Friday, April 10, 2009

Review: Adobe Captivate 4.0

Well, as I hinted all the way back in February, I wanted to review Adobe's latest rev of the now training-staple Captivate elearning development application. Now that I am not in the midst of a course project nor traveling, I have the opportunity to appropriately review Captivate as I have been itching to do. I was very happy when Captivate 3.0 broke cover last year, and I am glad 4.0 follows on so closely after, as it includes plenty of features to warrant its efficacy as a purchase over 3.0. Captivate 4.0 is not a minor step up; it is a much more robust piece of development software than even 3.0 was over 2.0.

Nature of the Review

I was able to give Captivate 4.0 a good test run while working last quarter's final project deliverables. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive review of every feature, nor is it intended to simply echo the high-profile items Adobe outlines on its website. What I want to convey in this review is a general report on the software and the quality of my experience using it on a project.


Captivate 4.0's interface is largely identical to that of prior versions, with the addition of a few new buttons and other assorted switches. The first improvement you'll find is the addition of several new options for starting a blank project, importing PowerPoint slides, or starting with a template. Some of these are in version 3.0, but they have been improved and added to here.

As with Flash CS4, Adobe has oriented Captivate's timeline to the bottom underneath the work area by default. I think Adobe is making this move to draw an ergonomic connection between the various timeline workflow programs in their lineup (Premiere, Flash, etc.). The timeline can be moved easily if required, though.

In the work interface with a project open, the new Send for Review button is a nice touch for those important peer-checks of work or SME reviews. This feature has been appended to the old Publish dialog, and has most of the settings of the other deliverable types. Adobe's website has a short video about this process and the use of Adobe AIR apps that can allow users without Captivate to add review comments to development files. I did not have a chance to test this hands-on this time around, but will certainly apply it in the future.

Adobe also makes available buttons that access deeper functionality without having to find them in dialogs. The Edit PPT button was particularly helpful, and allows you the option of exporting a flash movie of a single slide if you so choose. The view dropdown is also added for easy switching between storyboard, edit, and branch view without using menus. Overall, if you like Captivate's interface as it is, then you will like 4.0; if you dislike the interface, at least take solace in the fact that the interface is incrementally improved.

Content Creation and Editing

Last quarter's course project had me bringing in some Microsoft PowerPoint slides my client sent. Captivate 4.0's compatibility with Microsoft's latest .PPTX file type certainly helped extend the options available to me for developing the training content (I have Office 2007), and I was happy to see that while the PPT slide import process still takes a long time, it is quicker than in the past. If you wish to edit a slide from an imported PowerPoint file, Captivate will now open up a PowerPoint shell (not the whole application) long enough for you to edit the slide(s) or presentation. This is a nice way to modify your original without having to re-import anything or everything back into your Captivate project from scratch. Very good thinking here.

My project included Level 1 and 2 assessments at the end of the elearning portion, and Captivate continues to perform well here. I would however mention some difficulty in getting the quiz and survey to behave in the same presentation together. The results page for the quiz kept assuming control of the survey, thus throwing off the numbers and variable names, and making it likely that my reports would not be accurate reflections of student inputs. Perhaps I was incorrectly configuring my assessments, and that two can coexist in the same project; I fixed the problem via a bit of a bandaged fix in the end, but the automatic assumption of control by the quiz was one thing I wasn't able to resolve completely to my satisfaction. This is by no means a harsh criticism of Captivate's otherwise robust assessment and reporting capabilities however. They function quite well overall, and remain one of the cornerstones of the application.

What's the Most Important New Feature?

It would scarcely be possible to apply all of 4.0's new features in a single project, and I must confess my own was not quite of a design that warranted use of all the bells and whistles. For a quick synapsis of the new features, Adobe's Captivate 4.0 page highlights the big ones. I definitely made use of the new TOC aggregator feature that can be activated as a publishing option for a project. This option, found under Project > Skin Editor in the TOC tab, allows you to add an Adobe Presenter-style panel with slide titles and other info. The panel can be made visible or hidden, and makes for a nice compact tool for your end users.

The text-to-speech facility is also a major boon for us instructional designers that do not have audio talent available, and who may not have time to record our own narration. Adobe allows you to download voice packs that can then be chosen within Captivate. Then, just choose the slide, add the text to be read, and you're done. This is a very welcome feature that accomplishes a lot of work in a pinch, and it's very easy to switch voices quickly, though each slide with TTS must be reprocessed if a voice is changed. But you could mix things up and have a female voice on some slides, and a male voice on others. Very flexible.

It's not ideal of course, as TTS systems (including this one) often mispronounce words and misinterpret various constructions of text (aside from the robotic delivery), but the application is certainly better for this addition.

What About Stability?

I must admit that in the past, Captivate 2.0 and 3.0, while great for developing materials for my training interventions, were memory sponges and destroyers of CPUs far and wide. Additionally, I felt that those prior versions were quite buggy and inconsistent in their performance and behavior on systems of limited capability. The good news is that Captivate 4.0 is a significant improvement in this area. The new version made due much more readily with the hardware resources on my aged and aging PC. But the bad news is that Captivate is still a major soak on hardware resources, and it is best to have few other applications open while working in this latest Captivate. The combination of PowerPoint and Captivate open on my desktop PC was often too much for the machine to handle smoothly, so my workflow was broken up some by the constant fight for resources. I freely submit that my PC is long in the tooth so to speak, but Captivate as an application feels heavy in regular use, and I can't help thinking that it would function so much more efficiently if rebuilt from square one. It's more efficient now than ever, but that's not saying much, especially when compared to strong competitors like Camtasia and Articulate.

Reliability of 4.0 was also markedly improved over my experiences with prior versions. I could leave the software open for long periods of time while away, and I could work for hours with relative smoothness of program operation. Here I must also point out though, that 4.0 still suffers from some bugs, many of which I have been seeing since 2.0. Perhaps I am the only one that experiences performance issues with Captivate, but after having used versions of the software on a couple different laptops, and my home desktop PC that has copious hard drive space, two gigs of RAM, and a video card more than up to the task, Captivate 4.0 runs more slowly and more tediously than I had hoped. In particular I sometimes experienced a bug whereby a freshly loaded Captivate sensed that a prior session was still in operation, and thus refused to capture the screen due to the prior instance's still-running capture engine. Other bugs involved copying the contents of one file to another with two instances of the program open. It is probably not advised to run multiple Captivate instances simultaneously, but this makes moving and copying content over easier. Using the project merge feature wasn't quite what I needed either. Still other cases involved the configuration of various publish settings that for some reason did not take in the final exported deliverable. In my opinion, there are still many ways in which Captivate can be improved, particularly from an operations standpoint.

What's the Verdict?

There is little question that Captivate is a welcome (and timely) improvement on 3.0, and that it is a must-have upgrade for any training department. The vastly increased flexibility with button actions is one such reason. I have enjoyed the great number of new features Adobe has included, and Captivate is likely to be my primary elearning development environment going forward (though Articulate is quite strong as a competitor).

If there's only one thing I wish Adobe added to 4.0 (aside from a serious bump in resource efficiency and several bug fixes), it's the ability to have more than one Captivate file open in the same instance of the application. I'm not sure why this hasn't already been rectified, but it seems to be a pretty big gaffe in this day and age, even if the program has evolved a lot from its RoboDemo days. In the end, I definitely recommend upgrading to Captivate 4.0, as its added capabilities more than make up for the cost.

Was this review helpful? Let me know in the comments!


  1. about text to speech - "It's not ideal of course, as TTS systems (including this one) often mispronounce words and misinterpret various constructions of text (aside from the robotic delivery),"

    You could try this link for customizing text to speech pronounciations -

  2. Thank you for the link! I will definitely give that a look.