What to Buy, What to Know
I had a simple goal: authoring a DVD. It's something I've done hundreds of times over the past eight years; not a big deal. Typically there are at least three programs capable of making a DVD on my system at any given time. The trouble is none of them were capable of making the DVD exactly the way it needed to be done. Each of them was missing some functionality that prohibited continuing. It seemed like I was stuck.
Then it occurred to me that my most recent program hadn't seen any updates in over four years. It had come bundled with my editing software (which in itself usually means reduced functionality from the full retail version). There must be a more recent, more functional version out there. Surely others are looking for the perfect solution as well. The market landscape has changed a lot in the past few years. Companies have folded, merged with others, or canceled product lines. It's a whole new authoring world. So the quest for an answer had begun: In this stage of DVD's reign, is there one piece of authoring software that can satisfy all of our authoring needs?
Let's first define those needs. The options considered essential are noted in the accompanying grid, along with a few other items that aren't needed per se, but go a long way towards a professional product and pleasant operating experience. Most features are self-explanatory, but let's talk about why some of the more questionable inclusions are necessary.
Templates are a nice starting point, and good if you're making a disc for your niece's 8th birthday, but after that they become boring. Creativity comes out in the menu, so it's essential to be able to tailor every aspect of it to your needs. A proper authoring program should let you internally and/or externally design every item that makes up your menu navigation.
Blu-ray: I don't actually know anyone who has ever been asked by a client to make a Blu-ray disc, however, the ability to make one is important for future-proofing as well as learning.
Dolby Digital (AC-3): Smaller audio files means more room for video, which in turn leads to less compression, and thus better picture quality. Dolby's compression scheme provides equivalent quality at file sizes far smaller than PCM.
Multiple Audio and Subtitle Tracks: Commentaries, alternate music, karaoke mode, other languages, aid for the impaired; 20 different ways to use multiple audio and text tracks spring to mind. The ability to process at least one alternate track of each type is essential.
Copy Protection: Any copy protection scheme on DVDs and Blu-ray can be defeated. However, there are instances when something, anything, even if imperfect, would be "good enough". Most people out there know they can break Digital Rights Management (DRM), but either don't bother, don't know how, or don't have the tools on-hand to do it. So, yes, it can be useful.
Multi-core support / Advanced encoding: Sharing encoding time among multiple cores (or even computers) can significantly speed up disc creation. The question is, what programs support it? Also helpful are features like smart rendering (encoding only those parts that have changed), batch processing, encode scheduling, and post-encode functions (auto-shutdown, email notification, etc). All these things make authoring a lot less agonizing.
The ultimate solution for DVD authoring is obviously a hardware/software system like Sonic Scenarist, but let's be realistic. Few of us would ever be able to justify giving away four digits to the left of the decimal point and more for an authoring system. So just how much does one have to spend to get a similar level of ability?
The $100 Mark
Software under $100 is dominated by consumer-level authoring programs. These programs are good if you just want to put together a DVD. Nero Multimedia Suite 10 is the first program that stands out above the rest. It does all that the others in this range do, and offers a whole suite of programs for editing, mixing, viewing, etc., to boot. The sacrifice you'll make here is in menu customization. Users with this program work from pre-made graphics.
Nero's new system allows you to swap out buttons and thumbnails for designs more to your liking, but you can only choose from what they provide.
Roxio Creator 2011 Pro offers full 3D support, if that's your cup of tea (a trick that can only be done in most other programs with AviSynth scripts). You can import and edit, and also export 3D video for display on 3D TVs and 3D computer displays, and sharing on YouTube.
CyberLink's PowerProducer 5.5 has an extremely enjoyable interface that is very easy to understand, even if you've never touched authoring software before. It might be the ideal program for someone just starting out, or who makes more slideshows than videos, but users may quickly become frustrated at its inability to recognize popular file formats.
Corel's DVD MovieFactory was just the opposite. It lacked features, but accepted virtually every codec thrown at it.
Sony's DVD Architect Studio edition has navigation features not available in any other program in this price range. Its ability to handle external graphics, customize remote control buttons, and make playlists makes for some nice menu building.
If you want a serious DVD authoring program with professional options in this price range, TMPGEnc offers a phenomenal amount of tools, many of which are only found in programs that cost twice as much. There is a moderate learning curve here, though.
If you're willing to step up to the next price range, Roxio DVDit 6 Pro is the way to go. The interface is one of the most pleasant to work with, offering a logical workflow even for the most advanced of options. It is a bit of a shame that Roxio does not offer trial versions of any of its current DVD software, though, and we find it interesting that they charge more than double the cost of the program for the Blu-ray version. The Pro and HD versions both support AC-3.
Another program worthy of note in this price range is DVD-lab PRO2. It's kind of hard to put this program in the same class as the others. DVD-lab PRO2 sacrifices any semblance of a kind of simple interface and replaces it with the power to author truly intricate and complex DVDs. If you wanted to make a DVD game, or a DVD that changes based on user input, this would be the ideal program. It does, however, lack amenities like drag and drop support, and does not accept many common codecs.
$400 and Up
All of the other high-end authoring tools would probably fall into the same price range as DVDit 6 Pro... that is if they were offered as stand alone products. Unfortunately, they only come as parts of larger, and much more expensive packages. If you work in Final Cut Pro for example, then you know how good DVD Studio Pro 2 is. It offers virtually identical abilities as DVDit 6 Pro.
The same can be said for Adobe's Encore. It's a cornucopia of professional authoring options if you're willing to shell out for Premiere Pro or the CS5.5 Master Suite. The benefit, however, is the tight integration with all of Adobe's other products. The latest version of Encore is 64-bit only. 32-bit users are just plain out of luck. We understand that 64-bit operating systems are superior, but this still seems a little premature. While other companies should be moving to 64-bit eventually, this makes Encore out of anyone's ability unless they have a newer operating system. (Computers have been shipping for years with 64-bit capable processors. You can verify your system's capabilities with the Intel Processor Identification Utility). However, once you go this route you'll enjoy the speed and stability 64-bit offers.
The Pro version that comes with Sony Vegas is where DVD Architect really shines. Blu-ray support, copy protection, multiple tracks of all types and more all round out an already feature rich product. The interface retains the same lackluster style though.
Free With a Price
So how did the no cost offerings hold up? Well, to be honest, mostly as expected. DVD Flick is an enjoyable program with an easy to understand interface. Unfortunately, menu customization is almost non-existent. GUI for dvdauthor had a less friendly interface. It did, however, offer some interesting options not seen in many other programs, like auto-shutdown upon completion. Its biggest drawback is that it only accepts MPEG-2 video, forcing the user to use external transcoders.
These programs aren't really comparable to the polished offerings of the popular consumer products, but many of these projects build upon each other as well, so it's conceivable that you could put together a feature rich package eventually, but it's not recommended.
The Quest Continues
It's quite surprising, but there's still no authoring system out there that will ever satisfy all the features you need, but unfortunately, when it comes to DVD authoring, "one size does NOT fit all!" We're all shooting to different formats, and our DVD needs differ greatly, too.
If you want something simple, there's plenty of choices all with a variety of options. If you've obtained Encore, DVD Studio Pro, DVD Architect or DVDit as part of a package, there's no reason you shouldn't stick with those, as they're all about equal (though, if you have the Avid-bundled standard DVDit, we do recommend upgrading to Pro). In the end, each one has its shortcomings, however small they may be. So check out the features listed in our grid. There are many more we didn't have room for, so let this be your starting point, and go for the features you need most. If you weigh the options, you can walk away satisfied.
Sidebar 1: Format Rant
Today, support for the insane amount of different file types in circulation remains an issue in many DVD authoring programs. As users, we want the program to simply accept any format thrown at it and have it work. Sadly, this is not the case. While there are some shining standouts, most authoring programs still lack support for a wise range of file types. What's interesting is that this is one problem that does not go away simply by throwing money at it. In other words, you'll find just as many high cost programs fail to support codecs as you'll find low cost ones that do.
Even more perplexing is what codecs certain programs kicked back. It wasn't just the obscure file types that went unsupported. Almost half of the programs tested wouldn't accept .mov files. Others rejected .avi containers, or .mp3, or even .wav! At this point, there's just no excuse for such lack of support. Users shouldn't have to rely on external transcoders, especially since, one of the free offerings we looked at accepted almost anything under the sun.
The bottom line here is that you should take stock of the file types you use most often before deciding on one of these programs, and make sure they are natively supported. You should also make sure you have a decent transcoding program for all the rest. Nothing's worse than getting stuck up the authoring tree without a codec.
Sidebar 2: Video's Neglected Sibling
If the program you're using to compile your final product has no option for regulating audio, then balancing levels across titles can become tedious and frustrating. You might even find yourself going back to your edits and remixing, only to have to export and re-insert into the compilation again. It's baffling why more DVD authoring programs don't include level monitors and volume adjustments, or a simple normalize function at least. One could make the argument that all your sources should be finalized before the DVD stage, but having an authoring program that includes some kind of audio tweaking or filters can save you a lot of time, and a very large headache.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's DVD Authoring Buyer's Guide
Peter Zunitch is a post-production manager and editor working on every system from 16mm film to Avid Symphony, utilizing many of today's advanced manipulation and compositing tools.