Multiple Choice: Tools for Authoring and Burning DVDs

As with any technology that hits its stride, DVD authoring and burning has entered the “I can’t stand it! There are too many choices!” realm. Not only is there an amazing number of options when it comes to DVD authoring software, but the hardware has proliferated wildly as well. In this buyer’s guide, we will walk you through the five most important categories of tools for authoring DVDs. We will take a look at each category’s features and weigh the pros and cons of each. The five categories are: DVD authoring software, DVD authoring turnkey computers, DVD authoring appliances, DVD drives for your computer and standalone living room DVD recorders.

DVD Authoring Software

One of the fastest growing and perhaps most confusing aspects of DVD authoring is the plethora of software available today. This software can range from very basic and inexpensive, such as Roxio’s Windows based Easy Media Creator ($80), to very expensive professional software, such as Sonic Solutions Scenarist NT ($22,000) or DVD Creator Encoding ($24,000) for the Mac OS user. With such a wide range of options, it can become a nightmare just trying to figure out which software best fits your needs. To make your choices a little easier, you must look at your current computer and DVD creation needs and choose the software that best fits.

Knowing your operating system (OS) is the best place to start. Most likely, you are using either a Windows OS or Mac OS. Most software works with only one type of operating system. If you own a Windows system, a Mac program like DVD Studio Pro 2 ($499) is out of the question. However, if you have a Mac, you can’t use Sonic Solutions ReelDVD ($600). If you are a Windows user, most DVD software works with Windows 98SE, 2000 or XP. However, it would be a good idea to check the version first.

Knowing your system’s processor speed and the amount of RAM available is also a very important first step. The more sophisticated the program, the faster your computer’s processor needs to be to handle the load. With a slow processor, you may end up spending a lot of time watching your computer chew through the information and instructions it is trying to digest. A trip to your refrigerator or a good deli might come in handy, but your weight gain might be a little hard to explain. A good start for working with video is about 512MB of RAM.

You should definitely consider the manufacturer’s Minimum System Requirements to be just that: absolute minimums. If they also include recommendations, you should treat those very seriously as well.

In our software buyer’s guide, there are a number of features that you may or may not be familiar with. Here is an explanation of a few of those features:

The Video Compact Disc (VCD) is primarily a CD that holds movies, photographs and sound. A VCD holds up to 60 minutes of full-motion video and CD-quality stereo sound. You can play a VCD on many DVD Players and on almost all computers with an optical disc drive. VCDs have menus and use MPEG-1 encoding. The quality of a very good VCD is almost the same as a VHS tape, but blocky compression artifacts are often visible. MPEG-1 encoding is inferior to DVD-quality MPEG-2.

The Super VideoCD (SVCD) has the capacity to hold about 30 minutes of good quality full-motion video with up to 2 stereo audio tracks and four selectable subtitles on a CD. You can play SVCDs on some standalone DVD players and most computers with an optical disc drive. The quality of the SVCD is much higher than the VCD since the MPEG-2 encoding is the same as that used on DVDs. While both VCD and SVCD formats burn to regular CD-R discs, they are not as compatible with living room DVD players as DVD discs are.

Two features that make it easy to create your first DVD are pre-formatted templates and authoring wizards. The templates give you professionally designed backgrounds and buttons and save tremendous amounts of time in the design process. Just add your content and the wizards take you through an easy step-by-step process that enables you to create your DVD almost effortlessly. Both of these features help you develop your DVD authoring savvy so that eventually you will be able to expand beyond the basics and create discs that are creative and professional, with a personal flair.

If your needs are more advanced, you will want to look very closely at the number of video and audio streams available, the types of encoding and support for audio such as Dolby Digital audio, the ability to create and use motion backgrounds and buttons as well as real-time preview of that motion.

For medium to advanced users, the ability to create submenus is very important. If you are creating an interactive title that takes advantage of the non-linear nature of the DVD medium, you’ll need submenus to allow your user to customize their experience.

Finally, if you wish to create DVDs for mass-production (say 500 copies or more), you may want to buy a software package that supports Digital Linear Tape (DLT) export. Many professional DVD replicators require that you record the original master on DLT. We’d recommend that you contact your dupe house to get their advice before you drop $500 or more on your professional package that is incompatible with their requirements.

DVD Authoring Turnkey Computers

If you are in the market for a new computer and want to be able to create DVDs, you are in luck. Both Windows OS and Mac OS computers are now shipping with all of the hardware and software you’ll need to create and burn basic DVDs.

On the Macintosh side of the aisle, the new LCD iMac G4/1GHz ($1,629) comes with 512MB of RAM, 80GB of memory and a 4x SuperDrive. For video editing, iMovie is standard and you’ll create your DVDs with iDVD. This system and its software can easily expand to include high-end software when you are ready.

On the Windows side, there are a huge number of DVD-ready systems. Dell computers, as one example of many, allows its customers to custom build a system that matches their needs. You can easily configure a very comprehensive system for less than $2,000, complete with Windows XP, 512MB of RAM, an 80 GB hard drive, an 8x DVD+RW Combination Drive and Sonic MyDVD Deluxe software. These systems are also very expandable and will grow as your DVD creation needs becomes more sophisticated.

DVD Authoring Appliances

If you already have an older computer that you love and it can’t be upgraded or if computers just are not your thing, you might consider a DVD Authoring appliance. Appliances (or standalones) are self-contained systems that enables you to edit your video, author your DVD and burn it to disc, all without the complexity of a computer. The Casablanca Avio DVD ($2,499) is a good example of such a system.

DVD Computer Drives

There are two kinds of DVD drives that you must consider: internal and external. Internal drives fit in one of your computers drive slots and require installation. The good new is that installation of an optical drive is just about the easiest upgrade you can make to your existing computer. An internal drive can run from less than $100 for last-years models to the $350 for the latest 8x speedsters. The differences between the various models are primarily in the burn speed, read speed and the types of media formats that the burner can handle.

External drives get their information from the computer either through a FireWire or USB 2.0 connection. The external drive is handy if you have filled your computer to the brim with accessories or you would like to be able to move the burner between a number of computers. Or perhaps you just would rather not open your computer case. External drives may range in price from $225 for Micro Solutions Backpack External Drive with USB 2.0 interface to $330 for Iomega’s Super DVD Writer All-format External USB2.0 Combo Drive. If you have anything but the latest Mac, you’ll want to get a FireWire drive.

Both external and internal DVD Recorder Drives are often bundled with disc-burning software and basic DVD authoring software, so look for bargains there as well.


Standalone, Living Room DVD Recorders

This category is sure to be the next addition to your home-entertainment center. These recorders let you record television programs, photographs and music right onto a DVD. Of course you can also plug in your camcorder, too. You can find these recorders in the $300 to $1,200 range. Hook up your camcorder, press play and hit the record button on the remote control and you’ll be burning your first DVD. We’re sure it won’t be your last. If you were able to make dubs from your camcorder to your VCR, you’ll be extremely happy with these DVD recorders.

Let’s Make a DVD!

With the information in our buyers guide and a little homework on your part, you should be able to create a system that will fit your DVD creation needs. The tools are now available; it is up to you to begin the creation. No more stacks of tapes. It’s time to make DVDs!

Dr. Robert G. Nulph is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and an independent video/film director.

[Sidebar: Drive Speed]

There are two factors that determine the speed of your computer’s DVD burner: the potential speed of the drive and the speed-rating of the media. When your DVD burner reads the media you place in it, it identifies the optimum write speed allowed for burning the software. A fast drive with slow media will only yield slow burns. So if you want lightning speed, get an 8x burner, but don’t forget to pair it with certified 8x blank discs.

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