Review: ScreenFlow 3, the power to publish training videos, presentations, and screencasts

ScreenFlow, the first really powerful screen recording software for the Mac is being upgraded to version 3 by Telestream. The new version sports a number of improvements that turn ScreenFlow 3 in an absolute winner in this market, but I also found a couple of bugs that need to be ironed out.

ScreenFlow 3 is a paid upgrade (29.00 USD) for users of the previous version, and one they’ll happily shell out the money for, I’m sure. My test and working experience with ScreenFlow 3 after one day have convinced me it’s better than competitor Camtasia — by a comfortable margin even. The reason? ScreenFlow 3 adds exactly those features you’ll need to build better screencasts, while preserving the familiar, 100% Mac interface.

There are no less than 39 improvements and/or new features, and a full integration with Lion (versioning, auto-save, full screen — the third one I see; BBEdit 10 and TextSoap 7 being the other two) in version 3. I’ll run them down in the same order as they’re mentioned in Telestream’s release notes.

The least important, in my opinion: the ability to open empty windows. Nice to have, but not essential. Nicer is the ability to create freehand callouts. Instead of only being able to create a callout that is either the mouse cursor or the front window, you can now paint a static callout using a rounded or rectangular brush. When you select this tool, the brush tool automatically pops open and you can set your brush width and select the brush type. When you’ve finished brushing, you can add a shadow to your callout (new as well). Very useful is the feature that allows you to blur the callout content. Especially when you’re showing form fields blurring the callout area is important. Well, now you can.

ScreenFlow 3's interface reveals the playhead clip split handle.

The canvas can now have a customized background colour, and all elements on it can be moved around with pixel precise positioning; you either nudge using the keyboard or set the position exactly as you want with the coordinates in the Inspector.

You can now also add video annotations, including circles, discs, filled and non-filled rectangles, lines, and arrows. Needless to say you can adjust them any way you want. The only thing you can’t do is rotate. These annotations go on their own track, and really efficient is that you can save a group of settings as a default setting for future annotations.

The Timeline

The Timeline has received an efficiency and productivity boost. For starters, the playhead/scrubber has a handle at the bottom with which you can rapidly split a clip and create a gap between the two resulting clips simultaneously. This feature is an absolute time saver, but there’s a glitch when using it. When you add an Annotations track, the handle disappears and you can’t get it back until you delete the Annotations track. Then, after a bit of moving the audio or video clip around, the handle magically re-appears. I think this is a bug.

Annotations float in their own track, which you can reorder at will.

The Timeline has other improvements. In the Preferences panel — in its own Timeline section — you can now set a default track height (track height can be interactively changed from small to large), a default duration of still images, whether you want to use the default ScreenFlow time notation or ‘real’ SMTPE timecode (Final Cut users will love that one), and whether you want to see current time when scrubbing.

To remove tracks from the Timeline, you can now simply right-click in the left area and select “Delete Track” from the context menu. This area also allows you to quickly reorder tracks when you have a complex Timeline with many tracks. Multiple clips on a track can quickly be selected by double-clicking this area.

Also new in the Timeline is the ability group clips together. This makes it a lot easier to move clips in sync to another location a track. However, I spotted a problem with the feature that might be a bug, or just the way it works. If it’s the latter, I am not sure I understand why it should be implemented this way. When you group clips together and add a gap between another clip and the group, the group as a whole shifts position. That’s how it should be. Now, if you decide to close the gap — using another new feature that allows you to do that — the group is broken up and only the clip on the track with the gap you’re trying to close will move back in place.

The Transition Inspector and Marker HUD.

Markers were available in ScreenFlow 2. In ScreenFlow 3 they become much more effective. There’s a HUD listing your markers. You use the HUD to quickly jump to any marker on the Timeline. Again, an improvement that boosts productivity. The Inspector HUD is also more powerful than it was in version 2. For example, if you enable the Inspector on a Transition, you can preview that transition (ScreenFlow will automatically play a small part of the clip before and after the transition, as well as the transition itself) as well as set additional preferences for some of them.

Audio improvements

Not only can you now see waveforms, they will actually show you whether audio is clipped. A new feature, called Smooth Levels, will allow you to smoothen out clipped audio and make the whole audio clip more uniform in terms of loudness. Another new audio filter is the background noise remover, which works well although I must admit I personally prefer working with RX Advanced to get rid of noise.

One great new feature in my opinion is the text to speech conversion capability of ScreenFlow 3. If you select this feature from the menu, a dialogue slides open where you can paste your text and select a Mac OS X voice. The text will be synthesized and appear as an audio track in the Timeline. With Lion’s voices having extremely high tonal quality, the text sounds close enough to natural spoken text for the results to be acceptable.

Export has improved too

So you could customize your settings in previous versions, but were frustrated you couldn’t save these settings to a new one? You can now. It was frustrating, it’s not better than ever, because you get a real management feature in the process, which allows you to activate and deactivate settings.

Exporting a 16:9 screencast to YouTube often resulted in a movie that wasn’t considered HD by YouTube, even if it complied with one of the HD formats. Not anymore: YouTube export gains explicit 720p and 1080p support. Except for direct publishing to YouTube, you can now also directly export to Vimeo. A new export format is iPad with the presets for iPad filled in.

Great also is support for Elgato’s H.264 HD USB stick.

Wrapping up

I found the upgrade from version 1 to 2 somewhat disappointing. I find the upgrade from version 2 to 3 utterly satisfying. It’s certainly worth the upgrade fee, and if you were considering Camtasia, I can only recommend downloading the trial and giving it a good look. I think you’ll quickly find ScreenFlow to have an interface that looks right and fits like a glove, with enough power and features to let you tackle the most complex screencasts, presentations, video trainings, and on-screen tutorials.

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