SolutionBase: Creating video tutorials with Windows Media Encoder

Sometimes, it's easier to show someone how to do something rather than writing instructions or explaining over the phone. In this article, Greg Shultz explains how to create your own video tutorial using Windows Media Encoder.

As a technical support professional, you know how time consuming and frustrating it can be to try and instruct someone on how to perform some task in an existing piece of software or in operating system while talking to them over the phone. You can never be sure if the person with whom you're speaking really understands the actions that you're describing to them. Nor can you be certain that the person is actually performing the steps accurately.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just send them a video tutorial that answers their questions while demonstrating the exact procedure? Sure it would, but creating such a video tutorial would be a monumental and costly task, right?

Actually, it's a lot easier than you might think when you use the Windows Media Encoder from Microsoft. And best of all it's free!

In this article, I'll show you how to install and use Windows Media Encoder to create your own video tutorials. As I do, I'll point out a few tricks that you can use to your advantage when creating video tutorials.

System requirements

As far as system requirements for installing and using Windows Media Encoder are concerned, all you need is a current Pentium or AMD CPU and at least 64MB of RAM. While Windows Media Encoder will work with any video card, I've discovered that a decent video card with at least 128MB of RAM yield a better looking video.

You can install and run the Windows Media Encoder on Windows XP or Windows 2000. However, both operating systems must be running DirectX 9.0 prior to installing Windows Media Encoder.

To find out what version of DirectX your system is running, use the built-in DirectX Diagnostic Tool, which you can launch from the Run dialog box. To do so, press [Windows]+R, type Dxdiag in the Open text box and click OK. Once the DirectX Diagnostic Tool loads, you'll find the version information at the bottom on the System tab.

If you need to upgrade DirectX, you can download version 9.0 from the Microsoft Download Center. Just follow the onscreen instructions for the Genuine Windows Validation procedure and to begin the download. Once you've downloaded the Dxwebsetup.exe file, locate the folder to which you saved the file and double-click the executable to launch the Windows DirectX Setup Wizard.

Getting and installing Windows Media Encoder

Downloading and installing Windows Media Encoder is actually easy. Just point your browser to the Windows Media Encoder 9 Series page. When you arrive, don't let the fact that Windows Media Encoder is at version 9 even though Windows Media Player is at version 10 throw you for a loop. At the time of this writing, version 9 is the most current version of Windows Media Encoder and it works with Windows Media Player 9 and 10.

Keep in mind that Windows Media Encoder 9 Series is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. However, for the purposes of this article, the 32-bit version is all that's necessary. As such, just click the Download Now button and follow the onscreen instructions for the Genuine Windows Validation procedure and to begin the download.

Once you've downloaded the WMEncoder.exe file, locate the folder to which you saved the file and double-click the executable to launch the Windows Media Encoder 9 Series Setup Wizard. Then just follow along to install the Windows Media Encoder. When the installation is complete, you'll find the Windows Media Encoder shortcut on the Start menu in the Windows Media folder.

Planning your tutorial

Like any presentation, creating a video tutorial with the Windows Media Encoder begins with advanced planning and preparation. The planning will allow you to create an efficient and polished looking tutorial.

Since you'll be presenting a series of steps that the person viewing the tutorial will use to perform some task, your advanced planning will consist of knowing exactly where the menus, dialog boxes, and settings are before you begin. That way once you begin recording you can smoothly navigate from one area to the next as you perform the task. Not only will this result in a tutorial that's easy to follow, it will also result in a much more conservatively sized video file.

For example, I recently developed a video tutorial to help end users who were having difficulty keeping the cut, copy, and paste keyboard shortcuts straight when managing files and folders. While using [Ctrl][X], [Ctrl][C], and [Ctrl][V] for file management is second-hand nature to us old timers, it's really not very intuitive. As such, I developed a video tutorial that showed users how to take advantage of Windows Explorer's Move To and Copy To commands.

Thinking that I knew the operation inside and out, I proceeded to record the video tutorial without any advanced planning or preparation. As I navigated my mouse pointer from one place to the next, I paused a couple of times as I looked for the next stop. As I did, my mouse pointer wandered bit before moving on. While this type of hesitation is perfectly normal when you're performing the operation in your day-to-day activities, it looked kind of sloppy in the video tutorial. After I practiced the operation several times and then recorded the operation, the video tutorial was much smoother looking. You can download this sample video tutorial, MoveTo-CopyTo.wmv, if you want.

Now, keep in mind that you don't really want to be a speed demon racing your mouse pointer from one place to the next. Rather you want to use very determined, but fluid movements.

Narrating your video tutorial

Windows Media Encoder has the capability to record audio from a microphone attached to your sound card. This will allow you to add narration to your video tutorial.

In order to get the audio recording to be as smooth sounding as possible, you'll want to run a couple of sound checks in advance of the actual recording operation. By sound check I mean that you'll want to want to make a few tests of just speaking into the microphone to make sure that it is working correctly and that it is placed within the correct distance to ensure an optimal sounding recording.

To perform the recording tests, you can use Sound Recorder, which you can find on the Start menu at All Programs | Accessories | Entertainment. Alternatively, you can launch it from the Run dialog box by pressing [Windows][R], typing sndrec32.exe in the Open text box and clicking OK.

Keep in mind that narrating your video tutorials will take a lot of time both in the preparation stage and in the actual recording. If you've seen any of the Bloopers shows on TV, you know what I'm talking about. However, if you write out a script with a very conversational tone and practice it along with performing the task before actually recording the video, you should be able nail it down after a few attempts.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the compression that Windows Media Encoder uses when creating the actual output file will slightly distort the sound of your voice. However, it will still be audible.

Recording the tutorial

Before you actually begin recording your video tutorial, have the application or task that you'll be demonstrating ready to go. In my example, I had Windows Explorer open and ready to begin my demonstration.

As soon as you launch the Windows Media Encoder, a dialog box titled New Session will appear on top of the Windows Media Encoder window and essentially prompt you to select one of the available wizards. To get started, select Capture Screen, as shown in Figure A, and click OK.

Figure A

The New Session dialog box prompts you to select one of the available Wizards.

When you see the first page of the New Session Wizard, you'll be prompted to select the portion of the screen that you want to capture, as shown in Figure B. Keep in mind the following caveats as you decide which option to choose.

Figure B

When you select Screen Capture, the New Session Wizard will provide you with three ways to define the capture area.

If you select the Specific Window option, the Windows Media Encoder won't capture any other windows that appear as you run through your task. If you select the Region Of The Screen option, any part of a window or dialog box that falls outside the defined region will be cut off. If you select the Entire Screen option, your system may run a bit sluggishly as you record the video and you'll end up with a larger file.

In the case of my example video tutorial, all the action is going to occur in Windows Explorer, so I selected the Specific Window option. Make sure that the Capture Audio From The Default Audio Device check box is selected and click Next.

The next page that the wizard displays will depend on what part of the screen that you chose to capture. In the case of this example, this next page will prompt you to select the window you want to capture in the video, as shown in Figure C. If you want to see the window demarcated as you record the video, you can select the Flash Border During Capture check box.

Figure C

Because we selected the Specific Windows option, the next page prompts us to identify the windows to capture.

On the next page, you'll simply be prompted to provide a name for the output file, as shown in Figure D. To continue, click the Next button.

Figure D

Of course, you have to provide Windows Media Encoder with a file name for the video tutorial.

When you see the Settings Selection page, you'll have three options to select the quality level that you want. Since in a video tutorial explaining how to accomplish a certain task, you want the viewer to be able to clearly see what is happening as well as to be able to read the screen, you'll want to select the High option, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

To get the best looking video possible, select the High option.

On the Display Information page, shown in Figure F, you'll have to opportunity to provide what essentially amounts to documentation. Keep in mind that this information will not be displayed in Windows Media Player unless the captions are enabled.

Figure F

Optionally, you can add documentation information to your video tutorial if you wish.

When you click Next, you'll see the Settings Review page and can double-check your settings. To continue with the actual recording step, select the Begin Capturing Screens When I Click Finish check box, as shown in Figure G, and click Finish.

Figure G

To get started right way, select the check box before you click Finish.

You'll now see the confirmation dialog box shown in Figure H, which basically prompts you to confirm the recording operation and informs you that once the recording has begun, you can pause the recording and return to the main Windows Media Encoder window simply by selecting its button on the taskbar.

Figure H

This confirmation dialog box provides you with a few last minute instructions.

As soon as you click OK, the Windows Media Encoder window minimizes itself and you can begin narrating and demonstrating the task. When you're done, click on the Windows Media Encoder icon on the taskbar and the recording will pause. You'll then see the Windows Media Encoder window and can click the Stop button on the toolbar.

After you click the Stop button, you'll see the Encoding Results dialog box and can click Play Output File. When you do, Windows Media Player, or whatever media player is set as the default, will open your video tutorial and you watch it.

When you return to the Encoding Results dialog box, you can either click Close to end the recording session or you can click New Session if you want to start over the re-record your video tutorial. When you click New Session, the wizard will appear again.

If you wish to record another video tutorial on a different topic, you should begin by clicking the Properties button on the toolbar and selecting the Output tab. Then, in the File Name text box type a new filename before you click on Start Encoding. If you don't provide a new filename, you'll overwrite your first recording.

Rolling out the video tutorial

Because the Windows Media Encoder save its files in the Windows Media Video (WMV) format, your video tutorial is very easy to distribute as many media players in addition to Windows Media Player can play the WMV format. As such you can attach the WMV file to an email message in which you instruct recipients to save the attachment to the hard disk and simply double-click the file to run the video tutorial.

Some tricks and tips

As you can see creating a video tutorial is a pretty straightforward procedure. However, there are a few tips and tricks that will save you time and frustration


If your video tutorial will show the Windows desktop, you need to keep in mind that using wallpaper on your desktop will appear distorted and can be distracting to the viewer. As such, you'll want to disable the wallpaper.

Desktop themes

Fancy desktop themes will also appear distorted and be distracting. As such, you'll want to use the standard windows theme.

Color palette

Some video cards offer an astonishing number of colors for the color palette. However, I've discovered that using some of the higher-level color palettes caused both recording and playback problems. I found that 16 bit or 32 bit color palettes work just fine.

Screen resolution

When you record a video with Windows Media Encoder it not only records your actions, it also records the current screen resolution of the computer. What this means is that if you record a video on a system that is using a screen resolution of 800x600 and then play it back on a different system that is using a screen resolution of 1024x768, the movie will play back in a window that is 800x600 in size and will be very readable. However, I've discovered that the reverse isn't always true. That is if you record a video at 1024x768 and then play it back at 800x600 the video could be distorted. As such, it a good idea to stick with a screen resolution of 800x600 when recording a video.