How easy do you like your DVD authoring? So easy you never knew you were authoring at all? If so, ADS Technologies has you in mind with USB Instant DVD, their new VHS-to-DVD conversion tool. It is, in fact, a little more versatile than that, a hardware/software combination that takes analog video material from just about any source that uses RCA or S-Video connectors and transports it to your hard drive via USB. You'll also need a decent sound card and a working line-in jack to transfer the audio, too, and the wherewithal to do chapter layouts in Sonic's MyDVD, which is to say not much wherewithal at all.
USB Instant DVD is essentially a plastic box with lots of I/O and apparently not much else—besides some nifty interior chipware that keeps MPEG encoding out of sight and out of mind. Designed to be a digital-studio-in-a-box, of a sort, much as, say, a VBrick is a streaming network of a sort in an I/O-happy box, Instant certainly doesn't make your PC into the same sort of video production powerhouse as, say, Final Cut Pro or Premiere, much less the higher-priced MPEG capture and encoding products on the market. But it captures DV video via the ubiquitous USB port—i.e, without FireWire, which in itself makes it stand out from the crowd. And if sadly misnamed "quick and dirty" capture-to-chapter DVD creation is what you have in mind, Instant DVD definitely gets a dirty job done.
Back to the Source
ADS probably expects you to get the knack of USB Instant DVD a little faster than I did, but I'm reasonably content to build a DVD in a day, which is about what it took. Working from original source material—an '80s-vintage student film short, 17 minutes of VHS footage—I created a ten-chapter DVD (which required a little maneuvering since six is the maximum for a single clip in the bundled MyDVD or the comparable medioStream neoDVDplus) without a whole lot of heartache. After clicking on the CapWiz icon that the Instant DVD installation disc placed on my desktop, I was greeted with a series of screens asking for preferences—NTSC or PAL, RCA or S-Video input, RCA or S-Video for back-to-VCR output, file path selection for your encoded video, and format (MPEG-1 for VideoCD or MPEG-2 for DVD)—and then instructed to push play on my VCR. After clicking through one more screen, I arrived at the main USB Instant DVD menu, where I had two choices: record (via the familiar red button) and preview. I also had a choice of where to play back my video, PC or TV. I selected record and watched the video play through as Instant DVD encoded it in real time. I got an annoying echo effect during recording, but that didn't show up on the digitized video.
After encoding the video into an MPEG-2 file on my hard drive, I used MyDVD and neoDVDplus to create a ten-chapter DVD. Ultimately, this required dividing the video into two separate clips because of the six-chapter limit in each program. It's hard to imagine DVD creation made much easier—in both programs, it's a simple and seamless process, well-suited to neophyte video jockeys who want a learning curve-free way to get their videos onto DVD. Clearly, ADS has higher ambitions for Instant DVD, as they package the product with Ulead's Video Studio 6.0 editing software. If that mythic corporate training video-to-DVD market does indeed exist somewhere, and the legacy content repositories fit the imagined not much-money-and-even-less-time demographic, Instant DVD may also have been developed with those folks in mind.
Ins and Outs
But we know all about MyDVD, Video Studio, and neoDVDplus here—the real question is what's in the box and more importantly, what comes out of it. Judging by its sub-featherweight heft, there's clearly not much in the box, beyond a lot of ports on its front and back and clearly something inside connecting them, as well as encoder/decoder chips for MPEG-1 and 2. ADS heralds Instant DVD as the "world's first device" to deliver real-time, hardware MPEG-2 capture to the PC via USB, with full resolution (704x480) and multiple frame rate options for DVD.
I tested USB Instant DVD on a 1.5gHz Dell running Windows ME with 256MB RAM using a 16MB ATI Rage 128 Ultra graphics chip. I connected Instant DVD via an Adaptec DuoConnect USB 2/FireWire combo card. Adjusting expectations for a well-aged source tape, even encoding at the highest offered frame rate (5Mbps, a little on the low side, it seems to me, for a consumer device that should anticipate poor source material like mine), I wasn't 100% pleased by what I saw. A good bit of artifacting, slight degradation of video quality, quite a bit of jumpiness around the chapter points, and a few audio sync lapses that are inconsistent with tape playback. Tests with a higher quality source produced better-looking video, but some of the same video hiccups around chapter point insertions.
To output your project to disc, of course you need a CD recorder or DVD recorder. Creating both VideoCD and DVD versions of my project, I burned my videos to CD-R and DVD+RW using Sony's DRU110A first-generation DVD+RW recorder. Both versions played back flawlessly (not counting the video flaws mentioned earlier, which were apparent in playback from the hard drive) in my Pioneer DVD player and my on-board LiteOn DVD-ROM drive using PowerDVD.
A Game by Any Other Name
That said, I'm amazed by what this thing does, how quickly, simply, and cheaply it accomplishes a process that takes several more steps and components in a typical FireWire solution. Clearly, users aren't purchasing this product with the highest professional acuity in mind—they just want something that gets them in the tape-to-DVD game as painlessly as possible, and with solid results. And as long as I can keep that CapWiz icon on my desktop as a gateway to instant DVD creation, I'll be happy to stay in the game.
ADS Technologies www.adstech.com
Other Companies Mentioned in this Article
MedioStream, Inc. www.mediostream.com
Sonic Solutions www.sonic.com
Sony Electronics Inc. www.storagebysony.com
Ulead Systems www.ulead.com