Product Review: SnagIt 10

Screen captures have become part of our computer culture… “I’ll send you a screen shot of the window so you can see what I’m talking about”.   Now it’s just part of the necessary pace of computer use.  If you need to take a quick picture of your desktop or a single open window, this is easy enough to do by pressing PrtScr or Alt-PrtScr and then pasting into an email or document.  However, if you produce any kind of documentation, learning manuals or publications; this aint gonna cut it.  Since Vista, Windows even offers a simple screen snipping tool in the Accessories group of the Start menu but it’s not industrial-strength.  I’m a book author and have been writing computer training material for several years.  Screen captures are a fundamental part of authoring and if they’re not done right, even good written work can look sloppy and unprofessional. 

I’ve been using TechSmith SnagIt for at least ten years and I will not use another tool.  I know that sounds like a commercial but I’m not on their payroll.  I’ve paid for the software licensing for years.  As a Microsoft MVP, I do get NFR copies of this and other software – whether I say good things about their products or not.  I’m continually impressed at just how much this simple application can do.  I’m not aware of another software development shop that updates their software as often nor as effectively as the folks at TechSmith. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a program as intuitive and elegant as SnagIt Pro.  Once I get rolling, I find myself taking screenshots just for the sheer enjoyment.  If I’m documenting a series of steps in a process, I can crank through the screen captures as I do the work with little thought about how to crop windows, where to save the files or how to name them.  Multi-window composites and fly-out menus are easy as pie.  I can include the mouse pointer, add drop shadows, separate the background, create torn page effects, add arrows, shapes, stamps and call-outs easily and with professional polish.  The new dynamic window selection interface rocks.  You just wave your mouse around the screen and SnagIt magically highlights different windows and objects for selection.  With a fully-evolved UI, many if the core features are accessible without fishing through menus and dialogs.  I love the auto-scroll targets that capture off-screen content – and one of my long-time favorite features is the ability to convert a block of on-screen bitmapped characters to text.

Having a software development background, I’m pretty critical about UI design and functionality.  Over the years as I’ve used older versions of SnagIt and have thought “it’s cool that it has this feature but I wish it worked a little differently”.  To my delight and amazement, in a subsequent release, that feature was improved.  I haven’t yet figured out where their mind-reading feedback feature is in the software but I’m not complaining.  Here’s one example:  If I need to capture a small portion of a window, in the past I had to place the little cross-hair pointer in the right location and as I clicked the mouse button to grab it, I might end up moving a pixel or two before the selection was made.  I thought “it sure would it be nice of there was some kind of zoom window or magnifying glass so I could work with more precision.”  Low and behold, guess what shows up in version 10?  I’m sure there’s a checkbox on a configuration screen somewhere labeled “read my mind and send feedback to TechSmith.”

Cleaning up goofs is easy as well.  Forgot to include the pointer?  Just add one.  Forgot to move the pointer off of a window?  Just remove it.  Aside from working with screen captures, the SnagIt Editor has become my tool of choice for basic bitmap editing.  It’s not PhotoShop but it’s a heck of a lot easier to use for quick fixes, composite image work and bitmap manipulation.  I haven’t opened MS Paint on my machine for years.  Now with transparency support, the editor really does have the whole enchilada for basic bitmap work.  When I start work on a new book or training manual, one of the first directions I give all the members of my writing team is to download and install the latest version of SnagIt Pro.  If you can get your work done within 30 days, it’s free but plan on shelling out the $50.  It’s well worth the investment.

Presenting at 2010 European PASS – Sort Of

I was so looking forward to the trip to Germany to speak at the European PASS Summit on April 22nd.  Two of my abstracts had been selected several months ago; a spotlight session titled “Cooking with SSRS”, based on our new Reporting Services Recipe book; and “Implementing a Self-Service Reporting Solution with SSRS”.  Unfortunately the fine people of Iceland decided to share some of their country with the rest of Europe in the form of volcanic ash and all of the flights in and out of western Europe were cancelled for several days.  At the last minute, the conference organizers arranged for 15 US and non-European based speakers to deliver their sessions via LiveMeeting and webcam.  Rather than enjoying Wienerschnitzel and the scenic Rhein, I had the pleasure of presenting my sessions from the comfort of my home office in Vancouver, Washington.

I woke up just after 1 AM Pacific time to deliver my first session (10:45 AM European time) to an audience of about 50 conference attendees in Neuss, took a nap and then dialed-in again for my second session at 6:30 AM.  Since I didn’t ever make the transition to European time, needless to say, I’ve been a zombie the rest of the day.

I’ll post video and my PowerPoint decks soon.  In all, I think both session went well.  The first session started a little late because Donald Farmer’s key note went about 20 minutes long.  Donald can get away with that.  Both sessions were well received and I had a lot of questions.

Demo’ing Report Builder in Low Resolution

I had one hiccup during the first session while demonstrating new features in Report Builder 3.0.  This application was designed to run in high resolution mode and even at 1280 x 1024 pixels, the dataset dialog is too big to fit on the screen.  Running at 1024×768 to match the projector resolution with an extended desktop over LiveMeeting, it was near impossible to get to the dialog controls and click the OK button.  I had practiced earlier in the same resolution without using LiveMeeting and was able to solve the problem by maximizing the window.  During the second session, I found a work-around by moving the dialog to the second screen on my extended desktop, resizing it and moving it back or just hitting the OK button on the second display – live and learn.  Let’s hope they don’t slaughter me in the evals for one small screw up.

Hitachi Consulting’s Announcement About by MVP Award

Being named an MVP this year is very exciting news for me.  As I was trying to come up with the right words for a post, Stacey Toevs, who maintains our corporate Intranet site created this feature article for a series and internal Hitachi Consulting initiative called “Be Known”.  I thought I’d share it with you here…

 Paul Photo small

Microsoft’s Newest Most Valued Professional

A rare honor was given to Paul Turley October 1: He was named Microsoft’s MVP in the SQL Server domain. The Microsoft MVP Award is given annually to recognize exceptional technology community leaders worldwide who actively share their high quality, real-world expertise with users and Microsoft. With fewer than 5,000 awardees worldwide, Microsoft MVPs represent a highly select group of experts and the diversity of today’s technical communities. “I believe there are only a handful of MVPs worldwide on the Microsoft SSRS reporting platform,” says Hillary Feier VP on the high tech products team. “This is a tremendous accomplishment, and having an MVP on our team demonstrates to Microsoft our commitment and expertise on their platform.” Paul has a very active blog that illustrates his willingness to share his expertise and help others – a key MVP requirement. “MVPs share a passion for technology, a willingness to help others, and a commitment to community,” says Microsoft’s head of customer and partner advocacy Richard Kaplan. “These are the qualities that make MVPs exceptional community leaders. By sharing their knowledge and experiences and providing objective feedback, they help people solve problems and discover new capabilities every day. MVPs are technology’s best and brightest, and we are honored to welcome Paul as one of them.”

It hardly makes sense to attempt to improve the thoughts of an all-star blogger, so we reproduce here some of Paul’s thoughts on blogging. For starters, Paul sees blogging as a natural progression in his career: “For me blogging is the next stage of technical community involvement. In the early 1990s, I was an independent consultant working at HP. I found myself doing a lot of Access and VB projects, where I got to know Access really well. To find answers, I would look on the public support forums and newsgroups, and while I was looking for answers to my questions, I read questions from others and realized that I had answers for them. Before long, I was spending more time answering questions and helping others purely in the spirit of service. After a couple of years, I guess I became somewhat of an authority on Access and was contacted through a forum to write a couple of chapters in a Wrox Press book. Nine years later, I’ve contributed to ten books. I started speaking at the SQL Server PASS global summit because I could attend the conference for free. Now I just enjoy being involved.

“Blogging is great fun, and it’s good for the core muscles – no, wait, that’s Pilates… I get confused. I’ve started and stopped blogging in the past but I didn’t really have a forum or a good reason to keep going. Hilary Feier challenged me to blog regularly and this gave me the traction to reach critical mass. Since March, I’ve had 3,330 visitors from 92 countries and I get regular email, which motivates me to keep at it.

“To come up with a solution for a technical problem, sometimes I just need to let it bake for a while and later some creative solution will just hit me. When someone asks me a question at a client site, in a training class or at a conference; I often tuck these things away in my mind. I love to help people but I can’t be responsible for fixing everyone’s problems. Instead of promising to get back to an individual and then forgetting, when I get a chance I’ll post a blog with the solution. I get a sense of closure because I was able to resolve some nagging problem but I didn’t have to meet a deadline or remember who to get back to.

“I get a lot of questions from people, mostly from technical people in the trenches – and a lot of them are from our clients and prospects. I’m not the only one at Hitachi that writes books or speaks at conferences. When I go to a client site, I see our books all over. When I go to a sales call with one of our DBDs, I often hear people say ‘I read your blog’ or ‘I read an article from one of your associates.’ They’ve already heard about us from multiple sources, and I think this gives us credibility over another consulting company they’re talking to.

“Like my Access forums work in the ’90s, I’ve spent a lot of free time more recently posting answers in the Microsoft Development Network (MSDN) support forums. Before long, they made me a forum moderator and then received the MVP designation. In the past five years, I’ve been focusing my energy on SQL Server Reporting Services and BI. It’s important to build relationships. When we were working on the first Reporting Services book in 2003, I took the Microsoft product team leads out to lunch. Now I can pick up the phone or get email replies directly from the developers. I do a lot of this off of company time but when I write, present at a user group or speak at a conference; I always make a point to let people know who I work for. I’m there because of the smart people I surround myself with. You can’t volunteer because it will get you noticed or promoted. You have to do the right thing for the right reason. But, in making the effort, good things happen.”