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The Real Deal
Posted Feb 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 5 next »

Time was when fast DVD turnaround meant days at the replicator. But these are simpler days, with simplified tools enabling simplified tasks: capture, encode, and burn. Cheap recorders, fast PCs, and consumer DVD tools promising "real-time" authoring are rapidly turbo-charging desktop DVD creation. But how real is real-time, and how readable are real-time-written discs?

February 2003|Most people who decide to be writers of one sort or another can point to books that inspired them to pursue that course. For me, two that I read within a year of one another (at ages 13 and 14) stand above the rest: John Irving's The World According to Garp, because it portrayed a novelist as something to be; and E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, because it awakened me to politics and history, as well as how much a novel could say, and how electrifyingly it could say it.

Of course, this kind of experience with books isn't confined to writers. How many future riverboat captains grew sea legs after reading Life on the Mississippi; how many environmental activists found their calling in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; and how many rich kids discovered root and reason for their self-pity in The Catcher in the Rye?

But what about the books that capture our imaginations for more visceral reasons, that simply hook us on reading because they sweep us away so completely from the mundanities of the world around us? For me (and countless others, I'm sure), one book proved peerless in that regard: The Count of Monte Cristo. I can't wax quite so philosophical about The Count as I might about Garp or Daniel, but I doubt either of those books would have meant much to me—or found their way to me at all—if The Count hadn't found me first. Recently, after viewing the 2002 screen adaptation of The Count on DVD, I dug out my copy of the novel, and couldn't quite put my finger on what was so great about it. I know I originally read a different translation in a library copy (I bought my paperback years later mostly as a souvenir), but I doubt that's it. And I certainly found the DVD a powerful reminder of how completely the book held me in thrall—how it filled me with rage over the injustice done Edmond Dantes, and left me unable to do anything but read that book for a few magical weeks in the fall of '82.

So maybe it wasn't the aesthetics of the writing, which strikes me now as unexceptional, and it certainly wasn't an infatuation with post-Napoleonic France, or 19th- century Romanticism (no other book in that category ever made much of an impression). Which basically leaves the story—and what a story it was! And how ironic that it should be the last thing that comes to mind.

That said, I'll take a great tale told by a less-than-great teller over the reverse any day. (Which is not to say Dumas' brisk, vivid prose is less-than-great—it's just not the greatest thing about his book.) No amount of artful telling is going to make up for a trite or dull tale, but—assuming the teller's shortcomings stay out of the way—some stories are so great they tell themselves. Take The Gospel According to St. Matthew— the last place you'd look for artful writing, but nonetheless a story for all time.

Most of the story we tell here concerns interactivity, Web connectivity, usability, feature-richness, and other elements of aesthetic and technical ingenuity that contribute to the success of a DVD-Video title or project. But ultimately, at the heart of the matter is a movie on a disc. Admitting a rather broad definition of "movie" (think of Macromedia Director's), maybe it's not a Hollywood movie, or even a commercial one. Maybe it's a home-made video, a training application, b-roll footage, or other video archived for later use—but in some way, it's video stored on disc to be retrieved later via a DVD-Video player. And if that let-the-story-tell-itself approach is what we have in mind, what's the simplest and fastest way to make it happen?

Simple: Capture, encode, and burn, and preferably, do it as quickly and automatically as possible. Fortunately, the makers of the growing class of "entry-level" DVD authoring tools—Sonic, Ulead, Pinnacle, MedioStream, CyberLink, InterVideo, and SCM— have "direct-to-disc" DVD-Video creation in mind, too, and all of them would like to have you believe they've found the simplest and fastest way to make it happen. Of course, they have other ambitions for their tools, too, like making more accomplished DVD authors of their users—availing them of basic video editing and clip-trimming, original and template-based menu creation, encoding rate choices, and the like. But they also know that a key part of rudimentary DVD creation—even, arguably, for those DVD creators with more than rudimentary skills—is fewest-steps-possible capture-to-burn DVD-Video recording.

Several of the vendors providing these tools claim "real time" for this process. A year ago, this notion would have seemed absurd. Streamlined as an authoring tool might be, it's simply not within the power of a piece of software to provide this kind of functionality. Reliable real-time capture has been a reality for some time—even with the cheapest PCI FireWire capture cards—and obviously, any PC that can support a DVD Recorder can support at least 1X recording. But the real bottleneck comes in what some tools call the "rendering" stage, which mainly consists of encoding the video (captured as DV-quality AVI files) to MPEG-2.

Even on a modestly fast Pentium IV, such as the 1.5gHz Dell we used as an in-house testing unit through the first 10 months of 2002, "rendering" speeds for highest-quality MPEG-2 (8Mbps) averaged six-plus minutes of rendering per minute of video. And that was a substantial improvement over software-encoding speeds achieved on sub-gHz PCs. But now, with the growing installed base of fast Pentium processors of 2gHz and beyond—not to mention the ultra-hyped, "hyperthreaded" 3.06gHz champion chips which offer virtual dual-processing—it's not an unreasonable claim.

To test the reality of "real-time" DVD creation, we took two tacks. First, we surveyed the engineers and product managers responsible for these products about what makes real-time possible, taking into account both the hardware factors (capture cards, processors, bus speeds, hard drive speeds, recording speeds, and system resource allocation), and what can be done on the software side to accelerate the process. Second, we tested the direct-to-DVD functionality of seven entry-level Windows DVD tools—Sonic MyDVD 4, SCM Dazzle DVD Complete, Pinnacle Expression, Ulead MovieFactory 2SE, InterVideo DVD Creator Plus, CyberLink Power- Producer, and MedioStream neoDVD (plus Apple's iDVD; see sidebar)—to see how fast each tool could take a ten-minute video clip from capture to disc. In doing so, we considered both scientific and non-scientific factors: that is, not just how long each step (capture, render/encode, build image, and burn) took, but also keeping the clock running for how long (and how many steps) it took the program to get me through the process, given a pre-existing familiarity with the interface and procedure. If that isn't "real time," what is?

The race is on.

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