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Mike Riley

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Envycasts Advanced ActiveRecord Review

August 31, 2008

DCT readers of my posts know how interested I am in the power of vidcasts, especially ones that fully engage the viewer. I recently received an invitation from Gregg Pollack of Envycasts, to check out their new Advanced ActiveRecord vidcast.  And the verdict is...

This vidcast is simply awesome!  I have never been so engaged, entertained and effortlessly educated in any previous technical screencast as much as I was watching hosts Gregg Pollack and partner Jason Seifer banter, trash talk and sincerely engage in what could otherwise have been a very dry textbook subject.  Envycasts approach to learning is to inject extremely high quality production value into the product, way beyond anything else I've seen in the application development training market.  From the Keystone Learning System videos to the latest Pragmatic Screencasts I've recently reviewed, none yet match the production polish of this Envycast.  I would go as far as saying Gregg and Jason have compiled a product that matches the AV production quality seen on some PBS broadcasts.  Yes, it's that good.

The subject matter, summarized on a colorful PDF accompanying Envycasts download options, covers expert ActiveRecord data interrogation and optimization techniques such as loading multi-million row data sets, data caching, polymorphic associations and single table inheritance and concludes with a brief mention of recent additions to the Rails 2.1 release destined to make Rails development an even more satisfying experience.

The key differentiators of Envycasts compared to its competitors are the incorporation of green screen to deliver a weather report-style presentation, graphic embellishments, animations, and focal positioning flourishes.  The energy, enthusiasm and impact that the hosts convey in their facial expressions and body language really make the presentation come alive beyond static portraits or postage-sized corner video of hosts that I have seen in numerous other vidcasts.

These two presenters know their subject matter through real-life experience and convey their recommendations with style and panache.  Gregg delivers the majority of the screencast's content with Jason occasionally stepping in to deliver sardonic wit, punchlines or summaries.  They are both naturals in front of the camera, though Gregg is a little more so which may explain why he does most of the talking.

Readers may recall my earlier glowing review of Dave Thomas' Ruby Object Model and Metaprogramming Pragmatic Screencast.  What elevated my assessment of his screencast was Dave's skilled oration combined with interesting, relevant subject matter.  Gregg and Jason's Envycast has matched parity with Dave's affable speaking style, and considerably raised the bar on presentation quality.  It is going to be painful to watch another vidcast that offers substandard production value now that Envycasts has reset my expectation level of what a vidcast should be.

Like its competitors, Envycasts offer their video files for download in several popular non-DRM-encumbered formats including Quicktime mov, Theora ogg and iPhone/iPod-friendly m4v's.  While the video quality is a bit grainer and has a few more compression artifacts compared to Envycasts' more entrenched competitors, Envycast's presentation flair more than makes up for these minor imperfections.

While Envycasts has a lot going for it, there are a few areas of concern.  This is a new endeavour for the Envycasts crew on the emerging video content package "delivery-by-the-tubes" scene.  As such, Advanced ActiveRecord is their premier and only offering to date.  While the crew does intend on expanding their library, the amount of post-production effort that must have gone into this excellent first release will likely hamper the rapid release of more titles any time soon.  One reason for the expanding volume of competing screencasts is in part due to the ease and low cost and quick turn-around time of which they are to produce.  Make a slide deck, populate an editor with code, fire up the screen recording application and press the record button.  In contrast, Envycasts have clearly written a script, storyboarded the shots, created support graphics, recorded multiple green screen sessions and then merged these graphics sound effects and special effects using a production-quality non-linear video editor and distilled them into final mix for their deliverable.

Lastly, while their quality is appreciated, the purchase price of their vidcast is nearly twice as much compared to their competition.  It's easy to reason why, but in a market that has yet to establish a consistent value for this kind of educational format, Envycasts risks limiting their market potential to a small contingent of hardcore Rails developers ready to spend any amount of their (or their employers) money on the topic.  Other potential buyers will likely be several of Envycasts' competitors so they know what level of quality they have to attain with future vidcasts to meet the new expectations of paying customers.

Overall, I found the content and presentation thoroughly educational, entertaining (even the somewhat corny, unrelated 'memory' interludes), and wanting more.  I highly recommend any Rails enthusiasts with a few bucks to invest in a different approach toward attaining advanced Ruby on Rails skills to check out this terrific presentation.  I'd love to see what the Envycasts crew could do with an Advanced Django-related vidcast!

Envycasts Advanced ActiveRecord
Produced by Gregg Pollack
Presented by Gregg Pollack and Jason Seifer
Running time: 37 minutes
Price: $9.00US

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