DVD Authoring: Issues for Newbies
and Reviews of Consumer Products

by Roger MacBride Allen

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  Table of Contents

Introduction
What You Need But Might Not Get
What You Don't Need But Might Get
Systems Issues
Notes on the Reviews
Reviews (See Links to Entries at Right)
Conclusions
 

 

Introduction

I am very new to the ways of creating DVDs, and to the software used to create such DVDs -- but what I've learned so far is worth passing along. What follows below is a discussion of what I have learned about the general requirements for consumer-user DVD-Authoring software, and specific reports on various software packages that I have tried out.

I will also be posting a review of the disk burner I purchased -- the Sony DRX-500ULX -- and some brief notes on other issues you'll need to consider before you get started burning your own disks.

These reports, with two exception, are all based on trying out demo packages of one sort or another. (The exception is MyDVD, which shipped with my new Sony DRX-500-ULX, and Nero Vision Express, which I purchased.) Generally speaking, these demos let you try out all the features of the product, but only work for a limited time, and/or only allow you to do a limited number of projects, or projects of very limited length, before they shut down. However, the demos were all good enough to allow me to do a fairly good evaluation of how well the product worked, and what it could and could not do.

The process of fiddling with all of these products also gave me some useful insights into the features you'll want in a DVD-Authoring program. The features that the authoring program offers have a very close direct relationship to what features you'll be able to include in the final DVD. Do you want to include multiple menus? Background music? Custom background and layouts? If so, you will of course want a software package that allows you to create those features, quickly and easily. (We'll talk about what features to watch for in detail a bit later.)

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What You Need But Might Not Get

Many of the programs we'll examine severely limit the user's ability to include some of the most basic features. Many of these limits seem entirely arbitrary -- program A includes features 1, 2, and 4, but leaves out or cripples feature 3, while program B has a very slick way of handling 3, does 2 and 4 all right, but flat out doesn't include any way at all to let you make a DVD with feature 1.

There are also features that none of the authoring systems discussed below have. None of them will allow you to do five languages of subtitles, or seven different audio tracks, such as the assistant to the assistant producer's overdubbed commentary track. However, the average citizen is unlikely to have the resources to prepare subtitles and three lip-synced languages in the first place.

That being said, there are very basic features that ought to be do-able -- such as selecting where on the screen you want to place menu text -- that are either missing or drastically limited in many of these products.

This, I suspect, is a symptom of consumer-level DVD authoring being a very young product category. The programmers and the marketers are still flailing about, trying to figure out what the users need and want, and also what the programmers know how to do.

But it is also a bit baffling that so many of the various programs have worked so hard to idiot-proof their products to such a degree that they have placed their users in straitjackets. (Here I use that metaphor to suggest the user is severely confined -- but some of these program could also drive you nuts.)

After all, anyone sitting down to burn a DVD is likely to have used a video camera and a video editing program, and quite possibly has installed the DVD burner for himself or herself. Furthermore, just about all of the products we'll look at required some sort of tweaking or driver upgrades or other techno-fiddling before I could get them to work properly.

In other words, the likeliest users at this stage of the game are tech-savvy early-adopters -- and yet most of the programs seemed to be aimed at the newbie point-and-shoot user.

From where I'm sitting, at any rate, anyone savvy enough to install and set up one of these programs will likely have the same experience I had: he she will all but instantly bash his or her heads up against what seem to be wholly arbitrary limitations imposed on the program so as not to intimidate the sort of techno-newbie user who wouldn't have the confidence, experience, or skills to try the programs in the first place. Go figure.

There's a flip side to this: the early adopters are already out there, writing specialized video utilities to do this and than, writing guides and manuals and posting them on the web, explaining VOBs and demuxing and who knows what to each other. This community is a valuable resource -- and it doesn't have much patience for the dumbed-down approach. See the page on general notes and comments for more on this.  

Herewith, a few notes on specific features that just aren't there with many programs.

First and foremost, menu flexibility. Nearly all of these programs include some sort of templates for the menus on your DVDs. That's all well and good -- but many of them have templates that are about as flexible as reinforced concrete. We'll discuss the specific limitations as we look at the various programs -- but this was my number-one gripe with many of the programs.

Direct capture, in which the authoring program burns a DVD straight from your video source, without saving the data to your computer's hard drive first, is another important feature. This is especially so if you've running Windows 98 or ME, which limit you to a file size of 4 gigabytes. Four gigs sounds like a lot, but it only takes about 20 minutes of AVI video to get a file that big.

DVDs save video in the compressed MPEG format, in effect wrapping the MPEGs inside other files called VOBs. (Honest, I'm not making this stuff up.) What this means, so far as the direct capture issue is concerned, is that you can get about one to two hours of video on a DVD, depending on about a zillion variables.

The downside of direct capture is that you can't do much about designing the disk or setting chapter points once you're done. However, there is a slightly sneaky way around this. You can use programs like SmartRipper or DVD Decrypter or TMPGEnc (links to all of these can be found at www.dvdrhelp.com) to "rip" the VOBs into to MPEGs which you can save on your hard drive, and then use those MPEG files to create a fully authored and chaptered DVD. That's the long way round the barn, but it saves you from having honking huge AVI files that overwhelm your hard drive.

Did you follow all that? Neither did I, but let's move on.

Chapter Titling was either limited or missing on some of these programs, meaning that there was no way to describe what the viewer was going to see.

See the section below on What You'll Wants Your Disks to Do for more discussion of specific features you'll want.

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What You Don't Need But Might Get

Oddly enough, there are several features you really don't need in a DVD authoring program, mainly because you probably have programs that will do them already, and also because those other programs will likely do them better.

First and foremost, you don't really need a DVD authoring system that will actually burn your disks. If you have a DVD burner, it almost certainly shipped with software that will do the burning just fine, or else you can reach for Ahead's Nero Burning ROM, or Roxio's Easy CD & DVD Creator, or any of the other stand-alone programs for this job. They will almost certainly do a better, more consistent job of disk-burning than whatever afterthought of a burning program is bolted to the side of your DVD authoring software. The third-party programs like Nero or Creator will be more flexible, provide better error-reporting, likely get more frequent DVD-burning bug-fixes, and be more stable. More than likely, third party packages will also allow you more options -- such as burning multiple copies of the same disk.

Using a third-party disk-burning package has another advantage: it allows you to eliminate a variable, and thus it helps you troubleshoot disk problems. If you always use a reliable third-party disk burning program, and if a particular disk doesn't work, you'll know it isn't the way that the disk was burned that's caused the problem.

Using a third-party burning program is no really big deal. All of the DVD authoring packages allow you to write the directories and files for your DVD to your hard drive. All you do then is tell your stand-alone burner software to read those directories and files from the hard drive and burn them to a DVD.

In similar fashion, you likely don't need a package that includes any sort of video-editing software, because you probably already have that as well. If you bought a video capture card, for example, that likely shipped with editing software.

Furthermore, a movie editor that comes bundled with a disk authoring program (that, perhaps, was itself bundled with a disk burner) is not exactly likely to be cutting-edge, top-of-the-line, latest-version software. It's more likely a truncated version of last year's model. Likely it's going to be pretty clunky. Many of the bundled video editing programs are keyed in some way, for example such that they will only work with a particular DVD burner or video card. If you switch burners or cards, you're stuck, and might have to shell out for the full retail version of the program. You don't want to be married to a program (with a video project half-way done in its native format) that can turn around and bite you that way.

There is no need to confuse the apple of movie editing with the orange of DVD authoring. As we'll see, there are drawbacks to integrating these two tasks too closely in a consumer product.

Another thing that maybe you don't really need as part of your DVD authoring software is the capacity to convert files from various formats to the ones your authoring software likes best. Why not? Two reasons. One, a number of the programs I tried out were very fussy about the files they would import, and sneered at files that seems all right to other programs.

Why does that happen? Well, the various formats that a DVD authoring program might deal with all have about a zillion possible variables -- frame size, bit rate, audio encoding, etc. Get one fiddly detail wrong (or have your video editing software that writes the file set the variables the way it wants without giving you any options) and you could be out of luck. Your DVD authoring software might choke on this or that aspect of the file and not load at all.

One way to solve this is to run your completed video files through a stand-along program that (a) can handle a sufficiently wide variety of variants to the standard formats and (b) gives you sufficiently fine-grained control so you can bash your files into precisely the proper format just before you import them into you DVD. To put it another way, here again a specialized third-party program is likely to have more flexibility and precision than whatever file-conversion utility was duct-taped to the side of your DVD authoring program. And, here again, if you have a precision instrument that you are confident will generate files that are fully compliant with the requirements of the DVD format, you have once again eliminated a possible source of error, and also eliminated the file format as a source of whatever other problems do crop up. If you know your files are in exactly the right format, it's not the file's fault if the authoring program crashes.

The second reason for using external programs to do this sort of encoding and transcoding is that converting takes a long time. If that hunk of time takes place while you're in the midst of editing, you could spend hours sitting there as your computer is zizzing along through your file, leaving you to stare at a progress bar that gets bigger very slowly. On my system, which is really too slow for heavy-duty video editing and DVD authoring, transcoding a fifteen-minute AVI movie file to MPEG or m2v format (don't worry about the alphabet soup just yet) takes something like four hours. I usually just start the thing going before I go to bed, and come back to a finished conversion after breakfast. Another way to go, if you have a home computer network, would be to copy the files to another computer and let that box work on the file conversion while you use your primary computer for something else. When the conversion's done, you can just copy the outputted file back to your main computer.

(Note to self re above: it would be nice to get a faster computer.)

Other thing you likely won't want or need but will likely get are the ability to burn VCDs and SVCDs. These disks are for putting somewhat lower-resolution and shorted movies on CD-Rs and CD-R/Ws burned to these semi-standard formats. Some, but not all, DVD players can handle such disks. But if you've got a DVD burner, there really isn't any reason to waste your time making lower-quality disks that fewer players will be able to use.

Various of the programs will also do slide shows, burning whatever electronic still images you have to a DVD for presentation. This is a nifty feature if you use it, but it's not the focus of this review.

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What You'll Want Your Disks to Do

But let's get back to the features you'll want in your DVD-authoring software. Two key issues in evaluating such programs are their ability to handle menu-building and setting chapter points. In fact, aside from actually writing the file that will be burned to the disk, those two functions are the primary task of an authoring program. Let's review briefly why they are important.

A typical DVD disk has an opening menu of some sort that the user can use to select which movie to watch (if there's more than one on the disk), and, if desired, a way to flip from one chapter to the next of the movie. Many DVD disks have additional features beyond menus and chapters, but let's not worry about them just yet.

Some DVD players will "remember" where you are in a film even with the player turned off. My present player does lots of other nifty tricks, but it doesn't do that one. That means I have to start over from scratch every time I turn off the player and then, later, return to the same film. (Our household has a four-year-old in it: it's rare that I get to watch a film in one go.)

For this and related reasons, a strong chapter structure is very important to good DVD design. With properly presented and clearly titled chapters, a user can quickly blip to wherever he or she wishes to go in a film. Without chapters, there's nothing for it but to grind through the film using fast forward until you get to where you are--and the fast forward on some players is not all that fast.

So, you want a DVD-authoring product that allows you to set and to name chapter points easily, and one that allows you (or even helps you) structure the DVD's menus for easy and efficient navigation.

A typical DVD holds something like 90 minutes or two hours of video (the number varies depending on who you listen to, how hard your authoring package works at compressing the files, and/or how your video and audio are encoded). It is highly unlikely that your home movies are going to be that long. Once you've edited out the incredibly dull parts, ten or fifteen minutes would be a more likely length for a home movie. It would therefore make sense if your DVD authoring program made it possible to add multiple movies to a disk. (Fortunately, all of the programs I have tried can manage this much, at least, though a few found ways to make it a little unwieldy.) The program should also allow you to select the behavior you want when a given movie ends. Does the DVD return to its main menu, or proceed directly to the next movie on the disk?

The standard way to present a menu is to show a reduced-sized video frame (usually called a thumbnail) from each chapter in question. Usually you'll want a brief title for the chapter, and perhaps a chapter number as well. Alternately, you might just have a text description of each chapter. It's tough to include more that six or eight thumbnails on a screen, so you unless you have no more than that number of chapters, you need a way to page through multiple menus of chapters. Your authoring software should be able to manage this for you as well, adding the proper navigation buttons (i.e., next, previous, main menu) as needed to the menus that it generates.

You will also want to be able to select the image presented on the screen to represent each chapter. Ideally, you should be able to select any frame from the movie, or any custom image or text you might what to insert.

A minor issue would be the ability to add "special features" of one sort or another. For the most part these will be other movies, or perhaps slide shows of still pictures. A special feature movie is just going to be a movie under a separate menu, so that's as much a menuing issue as anything else. Setting up to create a slideshow is another issue, but not one that I have zeroed in on much. I will note some of the products that have this feature.

You might (or might not) want motion menus, which might include a moving background image, and/or thumbnails that include moving action. Motion thumbnails will typically consist of something like 15 to 60 seconds of video without sound lifted from each chapter, looping over and over again while the menu is displayed. The moving background might be from the movie, or a separate video clip, and might or might not have its own soundtrack. Ideally, you want to be able to select the video loop presented for each chapter. However, it would be nice of the took at least take a stab at selecting the frames for you -- for example if it just grabbed the first X seconds of each chapter.

You will also want at least the option to include an audio background, which might or might not be synchronized with a background moving image. You'll want to be able to do an audio loop even if you use a still image for your background.

Most of the authoring programs we'll look at will require all of the looping material--video background, audio background, and motion thumbnails-- to be the same length. It might in theory be possible to set up a 12-second loop for the audio, a 3.5 second loop for one thumbnail, and a 83.2 second loop for another, and a 23 second loop for the background, but that way lies madness. (Though, as we'll see, one program, DVD-Lab, allows just such madness.)

Sound and motion elements can pep your menus up a lot -- or be intensely irritating. You'll want to use these tools judiciously -- but you'll want to have the option of using them or not using them as you see fit. You don't want a program that decides for you.

You also want to be able to customize as many elements of the menu as possible. You'll want to be able to move type elements around, place the thumbnails and menu elements where you want them, choose how the menus link together, and select the design elements yourself. That's what you want. What you get is another matter. Many of the programs discussed below have extremely rigid, cookie-cutter menus, with extremely limited opportunities for menu customization.

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Systems Issues

In fairness, before I go further, I have to note that I am trying to do all my DVDing on a relatively slow machine, with only reasonable amounts of memory, running Windows 98 Second Edition. By all accounts, my setup is very much trailing-edge any sort of video editing or DVD-authoring work. Furthermore, I have a lot of software installed on my system, upping the odds that some whacky driver from some unrelated bit of software is interfering with the various bits of DVD software. Probably at least some of the problems I have encountered would go away if I were working on a faster machine running Windows XP, and, better still, if it was a machine dedicated to video-editing and DVD work, without 97 other drivers and bits of oddball software on it.

One other note is that many of these programs are developing rapidly. In two months or so I have been teaching myself the ways of DVD authoring, MyDVD and NeroVision Express and NeoDVD have each released one new version, and DVD-Lab has gone through about four beta versions. Things change fast.

All that being said, the various manufacturers all claim that their software will run on a system like mine, and I think my situation provides a good real-world test of the programs in question. If they'll run on my system, they'll run on just about anything.

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Notes on the Reviews

Okay, I couldn't resist. I rated the programs on the basis of one to five disks. These rating are based on the program's ability to do the things I am interested in, as described above. The program might do just fine for someone else who is looking for different things from DVD authoring than what I want, but if you've read this far, you're likely interested in making about the sort of disks that interest me. In such case, these reviews should be a pretty fair guide.

You'll note that nothing earns five disks -- none of the programs was absolutely perfect. A disk with an X through it means a rating of zero disks, and one with a question mark means it could not be rated because I couldn't get it to run.

As regards pricing: I have listed a price for each of these products, but often not the price. Lots of these programs you can get (or can only get) by downloading from the website. Others are available at third-party retailers of one sort or another, and many of them come bundled with someone else's software or hardware. (Many software packages intended for such bundles wind up going for cheap on Ebay. So far as I can tell, these are usually completely legit, and just about always more or less legit.) A product might be described as a $100 value, and then sold for $29, and included in a bundle of similarly "priced" software so the marketing weasels can claim that your $200 burner comes with "over $500 in software!" Shop around.

So let's get started slapping around the software. God knows most of the programs deserve it.

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MyDVD 4.04

Sonic
www.sonic.com
$79; often bundled

The major offender, so far as I am concerned, was MyDVD 4.04, which shipped with my drive. In short, the damned thing does not work. Even if it did work, it has some really annoying "features" and limitations that would earn it a downcheck, so far as I am concerned.

What Sonic MyDVD is supposed to do is DVD authoring, that being the term for assembling the movies, special features, etc. that you want on your DVD, creating menus, chapter marks, etc, and then burning the whole magilla onto a DVD.

There are, no doubt, those for whom MyDVD did all those things, but I am not among them. MyDVD allowed me to assemble videos into a simulated DVD, and include a few fairly nifty bells and whistles -- but it delivered almost nothing but goose eggs when it comes to burning disks.

Out of the box, the burning feature flat-out didn't work with the Sony burner that it came with. Instead, when I tried to burn disks, I was favored with the cheerful message

"Could not complete the last command because: invalid stream file type (DVDErr, -19931)"

Awfully helpful, n'est pas? After a lot of digging at the MyDVD website, I learned that there was no real clear explanation of this error, (apparently because about 47 different error conditions could produce it) and that it could be caused by a whole shopping list of problems, most of which might be solved by not using this or that feature of the software. A vaguely related bug report suggested that going to the new firmware might help--and it did, more or less. In any event, that error message went away, and my next attempt to burn a disk failed in an entirely different way. And, for what it's worth (which isn't much) the failure was partial, rather than complete.I managed to burn the disk all right, and it played via the PowerDVD DVD playing software that shipped with the Sony burner -- but it failed in our stand-alone player, and failed in an odd way. The main menu (and its audio background) played for about one or two seconds, then the player locked up altogether. I had to shut the player off and turn it back on again just to get the disk to open.

So it was back to the drawing board. MyDVD a has feature that allows you to "burn" the files to your computer's hard drive. I did such a burn, and took a look at the result. I found a lot of files and directories that weren't part of what a standard DVD seemed to have. Leaving out those extraneous files, I used Ahead software's Nero Burning ROM program to do the actual burn of the DVD -- in other words, I used Nero to copy the needed directory and files to the DVD-R.

That worked, and gave me a DVD-R that fired right up in our TV's DVD player. But it sure was the long way round the barn.

But even putting to one side that the program didn't do the basic thing it was supposed to do -- burn a usable DVD -- MyDVD had additional flaws, having to do with how it builds menus.

MyDVD is (so far as I know, and I sincerely hope) the ONLY DVD-authoring program with the following character flaw: You can't do chapter marking at all, unless you use the capture feature to pull in video from a camcorder. If you have an existing video file you want to do chapters on, you're out of luck.

Nor is the capture mode any great shakes -- or much of a solution to the chapter-point insertion problem. You have to sit there, watch the movie and select the chapter points on the fly, hitting the space bar for each one. Don't miss or change your mind. If you decide after the capture to edit the video in the companion editing program -- you lose the chapter points. Nor does there seem to be any way to move the chapter points, so be sure to get them right on the first try. For what it is worth, at least it is possible to name each chapter.

As discussed, another basic feature for DVD authoring is the basic layout of the menu screens--where the title goes, what fonts to use, and so. MyDVD's range of pre-fab styles is extremely limited, and it's pretty tough to break out of the cookie-cutter. You can select a new background image (which can be pretty much whatever image file--JPGs, GIFs, etc.) you have lying around, and you can drop in whatever background audio you like with only a little effort. And you can monkey with the font style and color. But, for example, you can't reposition the title so the words aren't covering the eyes of someone in your background. You can't let the menus and chapter stack vertically instead of horizontally. You're locked into their choices as to presenting the chapter or video menus. The program decides how the menu items will be positioned. You don't get a vote.

In theory, you can fire up PhotoShop to create a from-scratch template for your menus, but that seems awfully elaborate to me. (In fairness, this seems to be a fairly standard approach for menus in the world of authoring software.)

One bit of good news is that MyDVD did generate motion menus pretty smoothly. In a normal menu setup, each movie or chapter is presented by a frame from the film. In the animated mode, you can have a loop of up to 45 seconds of each movie or chapter repeat itself, over and over.

MyDVD does provide a pretty slick system for setting up slideshows. I did not test this feature extensively, but it did a good fast job of importing images, and allowed for background audio for each image -- though it looked as if you had to pre-record the audio outside MyDVD, rather than speaking into a mike and saying "this is me with the fish" as you were running the slideshow.

MyDVD does allow capture direct to a DVD as discussed above.

I had to sweat and strain and do some complicated work-arounds to get MyDVD to do its job. At the end of the day, I got a DVD with fairly nifty motion menus, but no chapters, and felt very stuck with having to live with their menu templates. No matter what I did, I wound up with text over my son's face in the still image I wanted for a background.

Sonic is just starting to release the 4.52 version of MyDVD. I sure as hell hope the jump from 4.04 to 4.52 represents bug fixes, because I don't see a hell of a lot new in the features department.

MyDVD ships with Showbiz video editing software, which I have not had much occasion to try out. It seems like an okay program, but the program I have (Pinnacle Studio 8) does what I need. I can report that Showbiz managed to make MyDVD crash at one point -- but I have no idea whose fault that problem was.Maybe it's just me, but my sense is that anyone with sufficient technical savvy such that he or she could make movies and burn DVDs is going to find the limitations of MyDVD extremely frustrating right out of the box -- and the bugs in the programs likewise, with stars on top.

The really appalling news is that many of the alternatives I've tried so far aren't much better. Some are worse.

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NeroVision Express

Ahead Software
www.ahead.com
$24; new version to be bundled with Nero 6.

The one that feels most like beta-version, not-ready-for-the-public software is NeroVision Express, from Ahead Software, the makers of Nero Burning ROM (usually just known as Nero). Note: A new version of this progam is now bundled into Nero Version 6. I have not reviewed that version.Unless the new version causes the release of toxic gases from your DVD burner, it almost has to be an improvement over 1.04.

NeroVision Express 1.04 is an add-on to Nero, and not a stand-alone program. It uses Nero to actually burn the disk, though the user doesn't see the Nero interface. If you have Nero already, for $24, NV-E will get you DVD authoring capability. More or less.

Version 1.04 has the clunkiest user interface of all the systems I have tried, it and often choked and locked up, causing large sections of the screen to turn into blocks of very strange colors. The DVD+R/W disks it produced caused PowerDVD to lock up. Even given that it takes a lot of time and processing to prep a disk for burning, it was slow to work through the process. While it allows for setting chapter points and chapter naming, it does not allow for background audio or any sort of motion menus. I could find almost nothing to recommend this product -- and I shelled out good money for it, too.

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NeoDVD

MedioStream
www.store.mediostream.com
$39 to $59.

NeoDVD (trial version tested) has a much more stable interface that NeroVision Express, costs about the same, is a stand-alone product, runs a lot more smoothly--and does about as little. It doesn't do chapters in a video, and does not allow for motion menus or background audio on the menus. And it has one particularly infuriating flaw: it uses the first frame of your movie as the display frame for it. If your first frame is black, it picks the first non-black frame. You are offered no alternatives. NeoDVD suggests a lame way to fake chapter points: If you want three chapters, import the same video three times, and set the start and end points for each copy so as to present the beginning, middle, and end. Brilliant. Make sure to set the start and end points to exactly the right frames.

If all you want to do is transfer a video from tape to DVD with no muss, no fuss, very little control, and precious little in the way of features, NeoDVD will do the job--and, for me, at least, without the glitches and crashes and headaches of MyDVD or NervoVision Express. If you want anything in the way of control over your menus, you'll want something else. NeoDVD has shipped a new version since the far-off days about eight weeks ago when I downloaded the demo version herein discussed. However, at least according to the promo material on the web site, not a great deal seems to have changed.

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TMPGEnc DVD Author

Pegasys, Inc.
www.pegasys-inc.com/e_main.htm
$68 or $99 depending on bundle optionsl

One intriguing program is TMPGEnc DVD Author from a makers of the highly regard convert-to-DVD-format program called (here's a shock) TMPGEnc. I have more to say about TMPGEnc in another article. (Here's one completely arbitrary opinion: these guys might write good software, but they need to work on snappier names for their products.) You can get TMPGEnc and TMPGEnc DVD Author together for $99 if you download. By themselves, TMPGEnc DVD Author goes for $68, and TMPGEnc for $48. (Technically, TMPGEnc is free, and can be used to write unlimited MPEG-1 files -- the $48 buys you an unlock code that will let you write MPEG-2 files. MPEG-2 is what you want for DVD.) You can spend more on the boxed versions, if that's your idea of a good time. You can download fully functional trial versions of both programs and use them for 30 days.

TMPGEnc DVD Author has an austere, efficient-seeming, almost clinical user interface. It has much more of the feel of a technical system, rather than being festooned about with "friendly" features than often seem to do little more than get in the way. It comes with seven templates for menu creation, but these can be fairly extensively customized insofar as fonts and backgrounds are concerned, though the position of elements is pretty rigid. There was no discussion that I could see regarding the creation of your own templates, or any place to download more, but presumably it is possible, if one digs hard enough and deep enough.

One caveat: this program wants to see MPEG files (and certain variants of MPEGs). It doesn't want AVI files, or any other format. As it is closely related to one of the leading MPEG encoders, (and you can buy the two bundled together) this makes a certain degree of sense.

TMPGEnc DVD Author has a highly precise system for setting chapter points, and it allows the user to select any frame in a given chapter as the thumbnail for the chapter selection menu. Instead of allowing the user to select the background music for the menus independently, it requires the user to select an MPEG file for the menu background image, and picks up the audio from that MPEG file as the menu background. I wanted a still menu and audio, so I used Pinnacle Studio to create a 45-second still title with an audio background. Still, it would be nice if the work-around weren't necessary.

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PowerProducer 2

Cyberlink
www.gocyberlink.com/english/index.jsp
30-day demo available.
$40

PowerProducer is from the makers of PowerDVD, one of the best-known software programs for playing DVDs on a computer. In theory, at least, that suggests they know something about computers and DVDs--and the programs bears that out. It offers a large degree of flexibility to the user in terms of menus and labelings and so on. It does permit motion backgrounds and motion thumbnails. In short, it allows just about all the features I view as being useful, many of which are limited or altogether missing from the competition.

However, its interface has just a wee bit too much of the "we know what's good for you" attitude for my tastes. Although there was a lot of opportunity to modify things, PowerProducer's interface made me feel as if my project were on a conveyor belt, rolling past each stop to get the next thing done, assembly line fashion. I also felt that a number of tasks were done in a very counter-intuitive way. In fairness, there are good odds that a lot of the frustration I felt with this package was a result of having to run the program on a very slow machine -- a box even slower than my "fast' machine. I would certainly recommend that you download this program and at least give it a try. My objections were in large part a matter of personal preference, and might all evaporate if I ran it on a faster computer.

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DVD Complete

Dazzle
www.dazzle.com
(but see note at end of entry) $99 (but often lots cheaper on Ebay!)

I tested Dazzle DVD Complete in a demo mode, and managed to put together a short DVD in no time at all. It blows the doors off MyDVD, NeoDVD and NeroVision Express, and adds a number of bells and whistles not found on Power Producer. Everything that is clunky, limited, or inflexible about the other programs -- the chaptering system, the degree of control over menus, the program interface -- is simply lightyears ahead. It was able to crank out a disk for me with no muss and no fuss, and the interface was clear and direct.

Another nice thing about it was the balance it struck between automation and doing things via wizards, while allowing a great deal of customization. The wizards and menus created a rough draft of the disk, and then stepped back and let me tweak things as much as I wanted.

The one very annoying glitch was that, at least on my system, DVD Complete was very picky about what MPEG files it would deign to accept. It sneered at most of the MPEGs generated by other sources. It would report that the video had errors in it, and would just show a black screen with a file of zero length for such files.

However, it dealt smoothly and happily with AVI files, and converted these to MPEGs with no trouble (though taking some time to do-- about 12 minutes to convert a five minute video.) It also did video capture with no trouble.

This problem dealing with less than ideal MPEG files, or not-quite-right files in other formats is no big deal if you are using DVD Complete to do your capturing, or if you are using AVIs. However, if you're working with existing and less-than-perfect MPEG files, you might be stuck. If you've done all sorts of fancy editing in a video editing product, and the file only exists on your hard drive, you really have problems.

One solution might be to export such videos to your DV camcorder, and then re-capture them back to DVD Complete directly from the camera. Another way to go would be to use TMPGEnc or some other encoding program to get the files into exactly the right format in the first place.

One thing that's a trifle murky regarding DVD Complete is the version that's available. The Dazzle website lists a "standard" and a "deluxe" version, but it seems as if they are only selling the deluxe version, for $100. It seems as if the standard version was what was bundled with various products, in the hope that you would upgrade to the deluxe. There are a few other minor bells and whistles, but the main additional things you get with the deluxe version are the ability to add overtures (short films that start up and can't be stopped when the DVD is put in the player--usually a studio Logo or some such) and motion menus, as discussed above. I'd spend the extra little something to get the deluxe version.

DVD Complete also goes much further than any other program in generating -- even auto-generating -- DVD labels, covers for your DVD box, and other printed material to go along with your DVD. This is pretty nifty, and the program is pretty smart about adding the material while letting you be overriding and editing its choices. It's a definite plus if you're eager to do snappy labels and so on for your projects. Certainly a DVD in a classy box with photos from the movie and menus and so on would make the product more saleable -- and/or a more impressive gift.

Sad update dept: It would appear that, for the moment at least, DVD Complete is no longer with us. Pinnacle Systems seems to have bought Dazzle, and then dragged DVD Complete out behind the barn and put one right between its eyes. Translation: they aren't selling it anymore, and offer current users an "upgrade" (more like trading an apple for an orange) to Studio 8. Find yourself a copy of the standard (or better still) deluxe version while you can. There are often copies available on Ebay, either in software-only packs, or bundled in with some sort of video capture device. DVD Complete was developed by a company called DVDCRe8, which basically licensed it to Dazzle. It would appear they are trying to get the rights back. If you visit DVDCre8's website, you'll be able to check on the status of this effort, and also add your email address to a list so you can get updates on this matter.

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Studio 8

Pinnacle Systems
www.pinnaclesys.com
about $70 list.

I really like this program -- just not for DVD Authoring.

Studio 8 is a very snappy video editing program. I used Version 7 to edit my home videos, and found it smooth, intuitive, efficient, and that it did all the things I wanted done. The big item that version 8 brings to the table is disk authoring. However, its authoring features are nothing much to write home about, mainly because they are too tightly integrated into the video editing system. I should also note Studio 8 users seem to have a love-hate thing going with the product. It has worked just fine for me, but there is a lot of moaning on the user forums and various spots on the web about it being unstable and crashing a lot. I have not had that experience.

As regards DVD authoring. All the other programs assume that your movies are complete by the time you get to the disk authoring part. Studio 8 handles disk authoring as part of the process of each movie, and therein lies the problem. If you have four different edited movies you want to put on one disk, Studio 8 seems to require that all four be imported into one uber-movie. (Probably the easiest way to do this would be render each completed movie into its own AVI file, and then import the AVIs into the uber-movie. This would save you having to bring in the various cuts, fades, etc.) The end result will be one disk, one movie. Once the movies are all merged, you can set up chapters, menus, sub-menus, and what have you, and the chaptering system works just fine.

Studio 8 uses its very sharp and slick built-in title editing module to generate the menus and so forth for your disks, and it does a good job of managing chapter points and motion menus and so on, but then the program treats your DVD menus like the first scene in the movie, at least for editing purpose. You can easily end up editing the movie and the DVD design at the same time, slowing down both jobs. It's an awkward arrangement. After I thought I was done, I kept finding minor tweaks to make to my movie, which meant I had to update the menus that linked to them.

I should add that other improvements made the upgrade from Version 7 to 8 worthwhile even without the DVD authoring feature.

The one disk I tried to make using Studio 8 failed to play in my set-top DVD player, and, for the time being at least, that served as the last nail in the coffin of using it for authoring purposes. I can see circumstances where I might try it again, and I can see there might be people in situations where using Studio 8 for burning might be the best way to go, but as a general rule I'd advise otherwise. My conclusion: Use Studio 8 for what it's really good at: editing video. Use some other tool to move its output to DVD.

Other Pinnacle Products
Pinnacle Systems makes other DVD authoring and copying products that either are over budget for me, or else that I have not been able to review.. Pinnacle Edition runs for about $600, and is basically a lowish-end professional product, and not aimed at the home user.  Pinnacle Impression costs $199. It supports multiple audio tracks and subtitles. Pinnacle Expression goes for about $50 retail and is commonly available for less on Ebay. It does basic video capture and disk authoring, as well as label creation. I'd like to get my hands on a copy to evaluate it.

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Ulead DVD MovieFactory

Ulead
www.ulead.com
$45

Two strikes and you're out: this one would not load after install. Since the described features didn't seem to include most of the features I'm interested in anyway, I didn't try too hard.

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DVD-Lab 1.3 beta 2

Mediachance
www.mediachance.com
$79 intro, then $99

Now we come to DVD-Lab which brings a totally different approach to the idea of DVD Authoring. If NeoDVD and MyDVD are something like the old Windows Paint program, where you could doodle for a while and produce a BMP image of crude lines and boxes, then,in terms of flexibility and complexity, DVD-Lab is something closer to PhotoShop. If NeroVision Express is Notepad, DVD-Lab is Word. It can do a lot more -- but you have to learn a lot more.

It's more powerful, but by the same token, it is far more daunting than any of the other programs discussed. And, fair to say, it is not quite as mature as some of them in terms of stability. The first release was version 1.1, and the current release is still officially a beta. It is also fair to point out that, as best I understand it, the company Mediachance is one Slovakian programmer working from him home in Ottawa, Canada. (His real name is Roman, but he prefers to be called Oscar.) The one-man-band approach gives you software that is very much hand-crafted (and this is a slick, fast, sharp-looking program) but it also means a certain fragility to customer support or program development. It also means that the English-language documentation has slightly scrambled syntax, though, for the most part, it is perfect understandable.

Taken all in all, what this means is that this is slightly riskier software to invest in -- but it is so much more sophisticated and flexible than any of the other packages that you may well find the risks worthwhile.

While it does have somewhat limited "wizarding" built in, this is much more of a blank-sheet-of-paper system, as opposed to the cookie-cutter, wizard-based, fill-in-the-blanks procedures seen in many of the competing products. The other products run you through something like an assembly-line process, where you do one task after another in a very structured manner. That is by no means the case with DVD-Lab.

The learning curve on this project is higher, but is not insurmountable. I was able to follow the brief tutorial and bang out a project without much trouble.

DVD-Lab will do menus with background audio and motion menus, and then some. Basically, you need to create the videos for the motion menus and motion thumbnails outside DVD-Lab (in your video editing program) and then do a fairly simple drag-and-drop to put them into your menus. You can, if you wish, have every one of this clips a different length. This is a bit fiddly, and does require some additional prep work on your part. It would be nice if the program could self-generate these elements, but then, you'd loose the absolute control over everything which is the whole point of this program.

There are, however, two or three big notes, on related topics. One is that you're pretty much going to be forced to get the $40 TMPGEnc program or some other encoder. DVD-Lab does not do any sort of conversion, such as AVI to MPEG. It wants to see files in very specific formats, and you'll need TMPGEnc or something very much like it to convert your existing video clips into the appropriate video and audio formats. Most of the other programs will settle for other formats, such as AVI, and do the conversions themselves, but, like TMPGEnc DVD Author, DVD-Lab wants video in MPEG-2 format that conforms precisely to DVD specs, or, better still, the video in m2v format and the audio in AC3.

As a consequence, you'll probably have to download some utilities you've never heard of before, to do conversion you've never heard of before. For example, BeSweet converts sound files to the AC3 format. You've never heard of AC3, but it is what DVDs (and DVD-Lab) prefers to use for sound tracks. You might also want to get Goldwave 5 (www.goldwave.com), an audio-editing program that, among other things, can extract the audio from a AVI file and convert it to a WAV file, which can then be transcoded to AC3. Huh?

That brings me to my second related point: You're going to have to jump in at the deep end, just a bit, learning a bit about such things as AC3, m2v files, muxing and demuxing, and other such mysteries. There's some voodoo to learn. For the most part, you can usually just do what I have mostly done, and follow the cookbook instructions without knowing 100 percent what I am doing.

Part of the price of using a program like DVD-Lab, that can do more, is that you have to do more. Part of the price for having control over just about everything in your DVD is that you'll be doing some more file converting.

The third point is that you must include the costs of these additional programs into the budget of your project. Using DVD-Lab more or less will require you to get something like TMPGEnc and something like Goldwave. Budget about $45 for each. Fortunately, many other utilities (such as BeSweet) are free.

A manual on the program is available in the form of a PDF file from www.digitalshowcase.biz/DVD-lab_UserGuide.html. Price US$15.00. I'd check and be sure the manual is no more than a version or two behind the program before I bought it.

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DVD Junior

Authoring Ware
www.authoringware.com
$99
demo version available

For the sake of completeness, I will mention one other package which I did not get to use. It crashed the first two times I tried to get it to read a MPEG file, and I gave up on it. I suspect that this program was looking for a more powerful computer than I have, and I am sure I was not able to give it a fair test.

It might well be worth examining, as it does allow for multiple audio channels (in other words, English, German, French, Commentary, etc.) as well as multiple sub-titles. Various other of its features seemed pretty high-end. I just couldn't get the thing to work.

This program might be some sort of strip-down of AuthoringWare's professional DVD authoring program. (Hence the name "Junior." It's hard to tell, that or anything else, from the website. AuthoringWare appears to be a very small shop, and, to be diplomatic about it, it is clear that English is not the native language of whoever wrote the documentation. The website, program interface, and documentation all seem to cross the line that divides austere from cryptic. Still, I found the program intriguing. If and when I ever get a powerful enough box to really try serious DVD editing and authoring, I'll likely give it another try.

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Conclusions

I'd better quit now, as these programs are coming and going and upgrading so fast the above report will likely be out of date even before I can finish typing this conclusion. (Sure enough -- DVD-Lab just announced the forthcoming version, DVD Complete is no longer available, and NeroVision is now bundled into Nero 6 with a new version.)

I'll close with a word about work flow. One thing that my explorations have taught me is that, at least in the under $100 range, looking for a complete all-in-one product is probably a mistake. No one program in this range can do all the tasks required, and do them all well. Instead, the programs that claim to do it all tend to do very well at one part of the process, while skimping a lot on the others.

Use you video editor to capture your video and edit it. Output your work from that program to AVI files. Them let TMPGEnc or some other stand-alone encoder convert the AVI to MPEG files. If you want to split your video and audio files (as some people advise) extract the audio portion of your AVI files with other shareware and freeware files, and get the audio into AC3 format, which is the standard for DVDs. (Other audio formats might work -- but why not use the standard and be sure it will work?)

Only after you have your finished MPEGs and/or audio files, then use DVD Complete or DVD-Lab to author the disks. Finally, burn the disks with Ahead Nero or some other stand-alone disk burner.

In other words, use each program to do the job it does best. That will help you do your job better.

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