Review: Sonic MyDVD 4 Video Suite
Posted Aug 12, 2003

America's most famous distance runner, Steve Prefontaine, tormented his coaches throughout his career with his tendency to "front-run," or attempt to win races by leading wire-to-wire. While the leading spot in a track race may seem an enviable position, it often puts a runner at a disadvantage, strategically. First there's the mental exertion associated with setting the pace; second, where wind is even the slightest factor, it leaves no opportunity to "draft" off runners ahead of you, or use them to fight the wind so you don't have to. Plus, planting yourself just behind another runner allows you to watch him for signs of exhaustion, react to his subtle shifts in pace or effort, and choose the moment to make your move. "Pre" steadfastly refused to run behind anyone, insisting it was cowardly. Immensely popular with fans (on a smaller scale, he attracted scads of new fans to the sport like Tiger Woods to golf), and marvelous to behold, Pre set American and collegiate records in multiple distance events with his front-running style, but it cost him dearly against more talented runners and sophisticated strategists in international competition.

Sonic Solutions has adopted a front-running strategy in multiple DVD authoring races over the last several years. They have dominated the high-end Mac authoring market with Creator since Day One; took the lead on the Windows NT side with the Daikin Scenarist acquisition in February 2001; and created the first high-visibility products in the corporate and consumer sectors (essentially inventing those as discrete markets) with the introduction of DVDit! and MyDVD, respectively.

When MyDVD debuted in November 2000, "consumer DVD authoring" was not what it is today. DVD recorders were too expensive and scarce to open up the market to consumers, and entry-level tools too few and far between to give those seeking a casual acquaintance with DVD creation much operational access to the technology. Most DVD production activity was still done on the high-end, or the near-high-end with tools like Impression and Sonic's own Producer. Today, by contrast, sub-$300 recorders abound, they all ship with one consumer tool or another, and most of the action in DVD authoring—at least in terms of new involvement with the technology, and new entries to the software market—is happening at the low end, with the constant proliferation of entry-level tools. "DVD authoring" has also diversified to accommodate different types of applications; if "parental controls" have failed miserably on the playback side, parental interest has swelled exponentially on the authoring side, with all manner of quick-and-easy documenting of weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and soccer games enriching or sullying, depending on how you look at it, DVD's ever-broadening palette.

More than any other tool, those ingénue DVD authors are using Sonic MyDVD, typically the bundled version of MyDVD 3.x that ships in virtually every recording package under the sun, DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW alike. Sonic also offers a fuller-featured version with video editing capability and more—in its latest version, which shipped in September, the MyDVD 4 Video Suite. This carefully sets the pace for entry-level DVD creation, combining ArcSoft's fun and featherweight ShowBiz digital video editing tool with a number of new and nearly new features keyed to the consumer DVD creation scene: a pleasant palette of backgrounds, Sonic's proprietary OpenDVD option for straight-from-disc editing, and new slideshow tools guaranteed to subsume yet another piece of personal nostalgic indulgence into the DVD world—or, as Sonic puts it, "Your Life On DVD."

Exchanging Pleasantries
MyDVD 4 opens with a straightforward "Welcome" screen that greets the DVD-author-to-be with three options: Create or Modify a DVD-Video Project, Transfer Video Direct-to-DVD, and Edit An Existing OpenDVD Disc. Most of the exciting elements of the software are accessed via options one and three; option two keeps things nice and simple, which is good, since nice and simple is exactly what the intended MyDVD 4 audience wants. In more cases than not, I expect, capture-store-and-burn will get the job done, and that's just what MyDVD will do. Options are limited in the Direct-to-DVD segment of the MyDVD Wizard. For example, chapter points may only be added during capture, either by setting time intervals or by clicking the space bar and inserting chapter breaks on-the-fly. Once capture is completed, you'll face the usual rendering hurry-up-and-wait, menu-building, and finally DVD burning.

Option one from this Welcome screen takes you into the menu creation, clip-trimming, style selection, custom title creation zone, where most of the nifty features of MyDVD 4 come into play. Option three enables you to edit an existing disc that you've previously authored and burned in MyDVD via some fascinating proprietary Sonic technology—more on that later.

While Direct-to-DVD represents the no-frills end of the spectrum (although the technology that enables it is pretty solid in and of itself), the Create and Modify path is where you get to add complexity to your title. In many cases, that path to complexity and customization will start with—or detour into—ArcSoft ShowBiz, the consumer video editing software that ships with the Video Suite.

Your Life in ShowBiz

The MyDVD Video Suite ($79) features the essential tools you'll need to take your video assets from tape to DVD, including capture, editing, menu creation, and recording. Of course, you can jump in at any point, depending on where your assets are—if they're already on your hard drive, that obviously eliminates the capture stage—and how much you want to edit your clips. I started from scratch with the Capture feature in ShowBiz and quickly had a nice clip album in front of me replete with clean and sharp video and audio. Like most video editing tools, ShowBiz has Storyboard and Timeline modes for video editing, adding transitions and effects, and the like. I also did some testing with video I'd already captured to my external hard drive as DV-quality AVI files. When I imported them into ShowBiz, it gave me several options for scene detection sensitivity, each of which naturally produced different results.

The real fun happens once you've got your clips in the album, have dragged a few into the Timeline, and started applying ShowBiz's seemingly never-ending assortment of goofy transitions and effects. I particularly enjoyed the "TV" selection, with its Coney Island mirror-like options, and the option of adding flames to a video clip should please just about anyone. This stuff won't necessarily play all that well with the corporate crowd, but that's not really ArcSoft's target audience—nor, presumably, Sonic's in bundling the ShowBiz tool.

I put together a nice little video project in ShowBiz, mixing and trimming an assortment of clips in the Timeline, adding effects and transitions from all over the map, and replacing most but not all of the original audio with soundtrack music. (ShowBiz gives you the option of adding a second soundtrack on top of the original audio or muting the original so the added soundtrack is all you hear.)

ShowBiz is neither as powerful nor as versatile and level jump-worthy as Pinnacle Studio 8, nor as seamlessly integrated a DVD authoring tool when used in conjunction with MyDVD 4. Nor is it as aggressively and purposefully consumerized as Roxio's Movie Creator ( And in terms of conduciveness to DVD authoring, there's simply nothing quite as editing-to-authoring-effective here as Studio 8's right-in-the-Timeline approach. On the other hand, the products aren't direct competitors, although they might be soon. Choosing Studio 8 means choosing an editing tool, and working to some degree with a Timeline and video editing interface in every project. MyDVD doesn't require any of that, enabling users to go straight to DVD much more quickly without messing with any video work, and adds ShowBiz to the Suite as an ancillary component, for those who want to dig deeper into the editing side. As such, they'll be glad to have it.

Your Life Nears DVD

To export your project from ShowBiz into MyDVD and turn it into a DVD, simply open up the "Make Movie" pull-down menu from the button on the left side of the screen, select "Open MyDVD Project," and after you've saved your project (a lengthy process), MyDVD 4 will open, and you'll be able to work with it in the MyDVD Create or Modify window. (This process also works in reverse, as you can take a clip back to ShowBiz from MyDVD 4 if it needs more advanced editing.)

Here you can add submenus, chapters, styles, and more to your video project. Click on Edit Style and within this window, you'll be able to choose from Sonic's theme-driven template backgrounds ("School Pictures," "Globe-trotting," "Halloween," "Birthday Kid," etc.) or customize your own (it's as simple as finding an image or video file and clicking on it); choose from background music Sonic provides or add your own soundtrack from audio files on your hard drive; select fonts for title and button text and button styles from the myriad options Sonic offers; decide how you want your menu loop to run; and choose animated or non-animated buttons. It couldn't be a whole lot simpler, and keeps the focus squarely on ease-of-use and entertainment.

Back in the main Create or Modify window, you can also trim your clips as you choose (in many simpler projects, this will reduce or eliminate the need for editing in ShowBiz) using a scrollbar to set start and endpoints. You can also select the frame you'll use as a thumbnail in the main or submenu from which your users will access the clip. Simply click on the button in the menu to access the clip and trim as needed.

You can also add a slideshow (by clicking "Add Slideshow," no surprise)—a key feature of version 4 that Sonic expects to add a popular new dimension to consumer DVD. Again, very simple, and much in keeping with the style of Sonic's extremely straightforward interface (consistency between windows is a hallmark of this version). Much as you click Get Movies to import video clips in the previous window, in the Slideshow GUI, you click Get Pictures to import your stills. Here you can also customize your soundtrack, vary transitions, and instruct MyDVD to time-out your slide duration to match the length of the music you add. One particularly useful feature of the Slideshow component is that MyDVD adds an archive of your slideshow to the ROM portion of the disc, so you (or someone you send your DVD to) can choose pictures from the slideshow to print, open the archive from the DVD on your PC, and print at will.


Another effective use Sonic makes of the ROM portion of a disc happens behind the scenes with the implementation of their patented "OpenDVD" feature. This ingenious bit of technology saves project information on a disc in such a way that once you've burned a project to disc, viewed it, and found areas you'd like to tweak or change, you can do so working entirely with material from the disc. This feature can be extremely helpful to users who may not have saved or kept their project files handy on their PCs and want to make minor changes to the menu style or organization without having to start again from scratch. Of course, if you need to go back to your original video files, or access any other content that's not used on the DVD, you're out of luck unless you've kept those assets accessible as well. OpenDVD is a particularly good match with rewritable media, since its near-mate "Edit-on-DVD" essentially lets you redo your original efforts entirely within the recording, reading, and quick re-recording of a single disc. The other caveat of Edit-On-DVD is that you have to have burned the disc as a Sonic MyDVD project originally, which guarantees OpenDVD compliance, essential to the re-editing process.

To access the Edit-On-DVD feature, you simply insert the disc, click Edit An Existing OpenDVD Disc in the initial Welcome screen, and MyDVD will re-open the disc as an editable project.

The Direct Approach
One of the keynotes of MyDVD and other entry-level DVD authoring tools is transparent transcoding of DV-quality AVI files to MPEG-2 and direct burning of the compressed, encoded files to DVD. Sonic claims real-time capability in this regard, as do mediostream (with neoDVD) and other direct competitors.

I didn't achieve this with MyDVD on the testbed PC, but then again I haven't accomplished with any other tool, some of which claim "faster than real-time" transcoding. I'm willing to attribute this to the relative sluggishness of the current testbed, which at 1.5gHz is admittedly getting a tad long in the tooth. In an early 2003 issue, equipped with a new 2.4gHz PC, I'll try it again, and see of I can prove Sonic and their competitors right, and furthermore, who's real-time is really the fastest.

Looking Backward
While there's nothing here that warrants particular attention from professional DVD authors, departmental, corporate, and up, that's far from Sonic's intention in positioning and fortifying MyDVD with its growing feature set. Sonic has plenty of tools scaled to higher levels of DVD authoring activity, from DVDit! to ReelDVD to Producer on up.

In many cases, downscaling DVD authoring from the earliest, highest-end tools has been a reductive process, stripping away the features that drove up costs, added unwanted complexity, and demanded prior knowledge and skill rarely found in the tool's target demographic. This approach had mixed results, often resulting in less feature-rich but no more accessible or effectively positioned tools. Fortunately, MyDVD spurns that approach, knowing its audience and aggressively pursuing it, starting simple in earlier versions and adding features and capabilities, exploring new avenues and taking consumer DVD authoring to places strange and new for DVD, but with proven appeal in other media, slideshows being a particularly well-chosen example. So far, it seems, with the MyDVD 4 Video Suite, Sonic's front-running strategy is working just fine.