screencasting Tools
A guide to free online services which enable you to use your internet browser to capture on-screen computer activity, along with input from peripherals like microphones and webcams, and which offer users the ability to download and/or share the resultant videos in a variety of ways and formats. This advice document will be of interest to those new to screencasting, who would like to try it out with simple tools which require no purchase or installation. Online screencast services will also interest experienced screencasters needing access to screencast tools 'in the field', and the quick publishing and sharing tools which accompany them.
As more and more computer-based activity is carried out online, and digital media is shared, stored and manipulated on the internet and accessed with a browser, so the tools for media creation, editing and publishing are similarly migrating to the 'cloud', and away from home or office PCs.
An increasingly common tool for teaching, training, presentation and demonstration is the use of video footage of computer screen activity, accompanied by voice-over narrative. When delivered to users as a video file, this is known collectively as screencasting. Screencasts draw together many of the strands of digital media - presentation, video, audio, text and graphics - to create flexible and engaging resources for learners, and there is a new generation of online tools for their creation, which we consider here.
For an in-depth guide to the complete screencasting workflow, including comparison of various relevant screencasting software tools, take a look at our advice document Screencasting Workflow, or for a quick introduction to screen capture read Introducing Screen Capture Software.
There are several software applications designed to make the capture of what is going on on your computer screen, and the subsequent packaging and delivery of this video recording as a screencast, ready for delivery by VLE or other channels, as simple and flexible a process as possible. Programs like Camtasia Studio and Adobe Captivate offer powerful tools for screen capture, and advanced features for editing, enhancing and combining this screen capture with voice-over narration, presentation slides, screen annotation, subtitles, video etc. to produce sophisticated and polished learning objects and resources. These applications have to be installed on the computer you're using, so we'll refer to them and their ilk generically as 'desktop' screencasting tools (i.e. you install them on your machine - be it desktop or laptop). There is also the popular free open source desktop screencasting application Camstudio.
But what if you want to capture your screen, and don't have one of these applications? Maybe you're considering this investment, but want to try out screencasting first to see if it suits your needs. Or maybe you just want to quickly capture what you're doing right now, and share it with a colleague or collaborator...
These are some of the many possible scenarios where an internet-hosted service may be ideally suited to your immediate needs. Several web-based screen capture and screencasting tools are now available which require only an internet connection and browser, and here we take a look at the advantages and features available from these generally simple and user-friendly tools. While they do not (yet) match desktop applications for editing, processing, compilation and annotation tools, and a myriad other bells and whistles, what they do have in their favour are platform independence, immediacy, simplicity, and internet connectivity, and sometimes these are the main priorities.
Web-based screencasting tools
- Free to use though some offer premium or 'pro' features for subscribers
- Accessible via internet using only a web browser*
- *May require recent versions of Flash & Java
- Work on all platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux)
- Time/file size limits
- Simple editing functions only (if any)
- Most offer hosting and sharing of screencasts and/or YouTube integration
- Quick sharing via social media channels
- Ability to download in various formats
With a web-based service, rather than install and run the program on your own computer, the application instead runs on a remote server, and is accessed and operated solely via an internet browser - often by many users or 'clients' simultaneously. The operator's web terminal acts merely as a control interface for the remote recorder, and provides the source of onscreen video, system audio, webcam and microphone 'streams', which are transmitted to the screencast server in compressed forms via its internet connection. Once streamed to this remote server, the streams of audio and video are recorded and stored on a remote server as a video resource, and can be made available via the internet, downloaded or shared.
We examine the features, compatibility and settings some such services offer, and their suitability for different situations and purposes. We'll also be testing them for quality of results and ease of use, and attempting to draw some meaningful comparisons. These tools require no installation on the host computer, nor are they dependent on a particular operating system or hardware configuration (though they will often require the browser to have recent versions of web plug-ins like Java and Flash).
When might I use one?
- Remote training via the internet, to demonstrate any computer process
- On a managed network machine, with no permission to install screencast software, a web based screen capture service will often still work (dependent on browser compatibility)
- Using an unfamiliar machine (eg at an event or training venue) to capture what you're doing and storing online for later reference
- Recording a training session to provide trainee(s) with reminder/revision material
- To quickly share what you are doing via the internet without leaving your browser
- Capturing a presentation
- Recording simple screencasts for distribution via VLE
What can they do?
- Most will allow capture of some or all of the screen, and some allow additional input streams from peripherals like webcams and microphones, as well as system audio.
- Many online screen capture tools are connected to free screencast hosting services which allow you to quickly publish and share your screencast
- Some offer download of a video file in a compressed format like MP4 or AVI, which you can subsequently edit and prepare with a suitable video editor or a more sophisticated screencasting application.
- Some offer facilities for tagging your files with limited metadata (e.g. category, language)
What can't they do?
- Editing - None of the free services tested allow you to edit out unwanted sections, or even trim the beginning and end points (top and tail). Screencast-o-matic offers Pro users simple editing tools, but this requires a paid upgrade.
- Audio adjustment - No facilities for changing, automating or fading audio levels, or for audio effects processing
- Advanced features like embedded quizzes, transitions between clips, zooming, presentation capture mode etc are not supported at this time by any free online service
- Video resolution and/or Audio quality are compressed to enable streaming to the server via the internet which reduces the quality of the delivered media
Some of these shortcomings can be addressed by downloading the screen capture video file(s), then importing, editing and processing them in a separate video editing or screencasting application.
Free screencast services
A selection of some widely used online screen capture applications. All apps were tested on Windows 7 with Firefox 3.6.3 and IE8, and Apple Macbook Pro OSX 10.6 with Safari 5.
Screenr can record up to 5 minutes of screen capture, along with webcam and microphone audio, in a single take. Similarly to other services, screenr offer their own hosting with a short URL to enable easy Twitter and other sharing, or a link from the video's preview page to publish direct to YouTube.
Screenr actually requires that you sign in using a Twitter ID before you can use it, such is the integration of the two, and indeed if you are a big Twitter user, then signing in with your Twitter ID accesses some very useful and well integrated Twitter tools. Tweeting of your screencast can be almost instantaneous (and is automatically enabled, unless you specifically select otherwise), and a box for discussing screenr screencasts via your Twitter stream is prominently positioned. The immediacy and informality of Twitter are echoed in the short record time and simple, quick-to-learn tool set.
- Time limit -5 minutes
- Inputs - screen, microphone, webcam
- Editing and processing - none
- Publishing - screenr.com hosting or direct link to publish to YouTube
- Sharing -excellent Twitter integration using shortened URLs. HTML embed code provided.
- Download format(s) -MP4
Screen Toaster - DISCONTINUED
Screen Toaster is a very useful and versatile screen capture application. There were recent mixed messages in June 2010 over whether the service would remain available online, but it now appears (as of August 2010) to be restored. As well as its original screen capture utility Screen Toaster is now also offering a beta test version of a new and improved recorder, which does indeed deliver excellent results and MP4 compatibility. The mooted withdrawal of Screen Toaster does highlight a potential issue with online applications, which should be borne in mind when using them. As I wrote at the time:
(Screen Toaster's) demise also brings to light the dangers of relying on online tools which offer no legacy support. Even if the producer of a piece of commercial software goes bust, I still have it installed on my computer, and I can still use it - at least in the interim period until I find a successor. Not so an online application - once it’s gone, it’s gone, and all your work in learning to use it is gone with it. It’s always worth considering the risks should support become unavailable for a key element in any workflow, and software can be particularly ephemeral. Maximum record time is not stipulated, but rather a quite generous 20Mb file size limit, which will store different lengths of video file depending on complexity of the source material. In testing, leaving the recorder running until full while going about my business on my PC, this gave 23:29 minutes of recording time at 1680x1050 full screen capture + audio. Capturing full motion video, animations and other more complex onscreen material will reduce this time.
Time limit -20Mb file size limit (which equated to a 23:29 recording time in the test case)
Inputs - screen, microphone, webcam
Editing & processing - add subtitles, remove audio, add audio, set preview image
Publishing - direct to YouTube or ScreenToaster.com (their own screencast hosting service, offering increased resolution)
Sharing - easy access to links for sharing URL via Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc, though no automatic shortened URL generation (a very minor niggle)
Download format(s) -MOV, SWF (current version) or MP4 (beta version)
- Multiple speed recording (between 0.5x and 10x speed) allowing slow motion or fast-forward demos
- Tagging of videos with simple metadata (though these tags are not applied to downloaded versions)
Having possibly a slightly less intuitive interface than the others, though still simple to use once you know where the controls are, Screencast-o-Matic does boast one or two unique features, including cursor and click highlighting (not available with the other listed apps at time of writing) and output scaling.
Adverts are quite prominent on the Screencast-o-Matic site, and this 'crowding' may contribute to the less elegant feel of the interface. Screen recordings are watermarked with Screencast-o-Matic logo [though not with a Pro account, which costs $9]
While Windows functionality was good, on the Macbook Pro the Screencast-o-Matic recorder would crash immediately, leaving a frame over the browser, which had to be restarted, losing the recording.
- Time limit -15 minutes or 10 minutes for YouTube. [1 hour limit for Pro account subscribers]
- Inputs - screen, microphone [webcam input beta testing at time of writing]
Editing and processing - Pro account only:
- Top & tail editing of start and end points
- Publishing - YouTube upload (watermarked in free version, not for Pro account users)
- Download format(s) -MP4, AVI, FLV
Publishing and sharing
Once captured, these services will generally offer to host your screencast on one of their servers, and make it available either freely or to a select group. This will allow you to share a URL with collaborators or learners, rather than mailing or otherwise delivering a large video file, and they will be able to view the screencast online.
In addition to simple hosting, some services (e.g. Screenr) can generate shortened URL addresses (similarly to bit.ly), and embed them automatically into pre-formatted Twitter 'tweets', allowing you to notify and share them with your followers almost instantly. Screenr therefore requires you to sign into the service using your Twitter credentials. This can be a very easy way to quickly share a screencast with friends and colleagues.
Assuming that you're now ready to start your online screen capture, how will you record accompanying audio? When recording on your own machine you have a wide choice of methods for inputting microphone audio, from simple USB microphones and headsets to a full-blown voice-over studio facility. Our Microphone Guide provides information on the various types of microphone available for voice and other recording in different environments.
If you are using these tools to capture screencasts 'in the field', then you cannot rely on the audio capabilities of an unfamiliar machine, so if audio is a key element of your screencast (which is very often the case) you should have a contingency plan for capturing audio. The simplest solution is to pack a USB microphone or headset (combined headphones and microphone) with your gear. A USB audio device will do all its own analogue-to-digital conversion, and many are plug-and-play on the majority of current operating systems, requiring no driver installation before they are ready to record. Compact, self-contained devices like Logitech's Clearchat USB headsets or Samson's Go Mic are potential solutions, which give acceptable quality, while sacrificing little in the way of portability.
A Plug-and-Play webcam may be similarly useful if you want to capture low resolution video as part of your screencast, as some of these services allow. Check compatibility with operating systems and hardware for which you can envisage needing support.
When producing, recording, publishing and sharing screencast video and audio, you should follow the same guidelines on usage of IPR and copyrighted material as you would for any other audio/video project. Unauthorised use of copyrighted material is of course forbidden, and all third party materials should be used and attributed according to the owners' licensing terms.
As with any video recording device (which is essentially what a screen capture app is), you shouldn't use screen capture to make illegal copies of any copyrighted video resources. Additionally, some software interfaces which you may want to capture may include copyrighted graphics, video and/or audio, as may some websites and presentations.
If you are recording other people's input to your screencast then you need to make sure that you have appropriate clearance to use the recording for your intended purpose. You may need to ask them to sign a copyright clearance form, of which this is an example.
Further advice regarding copyright is outlined in our advice document Copyright and Other Rights for Creating Time-based Media Resources, and related papers. For definitive advice contact our sister service JISC Legal.
The potential risks to which you may be exposing yourself and others should therefore be carefully examined.
Most of these applications are capable of almost instantaneously capturing and publishing the contents of your desktop, or whatever you are looking at on your screen, so be aware of 'background' objects when capturing an application window. Close or hide email clients and other applications which may contain sensitive, personal or copyrighted material before you begin recording.
While they don't have all the features for creating polished screencasts, when compared to desktop screencasting applications, free online services can be invaluable tools for quick screen capture and sharing when no other tool is available or when time is short. For quick creation and publishing of informal screencasts they offer a good balance of features, speed and simplicity, without the need to fire up dedicated screencasting software and the need to follow a more convoluted process. Furthermore, as all content is on the web already, and simply needs to be published and shared, online tools can - where appropriate - help to streamline the Screencasting Workflow.
With advances in the scale and capacity of internet providers, online screencasting services are - in common with all areas of 'cloud-based' computing - rapidly becoming more powerful and flexible. Their online nature makes them perfectly placed for capturing what you are doing on a computer, sharing and collaborating, almost regardless of where you are, or what technology is at your disposal - beyond a bare minimum, and we would expect this list of available screencasting services to grow considerably, echoing the recent explosion in Free Online Image Editors.