Last week Gregg Pollack from the Rails Envy Podcast put out the call on Twitter for reviews of their latest product, the Ruby on Rails 2.2 Envycast. I was happy to oblige and had been looking forward to checking out their unique take on screen casting for a while. Here’s what I thought.

Is it really a screen cast?

Firstly, I don’t even know if it’s correct to call it a screen cast. The viewer is not presented with a computer screen once during the 44 minute presentation. Most screen casts record the presenter’s computer desktop and have an audio commentary to accompany the video. Gregg and Jason have instead gone the “weather-man” approach and are using a green-screen as their canvas. This has some immediate benefits, but also has some downsides.

It develops the duo as the “face” of Envycasts. I first learnt of them through their audio podcast but they’ve done video before. I think this is important as it presents a teacher-student situation, and I’d expect there’s a bunch of psychology proving why face-to-face teaching succeeds. I think it works well for them, but would expect that other tech-screen casters might not be as comfortable in front of the camera.

The green-screen also allows them to manipulate the background as they see fit. For the viewer of this episode that means you’ll be treated to a world tour as they “travel” to various capital cities around the globe. It allows them to use their unique style of humour with ease too. I actually laughed out loud at a few moments, and enjoyed thembeing chased by the large ball of yarn in particular.

More importantly though, the green-screen also means that transition effects and attention-grabbing techniques (like exploding or rotating text) can direct your attention to the exact part of the code they’re discussing.

By not filming a mouse-cursor style screencast they’ve chosen to give up the opportunity to pass on subtle information outside of the scope of the specific topic that viewers might find useful. What do I mean? I’ve picked up on keyboard shortcuts or other techniques people use in their day-to-day programming by watching traditional screencasts. The best example I’ve found of this is Ryan Bates’ excellent Railscasts. I liken it to looking over the shoulder of a seasoned developer – you’ll pick up on nuances which are sometimes just as interesting.

Both Gregg and Jason speak clearly and are presenters that I enjoyed viewing. As an Australian, I didn’t find their accents overpowering in anyway.

It’s all about the content

The actual content is conveniently split into chapters (I viewed the 260MB MOV) which makes navigating between topics easy. I viewed the video on both a MacBook Pro laptop and 42″ plasma. I found the colours sometimes a little dark on the laptop but didn’t have the same issues on the plasma display. I suspect that my colourblindness was to blame :)

I would have appreciated a wide-screen format for the plasma, though I presume that the majority of viewers are watching on a computer screen.

The content is broken into the following seven sections:

  • ActiveRecord
  • ActiveSupport
  • ActionPack
  • ActionController
  • Railties
  • Internationalization
  • Performance

The 38 minutes (85%) are spent focussing on the code-heavy components which make up the changes to Rails 2.2. The examples given are very clear and consistent across the sections and I found the afore-mentioned transition effects helpful at tracking the exact part of the code the presenter was discussing. Your eyes are drawn to the moving parts of the code. Because you’re looking at Ruby code there’s nothing that will hurt your brain, or eyes.

The last few minutes in the presentation are spent discussing the other things that have changed with Rails 2.2 in details beyond just code examples. I enjoyed Jason explaining why gems are preferred over plugins, and Gregg’s explanation of etags and how they’ve changed in Rails 2.2 was fantastic.

Wrapping up

I was skeptical that this format would would for a such a technical topic but I’m glad to say they boys pulled it off. Their lame jokes are sometimes actually funny, though I think I’ve heard enough about Rails not scaling to last me a lifetime :)

My final thought: above all else they jammed a stack of detail into an easily-digestible format that was entertaining and informative. If you’re working with Rails then you really should be checking this out.

You can buy this Envycast along with the accompanying PDF online for just US$16, which even when you consider the current global economic situation is still a steal.

Disclaimer: The Frontier Group was provided with a free copy of this Envycast for review.