Corporate DVD Authoring: The Software Roundup
Posted Feb 1, 2001

With the professional market for uncompromising authoring systems nearing saturation, today's generation of tools targets the broader potential of corporate DVD authoring. For the majority of corporate titles--for training, kiosks, promotions, and presentations--these tools have most of what you need for a lot less money.

February 2001|When EMedia reviewed DVD authoring tools through a series of articles in the spring of 1999, the available solutions boasted thorough DVD functionality, but also prohibitive five-digit price tags. Thankfully, the cost of creating DVD-Video discs has changed dramatically. While you can still pay a lot for top tools, several products now deliver all but the most exclusive features without busting budgets or confusing the process with complicated interfaces.

With the professional market for uncompromising authoring systems nearing saturation, today's generation of tools targets the broader potential of corporate DVD authoring and range in price from about a hundred dollars to just less than $1500. Admittedly, if you need features like region coding, parental control, or copyright protection, these tools may not cut it. But, for the large majority of corporate titles—for training, kiosks, promotions, presentations, etc.—they have most of what you're likely to need for a lot less money.

Here we review five such DVD authoring tools from Daikin, Intec, Multimedia Technology Center, Sonic Solutions, and Spruce Technologies. Two products—Spruce's DVD Virtuoso and Intec DVDAuthorQuick LE (Light Edition)—are feature- reduced versions of higher-end authoring tools that retain the user interfaces of their older and pricier siblings. A third, Sonic's DVDit PE, goes in the other direction by adding features to the early standard edition of DVDit! Daikin's ReelDVD is a completely new interface that leverages most of the power of the company's Scenarist warhorse without the complexity. And MTC's DVDMotion, which has deep roots in VideoCD authoring, is a family of three products that range from a mere $95 to $895.

What you get
Each of these tools is designed to create a DVD-Video disc image that, when burned onto a DVD disc, will play in a consumer DVD player. They don't create video assets, but rather format existing MPEG videos, graphics, and audio for interactive playback, linking video clips together with menus and buttons for remote control navigation. DVD discs can also be played back on a computer with an appropriate DVD player and in either a DVD-ROM or CD-ROM drive. And while DVD's strict formatting is less necessary on computers, authoring tools greatly simplify the process of presenting video-based information in a professional yet accessible manner.

None of these tools includes video capture or encoding features within the same software application. However, some vendors—Spruce (with Canopus) and Sonic (with Media 100, Matrox, and others)—have bundling agreements with hardware makers that enable them to offer combined encoding and authoring solutions. Further, many independent hardware resellers bundle authoring systems themselves in order to serve their clients. Sonic's DVDit! gets very close to being a one-stop solution by including a built-in transcoder for turning AVI or QuickTime files into MPEG; however, it does not digitize video. Daikin's ReelDVD also can include a similar transcoder, but it costs an extra $250.

DVDit! is also the only one of the tools we reviewed that offers simple- button drawing graphic tools which save users from having to generate menus and buttons in a separate application (like Adobe Photoshop). Sonic further facilitates quick authoring by including clip art for use with button and menu backgrounds. Sonic even automatically creates a highlight effect, programming a color change when a viewer activates a button. However, in DVDit! you have no control of colors or variations in the default highlight.

ReelDVD, DVDVirtuoso, and DVDMotion all require you to create graphical assets externally, but they do lev- erage the DVD standard's color mapping option for creating rollover and button-select effect for when a viewer's cursor either rolls over or activates a button. Color mapping enables a consumer DVD player to substitute specific colors within a frame (for example, a white button will turn red on rollover then blue on activation) rather than swapping out the entire full-frame graphics. While conforming to color mapping makes preparing graphical assets a little more complicated and restrictive, the result is greater efficiency and speed on the viewing.

Neither DVDit! nor DVDAuthorQuick supports color mapping. DVDit! and ReelDVD both can import a variety of graphical file types, includ- ing bitmap, TIFF, JPEG, flattened Photoshop, TGA, and others. DVDAuthorQuick supports only bitmaps and TIFFs, while DVDMotion works only with bitmaps. DVDVirtuoso can import bitmaps, TIFFs, JPEGs, plus dual-layer Photoshop files as well, automatically parsing the two layers into a background and a sub-picture layer, saving you a creation step.

Don't Bring Me Down
Each of these companies offers multiple authoring tools and, except for MTC, premium products that cost much more and yield much higher profit margins than the ones reviewed here. Daikin's top-flight Scenarist and Sonic's similarly pricey and professional DVDCreator both have interfaces that are very different from those found in the affordable tools, while DVDVirtuoso and DVDAuthorQuick LE use the same interfaces as the higher-end systems. With that, each vendor faces the dilemma of making the affordable tools powerful enough to entice, yet not so rich as to jeopardize their other sales.

Most limit functionality by simply restricting the use of assets. For example, each product (except the $95 DVDMotion CE version) supports multiple chapter points within a video, though some limit the number of independent MPEG videos or menus that can be used in a project or disc image. Spruce's DVDVirtuoso, clearly designed for simply putting a movie on a DVD disc, is the most restrictive, limiting you to just one video and 10 menus (the menus can access multiple chapter points and each other). DVDAuthorQuick LE, ReelDVD, and DVDit! all have just one "title set", or group of videos, thereby limiting complex, multitiered navigation.

MTC and Sonic restrict features within a fairly tight price range. With DVDit!, for example, the extra $500 for the PE version primarily enables premastering to DLT, the standard used by DVD replication houses. Pros are quite likely to pay the extra while the broader market of presenters and other corporate users will never miss it. The extra $500 for DVDMotion Pro over SE also offers DLT tape support, but also more professional features like automated random playback, dual-layer disc support, and sub-titling.

Spruce and Intec, on the other hand, have greater cost inequity between the versions reviewed here and higher-priced tools that use the same interface. That disparity tends to leave the lower-cost products with overly complicated interfaces for the simple jobs they are able to do. Both DVDVirtuoso and DVDAuthorQuick require you to go through many more steps than should be necessary to create basic titles with limited assets.

Ultimately, your choice of interface will likely depend on what type of authoring you'll do now and in the future. Sharing the same interface of the higher-end products gives Spruce and Intec a smooth upgrade path to professional functionality. What you learn now will serve you later should you buy more. On the other hand, Daikin's ReelDVD has a very different interface from the company's flagship, Scenarist, enabling the new workflow to dictate features rather than arbitrary limits on video streams or menus. DVDit!'s interface is dramatically different from Sonic's DVDCreator with features to suit DVD authoring novices.

None of the tools reviewed here includes advanced programming such as "if-then" logic and general programming parameters, or parental or regional controls.

Daikin's [Now Sonic's] ReelDVD ($980) 
Daikin's Scenarist has a reputation for complete control of the breadth of DVD standard, but also as a complicated tool that requires training and constant technical support to use. With ReelDVD, Daikin goes a good way toward changing the second part while still leveraging its DVD expertise.

ReelDVD's interface has just three main areas—the storyboard, the track editor, and the Preview window—and smartly uses the Windows NT Explorer as its asset bin. To import, you simply drag assets from the Explorer into the storyboard area. The first video dragged into a new project is automatically linked to the DVD "First Play", though you can manually change that, if necessary, by re-dragging a link from the "First Play" icon to another video or menu. You drag audio clips from the explorer directly onto the video clips in the storyboard.

Like Scenarist, ReelDVD's storyboard area has inflexible, multicolored navigation arrows that can quickly fill up the viewable area, but Daikin smartly allows you to view or hide specific types of navigation through a toggle bar at the top of the interface (for example, you can show only "Next" commands). That gives ReelDVD a powerful yet manageable visual overview of your project's flow.

In addition to the "First Play" icon on the storyboard at the start of each new project, Daikin has also included similar "Title" and "Menu" icons. Since every DVD player's remote has "Title" and "Menu" buttons, this helpfully reminds you to create appropriate links. You can add more menus, but only one in a project will respond to a remote's "Menu" button.

Having the Track Editor always open, showing the details of any highlighted video clip, is a wonderful departure from other industry tools. The track editor is where most of the nitty-gritty work of linking elementary MPEG streams and adding subtitles and chapter marks is done, and dispensing with the constant opening and closing of a track editor for each clip is a helpful time-saver. It also offloads much of the information that might clutter other interface windows. Similarly, a Preview Window that's always open but doesn't monopolize the screen is the best of both worlds. The Preview Windows smoothly resizes itself to a smaller picture if you enlarge the visible area of the storyboard.

The 1.0 version of ReelDVD was the only product we tested that did not support the widescreen, 16 x 9 format common to most DVD movie titles; however, this feature was expected in ReelDVD version 2.0 before the end of 2000.

While ReelDVD is about the same price as DVDit! PE, it offers more features and much better project organization. It may be a little more complicated to learn, but that's a relative term. ReelDVD isn't that hard to use and offers room to grow and experiment after you get your feet wet. Unless you're looking for very basic, dump-a-video-on-a-disc authoring, ReelDVD is our top choice.

Intec's DVDAuthorQuick LE
Like the full version of DVDAuthorQuick, the LE version has no project overview or storyboard beyond a hierarchical, Windows Explorer-style file tree, which organizes assets by file type instead of links, as would be more helpful for authoring. DVD AuthorQuick tries to walk you through the process of building a DVD title within a succession of "browse for file" dialog boxes. And for some, that method—which requires you have all assets ready to go and a paper diagram laying out your navigational links—may be effective and appealing. But that's probably not how most amateurs will work. There's little room for easy trial and error until you've become proficient with the interface, and that learning process quickly gets far more complicated than it has to be for the features the LE version offers.

Since all of these affordable tools target new DVD authors rather than those familiar with DVD production, it's disappointing that Intec still plagues users with the arcane jargon of the DVD specification. While the orderly nature of the interface is helpful, Intec's prompts requesting Overtures, Video Title Sets, and Titles through a series of "Browse" dialog boxes will have new users running for the user manual. Hopefully, the manual that finally ships with the product (ours was a prerelease version) will have a glossary of terms.

Once you work through those to determine which dialog is asking for a video clip and which for a menu background, you're met with more dialog boxes that take you through the navigation and links. This is where the lack of a visual reference hurts most. Pull-down menus work, but they require more mouse clicks and windows than they should and don't give much feedback when you're reviewing your work.

On the other hand, at just $399, DVDAuthorQuick LE is one of the least expensive tools we tested. Its methodology is unique, but once you get the hang of it, you may probably be able to turn out simple projects more quickly than any other product reviewed here. However, if you start working with a lot of menus, buttons, and links, DVDAuthorQuick LE will seem more like programming than authoring.

Multimedia Technology Center's DVDMotion ($95-$895)
MTC has been building authoring software for years, going back to VideoCD, CD-i, and beyond. It is not well known because it is a tiny company with very limited marketing resources, but it boasts a dedicated client base of satisfied users. What it offers in the Pro version of its DVDMotion authoring tool is a product that has a feature list to rival much pricier products, plus direct tech support access to the product designer via email should you have problems or suggestions.

The trade-off is an interface that, while effective, has the look and feel of one person's idiosyncratic approach to DVD authoring. With literally years of experience, most of the quirkiness you might expect is gone, but there are times when the interface seems more logical than truly practical. For example, DVDMotion offers a very helpful template approach to authoring different types of projects, walking you through the steps of making a Video Album, Slide Show, or Looping Video. However, to edit a template-based project manually, you need to close and reopen the project in a different mode. DVDMotion is also somewhat rigid about formats, supporting only bitmap graphics and specific Windows file extensions.

The three versions of DVDMotion all share the same interface, with simply limited features in the lower-cost versions. A large preview window dominates the screen, with an asset bin and information monitor offering asset properties, authoring feedback, and helpful hints below. To the right of the main window is a Tray, which, like a true storyboard with individual still slides of videos or menus that can be rearranged, acts as your project overview. There's no way to show links between assets without opening each, and that limits DVDMotion's effectiveness and increases complexity a degree for authoring straightforward projects.

Given its linear nature, the Tray metaphor will likely become unwieldy with larger projects that jump between a variety of video assets; however, it's a better organizational tool than either DVDit! or DVDAuthorQuick and arguably more visual than DVDVirtuoso for many more features at a better price.

The Consumer Edition of DVDMotion is limited to one group of videos, no chapter marks, and no hierarchical menus, though it does support basic features like button rollovers. And, at only $95, it's a great choice if you need an authoring tool for a few basic projects. For $395, the Standard Edition adds features like motion menus, multiple language support, and slide shows with audio. You'll need the Pro version ($895), however, if you want to premaster to DLT tape, create subtitles, or create random play or looping titles. MTC also offers a Platinum version, which is the Pro version with unlimited email and cell phone access to not only technical support but the product developer himself.

Sonic Solutions DVDit! Professional Edition ($995)
EMedia reviewed the standard edition of DVDit! in May 2000 (www.emedialive.com/EM2000/sauer5b.html) and its interface remains much the same. A bin area organizes unused assets, a menu palette offers an overview of menus used in a project, and a main viewing area plays back video assets and supports drag-and-drop linking. It's also where you place buttons on menu backgrounds. There is no project overview to speak of and to review links—the user must open and highlight each menu, button, and video manually.

DVDit!'s interface is designed for straightforward projects without the complexity of advanced navigation and, as such, it eschews a detailed storyboard workflow. That makes DVDit! an easy way to put video on a disc—with some basic menus and buttons—and have it play, but not too much more. And with helpful extras like button creation tools directly in the application and a supply of "themes" for backgrounds and buttons, DVDit! remains the easiest solution for simple and affordable DVD authoring.

While the interface hasn't changed much, several features have been added since our review. Sonic's biggest omission from that early version, chapter marks, was expected to be included in the Professional Edition only but has found its way into both SE and PE versions. To facilitate these chapter marks, Sonic has added a simple timebar below the viewing that lets you play or scrub through video clips and add marks at specific points. DVDit! retains its somewhat-awkward approach to text and applying text to buttons, but now supports copying and pasting.

The extra $500 for the Professional Edition buys you just a few simple yet important additions. Most notably, mastering to DLT tape, but also 16 x 9 and Dolby Digital audio, are important for feature movies, and 99 menus rather than 10 in SE.

The biggest drawback with DVDit! is that the interface doesn't leave much room to grow, and it's hard to see how Sonic might add significant features without dramatic change. On the other hand, the industry is moving downward toward easier-to-use products at even lower prices, and Sonic has already announced a new product, My DVD, for about $100, whose arrival suggests DVDit! will either mature or go away over time.

Spruce's DVDVirtuoso ($1495)
DVDVirtuoso is the younger, less-capable sibling of Spruce's flagship, DVDMaestro, and their mid-range DVDConductor. DVDVirtuoso uses the same interface as the higher-end tools, and that doesn't leave much room at the bottom for virtue. As differentiation from the others, DVDVirtuoso supports just a single video and two audio tracks; it's clearly aimed at those interested in simply putting a movie on disc. However, at $1495, it's the most expensive tool we tested. With fewer features than the others, the only reason to look at DVDVirtuoso is the prospect of upgrading later to a higher-priced, more professional Spruce tool that you won't have to learn from scratch.

DVDMaestro's list-based project overview can arguably become cumbersome authoring complicated projects with dozens of assets and navigation links, but that's not a problem with DVDVirtuoso's simpler projects. It presents all the assets, menus, buttons, and navigation in a straightforward color-coded list, with easily seen empty holes where connections are missing. Unfortunately, the rest of the interface is more complicated for such basic authoring.

Multiple and redundant "panes" for asset management crowd your desktop space with little benefit in such simple DVD projects. Spruce's User Manual, admittedly an almost straight copy of the DVDMaestro and DVDConductor manuals, gets to Chapter Five before even broaching how you import the one video and two audio assets as supported in Virtuoso. The interface supports drag-and-drop into an asset bin, but then requires you to open the movie icon in the separate project window, which in turn opens the Track Editor where you can again drag-and-drop your media. These multiple steps are legacies of early Maestro software and hinder this level of production.

While DVDVirtuoso supports just one video track, it is capable of including up to 99 chapter points and 10 menus of links. It's possible, therefore, to edit several video clips together in a video editing application, then break them up with chapter points in Virtuoso. Yet Virtuoso is clearly targeting those users with just a single movie that just needs to be burned to disc; however, there are easier and more affordable products that achieve the same.

Even Spruce is hedging its bets on Virtuoso. Its Spruce Up! (about $200) should be available by the time you read this with a very different interface for simpler DVD projects. With its arrival, the quest for the market-making corporate DVD authoring tool will continue. As will the ongoing, broader question of whether that market, once made, will establish DVD as a viable video business publishing tool.