REVIEW: Adobe Captivate 5 for Mac

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Adobe Captivate 5, released last July, is the first version of Captivate to be available for Mac OS and so it’s the first version to be on the radar of many creative professionals who produce eLearning material through other products like Flash but don’t work with Windows. The Adobe team did a very good job porting Captivate to the Mac—it looks and feels just like its Windows counterpart—but creative users might be a little surprised by the differences between other creative pro apps like Flash and Captivate, which reminds me of PowerPoint.

The user interface

I’ve noticed two different user interface strategies at Adobe in the past couple years (excluding their video applications, which have their own interface design). Creative pro applications from Adobe either have an older user interface with multiple panels and many settings—think Photshop and Illustrator—or a newer, cleaner interface with a sidebar and fewer panels, segmented to show and hide groups of settings easily. Flash Catalyst CS5 is a prime example of this newer design, and Flash Pro CS5 uses some elements of both.

Captivate 5 offers a new user interface based on the newer version, and it’s very clean and easy to use. Like with Flash Pro CS5, the Properties Inspector is the main panel in the sidebar that provides most of the controls needed for everyday operations. I happen to like the older user interface, but that might be because I’ve used it for years in Photoshop and other Creative Suite apps. However, I prefer to have a lot of controls at my fingertips and the Captivate user interface is clean to the point where it might be a little dull and not as useful. For example, the alignment controls are in the menu bar—there’s no Align panel, which is common in other apps.

On the other hand, PowerPoint users might find Captivate 5’s user interface familiar. The panel layout reminds me of PowerPoint’s, and tools and settings are sometimes in similar positions. Ultimately, I think Captivate’s roots in the PC market and its connections to PowerPoint influenced the direction the user interface took. It’s an improvement over Captivate 4.

One more note that relates to user experience: unlike its predecessor, Captivate 5 now allows multiple Captivate projects to be open at the same time. I think it goes without saying that this is a vital improvement and one that will be universally praised.

New editing features

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The Effects menu (in the Timeline window) has several effects for transitions and other events.

Captivate 5’s killer feature is, of course, being available to Mac users for the first time. That in itself makes Captivate 5 notable. But PC users looking to justify an upgrade will want to look at the new features, which are mostly productivity enhancements that are major improvements and also longtime features of other software on the market:

  • Master Slides are simply slide masters that can apply a consistent layout to a group of slides. PowerPoint has had slide masters for years and in Captivate they provide a tremendous benefit.
  • Object Styles, a longtime feature of other creative apps like InDesign, allow users to save and apply design and typographical settings to elements.
  • It’s kind of buried in the Effects panel, but new animation effects are really nice—the list of effects is fairly long and they provide some original transitions I’m not used to seeing in other applications. Related to this is the new Widget API, which are all built with ActionScript 3 starting with Captivate 5. There’s several new classes that respond to more behaviors like a slide change or a video event. Captivate 4 had widgets as well, but they have been improved in Captivate 5.
  • Span & Synch Video allows a video clip to play across several slides and still allow navigation and slide changes. Captivate 5 has an Edit Video Timing dialog box where slide transitions can be synchronized with the clip.

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Master slides allow consistent design application.

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Styles can be applied to several kinds of elements in Captivate 5 to make designing faster and less prone to errors.

Things like animation, master slides and styles are not new. Captivate has followed a winding road of evolution since starting out as a screen recording utility (Flashcam) and demo-recording tool for Flash (RoboDemo) before it was acquired by Adobe and turned into an eLearning application. This might explain why Captivate has lacked some basic presentation and layout tools until lately. I think Captivate 4 was the first version designed for layout and presentation, and Captivate 5 has gone maybe twice as far to solidify that purpose.

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When video is inserted into a project, the slide duration can be made to match the video or the video can span multiple slides.

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A spanned and synched video shows up in the slide filmstrip (left) and can be previewed across multiple slides.

New distribution features

Captivate was designed to support the collaborative nature of eLearning. Captivate 5’s major new features is integration with Acrobat.com and its use of Acrobat.com as a learning management system. Connecting with LMSes was an important feature of Captivate 4, but the collaborative nature of Acrobat.com and its various online apps also makes it a nice solution for eLearning if a LMS isn’t already in place.

The Acrobat.com experience is basic but useful. The eLearning product is basically uploaded to Acrobat.com and from there users can log in and participate. As with everything on Acrobat.com, a free Adobe account is required. The benefit of Acrobat.com is its tracking and reporting features, which record and report users’ scores within Acrobat.com and without a LMS. Unless you require a standards-compliant LMS, Acrobat.com provides a solid solution.

Conclusion

Captivate 5 is ground-breaking if only for the reason that it’s on the Mac: many creative pros who have been building eLearning products with Flash or PowerPoint now have another option tailored for the job. I also think Captivate 5 has several major improvements that aren’t necessarily original but are time-tested and very useful. I think there’s other areas that can be improved, particularly if Adobe wishes to make it more desirable for the creative pro market, but considering its short time as an eLearning product I think it has come far.

Captivate 5
Adobe Systems
US $799/ $299 upgrade
US $1,799/ $599 upgrade with eLearning Suite 2
Rating: 9/10