ScreenFlow 5: My Review
This is my review of ScreenFlow 5. I have been writing this for about two months now. If you look at my Instagram profile, you see a ton of new videos there, especially screencasts. Pretty much all screencasts are made with ScreenFlow. The two about Final Cut, with the custom shortcut bubbles, as well as most of #uianimation posts, were made in ScreenFlow.
- Final Cut
Those should give you an overview what you can do with ScreenFlow.
I am aware that my followership is interested to hear my opinion about this release of a major screencasting app. To be honest, the reason I put this out so late is: I feel like I’m complaining more than I should. I don’t like to write negative reviews, and you probably don’t like to read them. The truth is, ScreenFlow 5 is way behind its previous standards. This is published so late because I wanted to give ScreenFlow a really really good whirl to see if my first impression was not true. I don’t want to hide the facts, nor do I want to hide the faults. The main reason of this first introduction paragraph is to give you a perspective. I don’t want to say bad things about ScreenFlow because I’ve been using it for 8 years now. I’m also using Camtasia. Because you hopefully been following me for a while you know all of that. You know that I think that TechSmith is doing a good job in everything related to screencasting. You know that I think they got a heart for screencasting, and that I think Telestream doesn’t. In the past I’ve been recommending ScreenFlow without hesitation. Recommending ScreenFlow 5 with the same kind of confidence is not so easy anymore. Please read this review and make your own judgment.
ScreenFlow 5 has been released on October 21, 2014. After some initial skepticism on my part, I went ahead and bought the app. To say that after my first look I was not happy with the app would be an understatement. ScreenFlow was the best screencasting app we had on OS X, but it has fallen behind. You can feel it in the pores. Where Telestream (and Vara Software before) showed us Mac users the future of screencasting, they now fail to deliver a product, that differentiates itself far enough to have more value than competing apps, or even the free alternative, QuickTime.
Marketing and Support
I want to begin my review not with the app itself, but with their changed approach to marketing. Every tweet I write is piggybacked by Telestream. They jump into every conversation, without adding any value to the discussion. When I originally asked:
Zettt Not sold on ScreenFlow 5. Is the update worth it? Haven’t been using the app for about a year or two at least. 05.11.14 22:37
It took them only a couple of minutes to answer that the app has been received well, and its iOS recording is great. Reading this kind of stuff from the manufacturer who makes something, is not trustworthy, nor unbiased. I wanted to see the good, and maybe thought they would eventually want to contribute to the discussion, without making me want to buy their product, so I asked what ScreenFlow 5 adds to iOS screencasting that Final Cut, Motion, and QuickTime can’t do.
ScreenFlow @Zettt A single, streamlined workflow! 05.11.14 22:47
From what I can tell from using the app, that is true. But is single and streamlined better? I’ve been editing screencasts with it, and if I had to say that single is a reason to buy it, it’s not. Using Final Cut and Motion adds so many possibilities that it outweighs the single-appness of ScreenFlow. For new users? Maybe.
For a couple of years now, Telestream’s support also lacks horribly. I don’t know what they are doing. Many colleagues, have been in touch with them. They all share the same story: the Telestream support staff were either not able to help them, or sent general text snippets, not even referring to the original problem.
My recommendation: you’re better off to find an answer on a forum, Twitter, or Facebook. If anyone at Telestream reads this: please improve your support. I’d like to see this get better. The forums: please shut it down.
Obviously, I bought ScreenFlow 5, eventually. Let’s speak features.
Adding touch visualizations is a great feature. Plus points. I personally don’t like that the touches themselves don’t allow for a blur, or a drop shadow so that it’s visually easier to see where the touches end, and where the content begins.
The configuration is a bit confusing at first sight. Especially when the touch count is increased. Sometimes you need to rotate the touches a little bit to make room on the screen, or to better indicate that there’s not enough room and the device is used more naturally with the hand rotated.
With the new Touch Callout feature, pinch gestures, and even three-finger spread gestures, are possible.
All that said, my main gripe with these types of touch callouts is that the app doesn’t reflect how an iOS app is really used. As a viewer it is immediately evident that an animation runs, and not a human actually uses the device.
Of course the move animation can be set from linear to eased, but that just doesn’t cut it sometimes. Sometimes we need to “curve” from one state to the next, and that’s something the Touch Callout doesn’t allow for. So we’re pretty much left with doing touches frame-by-frame. Nothing new in this regard.
When a Touch Callout ends, it just “disappears”. No fade out, no blur out. Region ends, and poof the touch gone. Visually not very appealing. Touch Callouts add themselves to a clip, rather than a separate track, like regular Callouts. Regular Callouts allow to add rectangles, lines, and other drawn objects. Because these Callouts are separate clips the user can add a regular transition at the beginning or end. Touch Callouts don’t have this ability. Why are they contained within a clips, rather than separate clips? Who knows. This is just one of the UI misconceptions, that I will write later about.
The defaults for a touch callout are also not very appealing. The color Telestream chose is a very dark grey, with no outline. I did some adjustments and got it looking relatively good. Here you can see a comparison between the two:
This also brings me to my next complaint: defaults. The defaults are suboptimal in many cases. I know that one of the main new features in ScreenFlow 5 is the ability to add Templates, but it’s a considerable effort one has to a) realize there’s something they can customize, and b) actually go through all the hassle to customize all the things. Probably not too much to ask for a professional, but the audience ScreenFlow has catered to in the past, probably won’t do that. Are the chosen defaults fine? I’d say “probably yes, but maybe not”. The reason I express this complaint at all is that many users who screencast use the defaults. Because the chosen defaults look ok-ish, but not great, we get, as a result, ok-ish looking screencasts. Admittedly, Camtasia is not a single dime better.
Speaking of templates, I think this is one of the nicest additions to ScreenFlow 5. It allows pro screencasters to customize the visual appearance of their videos, to a point where we have enough distinction, between two videos, to be recognized as two separate works.
As I mentioned, I’m not sold on the touch visualizations. I’ve used every app and thing on this planet, that I could get my fingers on. Every app that promised it would improve click or touch animations. But I haven’t found anything that I would actually use. There’s PinPoint and PinPoint Pro that I would like to point out. PinPoint Pro especially is an excellent app to customize the whole visual appearance of clicking, on a desktop. If you are doing live presentations this is one of my recommendations.
It is no wonder that I wanted to build my own touch animations then, right? I opened Sketch and exported a PDF. PDF’s can contain vectors. This means that they can be scaled to any size without loosing crispness. This works in Keynote, for example, and other apps too. A workflow that I use regularly for clients to build their own production line. Exporting a circle, with a little bit of drop shadow, and otherwise transparent background, produces this on import in ScreenFlow 5:
To be fair: importing a transparent PNG works. Considering a full-retina production workflow, though, a working vector solution would be much more preferable, especially considering that, to indicate clicks or taps, I would scale the image up.
At the moment ScreenFlow 5 has lots of bugs. I hope that Telestream will fix most of them in dot updates, but at the moment it makes the app highly unreliable.
An example. I downloaded a video off YouTube using
youtube-dl. The video was downloaded as an H.264, that I imported into ScreenFlow. I started my editing process and every edit caused the app to “hang”. It didn’t render new frames from new regions, only when the playhead reached a new keyframe came, the app would catch up. Editing this way is unacceptable, since the user can’t determine the quality and correctness of an edit. That wouldn’t be so bad, but when I exported the video, some regions would be exported, some would not. The result was a video consisting of black screens and the edit. The problem here is not that we have such an issue, the problem is that this issue shows up so inconsistently that I couldn’t figure out a way to work around it. Bugs are always there, but if they hinder the production, and can’t be worked around, then that’s bad.
I was told by colleagues that they had similar experiences, which is sad, because some versions ago, ScreenFlow added the ability to create “empty documents”. This was perfect, because this made ScreenFlow the more advanced version of iMovie. The editor was capable enough to edit vacation movies. It had various other advantages too, like being able to choose the frame size freely. At the moment I cannot recommend ScreenFlow 5 for this purpose anymore. As mentioned, editing has issues, and the export is unreliable. I hope they’ll fix it in the future.
The bugs continue, sadly, some colleagues report that the app is prone to crashes at the moment. They say that the app is so unstable that it’s barely workable.
I can’t second this, but the question is: what is causing ScreenFlow to be so unstable? I’d assume that it has a lot to do with last-minute changes to the app itself. From the fantastic movie player Movist, I first read that Apple is now requiring App Store apps to use AVFoundation; the old QuickTime frameworks are deprecated. Considering ScreenFlow is still in the App Store, it uses AVFoundation. I checked with
otool and couldn’t find the QuickTime frameworks either.
This kind of observation flows (no pun intended) through the whole app. ScreenFlow 5 feels incomplete und unbaked at the moment. It has many rough edges, and lacks polish.
One of the main new features is iOS recording. One of the downsides every app at the moment has, is that it’s unable to record the touch events as well. In the case of ScreenFlow I was hoping that they would invest some more effort in this regard, and if they’d implement iOS recording, there would also be a solution there. But there isn’t.
That aside, the iOS recording function has worked solidly in my tests, though I have heard negative feedback from fellow screencasters. They say the recording would drop frames. I can’t second that experience, but from what I wrote about the editing, maybe it feels like ScreenFlow is dropping frames. I also can’t undermine that with tests either.
Maybe those folks also didn’t pay attention to the new setting where they can set the framerate for new recordings? There is a new setting for the Desktop Framerate, which means it can record at 1, 15, 30, and Automatic fps. Whatever number Automatic is, but I suppose it’s somewhere between 30 and 60 fps. Maybe Telestream means Automatic is 60? It’s not clear from the dialog. There’s no separate setting for the iOS framerate. And sadly, the documentation doesn’t give this information away. There is this old forum post, that I found, that didn’t answer the problem either. I don’t know. Maybe ScreenFlow can’t record at 60fps, maybe it can. Having high-framerate recording in ScreenFlow would have been great though.
I have to jump in here for ScreenFlow and admit that QuickTime is not any better in this case. Apple’s own solution does not have a framerate setting at all, and the recorded framerate is also not stable. QuickTime does drop frames, too. It is dependent on the device and the available resources on that device. Everything that the device has to do in the background causes potential framerate issues. I know that Apple propagates that users shouldn’t worry about background processes, but let’s admit it, that’s their marketing. In reality there’s stuff going on in the background, and as long as there is stuff to do, someone has got to do that stuff, and therefore it will cause some sort of performance issue. Close the background apps! From my own experience, I can say that this results in better recordings.
Snapback didn’t get much attention in the release notes. It’s actually a pretty cool feature. Basically Snapback would take any previous action, for example a zoom in, and just “snap it back” to the original settings.
I’m using the app now since October. This feature hasn’t worked a single time. See, I do edit my videos. The way I do my edit, I watch the screencast and when I encounter a position that I would like to zoom in to, then I just add a Video Action and zoom in. Then I may mispronounce something, or some other issue occurs, like the mouse doesn’t move where it’s supposed to be moving to. So I correct that issue, and do some cuts. The problem then is that Snapback can’t snap back anymore. It says there’s nothing to snap back to. So the thing that could save lots of stupid clicking, didn’t work in two months of testing.
One more point that I’d like to address is that old features haven’t received attention. The old things are just as they are. While new features have been added, the app itself hasn’t received much love. There’s little to no new design in ScreenFlow 5. One of the few things that has received an update is the app icon, but that’s normal in the Apple world. The rest of the interface is just as it used to be. Apparently Telestream didn’t see a reason to improve the speed at which screencasts can be edit with the app, nor workflows, nor UX.
This is the tough part, because I wrote a Camtasia/ScreenFlow shoot out in the past, and whenever the two apps come out with a major update, I feel like I need to revise that article.
Right now this is even tougher, because in the past it was clear that Camtasia was way behind ScreenFlow. Between then and now a lot has happened. Let me sum it up for you.
I’ve been talking with the TechSmith folks occasionally. I wrote a couple of times that they are passionate about education, and screencasting. That is still true. We had chats where I complained about the design of their apps, that they don’t approach the Apple market fully. They released several updates to their apps, and, additionally, their websites and their whole lineup of apps has received design updates all over the place. Camtasia is not 3.0 yet, but it’s 2.9.1. They have implemented iOS recording in a dot update, rather than a major update. Other than that, the iOS recording has the same issues ScreenFlow 5 and QuickTime have. Marketing wise, what am I supposed to say. They piggyback, too, but they are not trying to fool their customers. The app itself has loads of bugs too. Is it good enough? Yeah, kind of. Are they unbearable? No, they’re not.
On the other hand Telestream lost most of its momentum. Where there was passionate energy in the past, the rigidness and calmness of “the big one” has settled in. They have been bought by a company. Sleazy marketing has replaced valuable contributions. Heck, I have even been emailed by one of their folks if I want to take part in their affiliate network. I’ve been asked if I want to participate with a site that’s nearly dead.
It’s really hard to write this, I would love to write that ScreenFlow 5 is a great release. But it’s jut not. While the features they’ve added are great and necessary for modern screencasters in the mobile world, the app itself lacks love and polish. Picture this: you’ve edited a video for an hour, maybe even two, or an entire day, now you export and all you get is a black screen. This problem is so severe that you have to question yourself, how that got through beta testing? Did they not test their own app? They must have! What made them decide that what they’ve got is good enough to be released? I can see how one has to say that what they have is good enough at one point, but some of the areas that need fixing are so intrinsically important to the video production process that they should’ve fixed it before the release. Maybe they were under a lot of pressure?! Who knows.
My recommendation: buy either. Camtasia is as good as ScreenFlow now.