DVD authoring remains such a new and fertile area that I cannot resist returning to it again and again in my columns. With so much of our industry burdened by a been-there, done-that, ho-hum attitude, its almost refreshing to see an area where theres little agreement. Nearly every DVD-based drive, software application, and player works differently. Its excruciating, but exhilarating.
Ive burned dozens of DVDs since I first unwrapped my Sony VAIO Digital Studio desktop last January. Ive used a couple of DVD-creation applications and played back my DVDs on desktops, notebooks, and, of course, set-top boxes. Seeing what works and what doesnt is always entertaining (in a masochistic sort of way). One of my recent mind-bending experiences featured a homemade DVD slide-show/movie combo disc that would not work in my new Sony DVD player but did just fine in the same companys PlayStation 2 console.
Recently, my quest for a better DVD authoring tool led me to test drive Sonys first attempt, Click to DVD 1.0. Those of you who got a new Sony desktop or notebook with a built-in or optional DVD-R/RW drive this holiday season found the software included on a disc or preinstalled. For my tests, Sony was kind enough to send a 900-MHz PCG-VX89 notebook and the new standalone Sony PCGA-DVRW1, a $599 DVD-R/RW drive that can connect to FireWire (IEEE 1394) but alas, works with Sony VAIO systems only. The notebook itself provided no revelations, since we had previously reviewed a similar system, the $2,000 Sony PCGA-VX88, with the standalone drive.
The Click to DVD software is as easy to use as promised and about as simple an application as you could want, but, as with other Sony applications Ive used, is not necessarily intuitive. For example, the software has two modes—Automatic and Edit. But oddly, Sony built the two into separate executables that cannot be launched simultaneously or accessed from one another. I planned on creating a combo CD—video clips and digital images—so I ran the Edit mode.
The step-by-step interface is generally a pleasure to use, but offers little to no information about whats happening or how you adjust settings. You can set video quality, but lower bit rates can cause playback problems with older DVD players, so I left the default, which is the highest setting. You can choose to create a photo album, a slide show, or both, but theres no information about the difference between the two. The only distinction, it turns out, is that an album is static and a slide show automatically steps through all of your album photos, pausing at each one.
Whether you choose Automatic or Edit mode, the first step with Click to DVD is video capture, and the software assumes your input is from an external device. If youre editing existing clips, as I was, and there is no such device, youll see a window with a message explaining that the external device is either turned off or unattached. This isnt a roadblock—if you know to click the Import button to bring in your existing MPEG or AVI clips. I did so and then browsed to the folder where I had stored my clips.
After importing, I clicked the Next button and landed in the Import Pictures menu. I had a few hundred photos divided among about a dozen clearly named folders. I assumed Click to DVD would use the information to organize the folders into, say, chapters on the DVD. It didnt. Instead, it made each photo a new chapter and then, in the middle of importing a folder, informed me that I had reached the limit of 184 chapters on a single DVD. Id never heard of a DVD chapter limit, let alone one that low. On further investigation, I found that there is a physical limit, but its more than 9,800 chapters.
According to reps at Sonic Solutions, makers of the popular MyDVD and DVDit! authoring apps, that number comes from the 99-chapter limit for each of the 99 movie (as opposed to slide show) timelines—program chains in DVD parlance—a DVD can hold. A Sony spokesperson said, “we can handle 3 times 99 chapters—297—when they all are video chapters, 2 times 99 when photos are included. Keep in mind that the menu screens use some of these chapters.” The representative added that the company was still trying to get in touch with its best contact—in Japan—for further elaboration. 198 was much closer to the chapter limit I reached when creating a DVD that combined video and photos.
With my clips and images—as many as would fit—in place, I decided to preview the DVD I had created. The preview took 3 hours to process before I could view it. Im not sure if I should blame the notebooks 900-MHz mobile PIII-M processor, the single 30GB hard drive, or the 256MB of RAM. Those specs are not what I would call optimal for making DVDs. Burning the final DVD, on the other hand, took just 41 minutes.
I have just one small quibble with the final DVD. I used the default animated theme, and when I played the slide show on my TV, the background music (imaginatively entitled “Title.wav”) had all the appeal of a funeral dirge. My wife commented that it reminded her of one of the Oscar slide shows that pay tribute to stars who passed away during the previous year. Sony, which has the rights to a rather extensive music library and access to some decent musicians, could certainly be expected to do better.
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Back at home, I decided to tackle another nagging DVD problem. I typically use version 3.51 of Sonics MyDVD to create video DVDs from my older 8-mm analog and digital tapes. I tried to take two one-hour digital tapes and compress them onto one DVD. To fit as much as possible on the DVD, I used MyDVDs lowest quality and bit-rate settings. I ended up with a DVD that could play on my PC, but not on my two-year-old Toshiba SD-2200 player (I got a menu screen, but the video wasnt viewable). When I spoke with Sonic senior vice president David Habiger at Comdex, he theorized that my problem might actually not be in his companys software or even in my playback hardware, but in the size of my project and the quality of my DVD discs.
Larger, more complex projects (a 2-hour DVD fits into the larger category) tend to push the limits of DVD-drive compatibility, according to Habiger, who says DVDs with more movies, slideshows, menus, effects, and so forth are less likely to play on a variety of set-top DVD players. Habiger adds that even player manufacturers differ in their interpretations of the DVD specs, so makers of DVD authoring software have to work even harder to account for the vagaries. But wait; theres one other little hitch in the wild west of DVD playback ability—the quality of the discs themselves. When I told Habiger I paid roughly $20 for my 20 DVDs, he said he thought the reason for my playback troubles was bad media. He has concluded that low-quality discs, which he says often have flaws that some players cant tolerate, are even less equipped to handle the vagaries of DVD compatibility than name brands. (With some players, you can get a problem disc to work by taking it out and putting it back into the player in a different position.)
Interestingly, some of the feedback in our own forums echoed this claim. One visitor said that “pinkish-blue” dyed disks appeared to work with more of the set-top players than any other he had tried. But Harbiger also told me that Sonic is constantly working to broaden the pallet of acceptable media and players and theorized that installing the latest version (4.0) of MyDVD and burning the project to another DVD disc (even from my same batch) might do the trick.
As suggested, I installed and used version 4.0 and found it a nice change from the previous version. The interface is both more attractive and streamlined, and Sonic has—like Sony with Click to DVD and Pinnacle with Expression—added the ability to include slide shows in your DVD projects. Unfortunately, my test results were the same: I ended up with a disc that could play on my laptop, but not on the Toshiba set-top player. As in the first test, the DVD menu could display, but the video was garbled.
In some ways, DVD authoring remains one of the best new technologies Ive seen in a long time. Yet with compatibility surprises lurking around nearly every corner, it can be one of the most frustrating as well.