From Video to Disc: A DVD Software Buyer's Guide

Understanding the basics of DVD authoring software and hardware.

Nowadays, it seems like all videographers want to make DVDs. But this means more than just burning video straight onto a blank DVD. You want your video's packaging to match the first-rate look and features of the pros.

Well, you're in luck. Fortunately, manufacturers are aware of this demand and have created a broad range of hardware and software products to meet the needs of nearly every budget.

Getting Authorized

Authoring great looking DVDs is now a rather simple process, thanks to the continued improvements and wealth of features offered by manufacturers' products. Even if you've never authored a DVD, there are great start-up tools offered in many software packages to help you quickly and easily make DVDs like the pros.

"Great, so what's all this talk about authoring DVDs?" Glad you asked. Authoring simply refers to the process of organizing and presenting all of your media production assets (video, audio, titles, etc.) in an interactive format. The result of this process is what viewers experience when they play a DVD — menus, graphics, and setup options, which create a visually enhanced presentation.

Knowledge is Power

Before you bald your tires in a frenzied race to be first in line at the local software stores, it's best to know what you'd like to get out of your DVD authoring software. With a broad price range and dozens of titles available, a little bit of forethought pays off before heading to the checkout counter.

Some of the aspects to consider before purchasing DVD authoring software are price, features, ease of use and compatibility. We'll take a quick look at these aspects by breaking down the discussion into three main user categories — consumer/hobbyist, prosumer, and professional.

Software: More Bang for the Buck

Regarding price, we'll define the consumer/hobbyist products as those between $50 and $250. The prosumer wallet is a bit larger, so they get to spend between $250 and $1,000. The professional has access to company credit cards and corporate mega-budgets. As such, we'll define their financial prowess as purchasing anything over $1,000.

The biggest factor determining software price tends to be features. Generally, the rule of thumb is more features equal a bigger price tag. The consumer-level software includes titles such as Apple's iDVD ($79 with iLife '05), Sonic Solutions' MyDVD Studio 6.1 ($70), Studio Deluxe 6.1 ($100) and Studio Deluxe Suite 6.1 ($150), Pinnacle Systems' Studio Plus 10 ($100), Mediachance's DVD-lab Standard ($99), DVD-lab Studio ($129) and DVD-lab Pro ($199), and Nero 6 Ultra ($100).

Consumer software offers basic functionality and features. At this level, the trade off is between features and ease-of-use. Inexperienced DVD authoring users get the advantage of automated features and template designs. These tools help create your DVD menus and chapters, and allow you to include static background images or, in some cases at this price range, animated backgrounds. Customization is very limited compared to prosumer and professional software.

The limitations imposed at the consumer level are generally safeguards to make DVD authoring as error-free as possible. The brute-force approach limits user creativity, but helps ensure everyone goes from start to finish as painlessly as possible.

Even with the limitations, there's good news. Fortunately, competition for market share causes software developers to keep adding more and more features. What you get from a basic software title now is much more than just a year ago. One of the more helpful tools, available in even some of the basic titles, is DVD proofing. Proofing your work before burning DVDs can't be overemphasized. You don't want to wind up wasting countless hours and dozens of discs before getting the desired result.

Prosumer software titles include Sonic Solutions' DVDit! 6 ($300) and DVDit Pro 6 ($400), Apple's DVD Studio Pro 4 ($499), Adobe's Encore DVD 1.5 ($349), Sony's Vegas+DVD ($720), and Ulead's DVD Workshop ($395). The prosumer software throws in more customization and some more advanced features. Additional features included at this price range are support for animated menu backgrounds, 16:9 widescreen video, high-definition support and surround sound audio systems. Real-time proofing and compatibility options are also common in prosumer products.

While the learning curve for some features is comparable to consumer-level software, the more advanced features take some getting used to (customization always comes with a price). When you're making decisions about custom layouts, compression, audio formats, and player compatibility, things are trickier than the user-friendly drag-and-drop interfaces of consumer titles.

If you're completely new to DVD authoring, have little interest in advanced design options, or don't want to be bothered with the technical aspects such as compression and formatting, then selecting software with more automated features is your best choice.

At the professional level, DVD authoring software gives most users the most customizable control. These software titles enable you to configure region coding, copyright protection, surround sound, advanced sub-titling and closed-captioning options, multiple camera-angle support, and formatting engine controls for the widest possible compatibility range. Although beyond what most of our readers may use, Scenarist (from $4,999 to $35,000) is one example of software in this product range.

Hardware: Duplicators and Burners

OK, having tackled the basics and given an overview of the DVD authoring software world, now let's look at authoring-related hardware. To being, understand that the hardware is divided into two main categories: duplicators and burners.

Let's start with DVD burners, since they tend to be the more popular of the two categories. Why so popular? These devices are the quickest, least expensive method for creating a DVD. Referred to as DVD recorders or burners, these drives appear and operate identically to their CD counterparts, and are available as both internal and external devices. If you know how to burn CDs, then you already know how to use one of these types of DVD burners — it's the same concept. Additionally, some of these devices are bundled with user-friendly burning software packages.

Internal burners are relatively cheap nowadays, although professional burners are still rather expensive, comparatively speaking. You can find consumer-level internal burners as low as $40, but most are between $50 and $150. For the more professional models, expect to pay anywhere from $350 to $700. For external burners, expect to pay $100 to $300 over a comparable internal drive — typically between $120 and $700. Some of the standard manufacturers of internal and external DVD burners include TEAC, Sony, HP, Pioneer, Phillips, and Toshiba (the developers of DVD technology).

DVD burners are fine for producing small quantities of discs, but if you frequently need to produce dozens or hundreds of discs, you want a better, more efficient solution. Enter DVD duplicators. Duplicators are similar to DVD burners, although they're designed to record multiple discs simultaneously — many even do so unattended. You can find single-disc duplicators for about $300, and a multi-disc tower device costs between $500 and $6,000. DVD duplicator manufacturers include R-Quest, NEC, Pioneer, Kanguru, Disc Makers, Primera, Rimage, Vinpower and Plextor.


Other Considerations: Layers and Formats

Some final things to consider when thinking about DVD authoring hardware are single-layer and dual-layer recorders, as well as authoring format (SD, HD-DVD, and Blu-Ray). Single-sided, single-layer DVDs enable you to record up to 4.7GB of information per disc (DVD-5), where single-sided, double-layer holds up to 8.5GB. Dual-layer recorders are slightly more expensive, but well worth the money if you're recording longer format videos.

Although HD-DVD (15GB single, 30GB dual-layer capacity) and Blu-Ray (roughly 25GB single, 50GB dual-layer capacity) formats offer considerable video image quality, it may not be wise to invest in either of these formats just yet. Why? Two reasons: 1) neither format is the victor of the next format standard war; 2) the original SD-DVD format remains the most commonly used format.

As far as economics is concerned, SD-DVD is cheaper and covers the largest market share. Hi-Def digital video, in general, remains to be too expensive for most people, but the good news is that it will continue to drop in price. The move to Hi-Def digital video is analogous to the transition from dial-up to broadband Internet service and, as such, it's wiser to aim your video projects at the widest target audience.

Pat Bailey is a digital video Technical Support Analyst and freelance writer.

Side Bar:Sticky Situation

It gets a bit tricky when it comes to labeling DVDs as a paper sticker such as the type used on CDs will often throw these faster spinning optical discs off balance while being read. This can damage the disc or even the reader. Handwriting with permanent markers are a favorite method but not very professional looking. Some HP burners use LightScribe technology that uses a laser to etch a good looking monotone image onto specially coated blank media. Another option is a special ink jet printer with an optical tray for printing multi-color designs onto DVDs. Professional dupe and replication houses silk screen images onto optical media and we even know of a guy who hand silk screens onto his DVDs with glow in the dark ink.

Side Bar: Standalone or PC?

Stand-alone or turnkey DVD recorders provide the convenience of one-stop DVD production, but don't offer the creative flexibility found in PC-based authoring software and hardware. Also, if something breaks on a stand-alone recorder, you'll have to return the entire unit for repair, unlike repairing individual PC parts.

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