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Posted Apr 1, 2002 Print Version     « previous Page 2of 5 next »

Of course, with simplicity the aim, these products give up some otherwise basic design options. All six applications are built around template menu and button layouts. While all let you customize fonts, only iDVD2 allows you to customize button placement. Most let you mix and match stock button and background designs, and each comes with an array of sample graphics from gray slate to brick face, while still giving you the option to substitute your own background photography or graphics. Each product automatically resizes imported backgrounds to 720x480, regardless of how much it distorts the picture.

You'll need an image application like Adobe Photoshop to crop and resize to avoid that. You'll find almost no navigation options beyond playing a clip and returning to the previous menu. The exceptions are DVD Complete, which can create DVDs with videos and no menus, and neoDVD, which gives the choice of "return to menu" or "play next clip" as a post command for each clip. DVD Complete also lets you reprogram button links to other media clips and menus, but since all buttons are created automatically from video frames from specific clips, this option has little practical value.

While each entry-level application we tested includes an MPEG-2 software encoder, only two—Pinnacle's Express and Apple's iDVD2—force you to use it. The others allow you to import professionally encoded MPEG-2 files and in those cases, and if your project is simple enough to complete on these tools, these tools may be as professional as you'll need. However, most users are likely to use the built-in encoder and settle for what they get. Four of the products simply encode video at a default bit-rate, typically a high one that ensures good quality at the expense of disc space. Ulead offers the conspicuous choice of "DVD high quality" or "DVD low quality," while DVD Complete has a default bit-rate, but gives complete bit-rate and motion predication parameter control.

Finally, Sonic and Apple are the only two companies to break from the inane DVD authoring industry aversion to simple computer Undo (DVD Complete has an Undo in the Edit menu, but, in our experience, it was always grayed out). Admittedly, since the DVD engines are always processing action, Undo isn't a simple programming matter. But entry-level users don't really care. It just needs to work.

Apple's iDVD2 (Free with the purchase of certain Apple computers)
iDVD2 maintains the same simple elegance as version 1.0, but Apple has added some noteworthy features that make today's iDVD surprisingly sophisticated. It still has just one main window into which you drag QuickTime movies or still images and where iDVD automatically creates buttons from videos and gives those buttons names. The default is the file name of the clip, but you change it simply by highlighting and typing right in the window. For a background, use one of Apple's templates or add your own graphics or photos. If you add more clips, iDVD repositions the buttons neatly and you're ready to burn a DVD disc. It's that simple. You're always designing and always previewing until you're ready to burn.

With version 2.0, however, you're not locked into Apple's templates and symmetric button placement. You can now easily drag buttons and text around the screen, customizing appearances and framing background graphics. Even better, menu buttons and background can now be motion video, and backgrounds can have audio. Apple's other major addition is the very smart background encoding of video clips. As soon as you drag a new video into your project, iDVD2 starts background encoding without preventing you from working. In many circumstances, you'll never know it's happened, except there'll be no waiting. As before, iDVD2 encodes everything at a bit-rate of roughly 8Mbps that will fit 60 minutes of video on a DVD disc. However, now if you add a 61st minute of video, iDVD will automatically re-encode all material at roughly 5.5Mbps. Image quality goes down a little, but you'll fit up to 90 minutes. Of course, that may cause some waiting if you're almost done authoring, but it's hard to argue with the feature other than its denying encoding parameter control. Apple says that would contradict its "anyone can use it" objective.

Apple has wisely added a preference that automatically deletes any such background-encoded files from your hard drive upon application exit, helping to avoid bloated hard drives. If this preference is selected and files are deleted, the background encoder will start re-encoding video clips as soon as you re-open a project. It's too bad that feature isn't presented more overtly, although Apple feels it would complicate the interface. Still, astute users, especially corporate users, will certainly find the preferences area anyway because, thankfully, Apple has now created a preference to turn off the formally ever-present Apple logo silhouette that graced the lower right of any iDVD version 1 title.

At this time, Apple does not sell iDVD2.0 by itself and that's too bad, especially when it's such a nice tool and is at the core of the company's "video for everyone" campaign. By adding iDVD as a "free" amenity to high-end G4 ($2,999) and iMac ($1,799) configurations, Apple clearly hopes iDVD will sell more hardware and, for a hardware company, that's fair enough. However, by penalizing dedicated Apple users who bought new computers for Christmas 2000, or new owners that just couldn't afford the highest-priced configuration, Apple is hardly being true to its own marketing. Bundling iDVD2 with MacOS X (which is required for iDVD2), on the other hand, would not force out-in-the-cold G4 owners to look toward shareware patches to join Apple's new self-proclaimed video revolution. (For more on iDVD2, see Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen's "4!",

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