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.