In September 2005, I wrote an article titled Stacking the DVD Decks that compared set-top DVD recorders from Pioneer, Panasonic, and Sony with an eye to their effectiveness for live-event DVD production. Each of these decks was in the $300 range. I liberally use the word "deck" to describe any standalone video recorder that is not tethered to a computer. Two of those units featured internal hard drives to facilitate editing the video, and they all accepted both analog and digital video, compressed it to MPEG-2, and made the "authoring" of the DVD almost as simple as selecting the menu background, adding some text and possibly some chapters, and burning a disc. The Sony recorded directly onto the DVD itself in real time.
The goal was to find a recorder that could record a live program, do a minimal amount of trimming, and then quickly master that program, with chapters, to a DVD. The product we are looking to present to our customers is a disc that looks like one authored in a full-featured desktop authoring program, with menu screens for title and chapter. It could even have a "First Play" video clip that plays immediately when the disc is put into the custommer's player.
There were other DVD decks out there that we were not able to test as part of that article, and one that's in a different league altogether, Pioneer's PRV-LX1. A new and somewhat different entrant into this market that has emerged in recent months is Applied Magic's $1,999 DVD Shop. Applied Magic has applied different thinking to the DVD "deck" idea and produced a unit that takes a page out of the media center PC's book—the idea of cramming an entire computer into what appears to be just another stereo component.
Setting Up Shop
Appearance aside, DVD Shop is much more than a typical stereo component in both function and heft. Looking at the back of the brushed black unit, you find a complete set of jacks for a PC on one side and a video card for all the I/O. A sturdy power supply handles all the unit's operations and components, including the two internal hard drives and five fans visible from the outside. This is far more than a simple deck.
Upon opening the manual, it is clear that Applied Magic has designed this product for users who already own its ScreenPlay edit system. I expected a preliminary section on how to hook up DVD Shop to the rest of my video gear, just as you would find a "quick start" page included with most any consumer AV gear. This instruction is probably more important for DVD Shop, considering it has an plethora of computer jacks as well. But I found no such guide.
In fact, one of the key points not covered was how to view what DVD Shop is doing. There is what seems to be a large square display on the front of the deck, but upon powering up the system, it remained dark.
I found out later that this screen is unused and is present because Applied Magic used a case originally designed for a home theater PC. The manual describes hooking up AV cables to the ScreenPlay, but it is not clear in explaining which VGA port I'm supposed to use for which task.
After a bit of trial and error, I figured it out. Since there's no list of included accessories in the manual either, I didn't know if I was supposed to find my own VGA cable or whether one was supposed to be supplied to me. I used my own.
The first thing that appeared on the screen was the Windows Setup Assistant. After I dismissed it (because I wasn't connected to the internet) the Security Alert warnings started to appear, with recommendations to remove unused icons from the desktop and the like. This is a true PC running Windows XP Home Edition. We're not in DVD deck country anymore.
Working in the Monitor and Main Windows
I launched DVD Shop from the icon on the desktop. The interface that appeared is one that takes a bit of getting used to. To help users become more familiar with the system, the interface features "rollovers" that tell you what a button is for when you roll your cursor over the button and let it sit there for a second or two.
However, there is space in the interface where they could have clearly labeled the buttons, especially in the "monitor" area, as they did with the buttons in the DVD Shop main interface. I spent a few minutes toggling through the buttons before realizing that they were not telling me, "This is the button to click for DV," as the buttons in the DVD Shop main interface do, but rather, "This is the input button and DV is what is currently selected." I highly recommend reading the manual in order to get yourself familiar with the unique interface quickly.
Selecting the DV input, I could see my video in the monitor, but the audio did not show up on the meters. I thought maybe the system would require me to connect the analog audio before registering it on-screen, so I connected my audio via each of the seven possible inputs before realizing that the audio meters only illuminate when recording. Again, this was a disparity between the Monitor window and the DVD Shop main window.
As I recorded, the fans changed speed, reacting to the work I was giving the unit. The power supply vents out the side, two fans blow up from the top of the case, and it seems the CPU fan blows downward at the motherboard. Since three up-and-down fans are right next to each other, I can see that placing this deck in the tight confines of a rack case will cause hot air to be sucked right back into the case.
During capture, I tried to mark chapters by clicking the Mark button in the VTR Control Panel, and by clicking the Record button in the DVD Shop main interface, as outlined in the manual. Neither approach worked. In speaking with Applied Magic, I discovered that they are aware of this problem and are planning on providing a firmware update that will enable this capability.
I recorded the video to the hard drive in the hope of tweaking my clips before burning, but on page 24, the manual clearly states, "DVD Shop is not a video editing application." The good news is that DVD Shop is a Windows PC, so you can edit your MPEG-2 encoded video with any application that supports it natively. If you have an NLE installed, and it can handle the MPEG-2 card in the DVD Shop, you can use that to capture and edit. If you capture and edit straight DV, DVD Shop will load the edited video file, but the process of encoding to MPEG-2 for DVD will take some time.
Working with Captured Video
Moving on to burn the video, it took a bit of research to find out where the video files were and how to get DVD Shop to use them. Again, this is where reading the manual helps greatly. When you first set up your project, you should immediately save, which creates a file path and a location where you can set all your files to go. Only then should you proceed with recording video to DVD.
After poking around in the Encode, Author, and Write tabs in the DVD Shop main interface, and trying the Write button, I opened up the manual so see how to load the video I just captured. I found out this process was quite simple.
Page 15 of the DVD Shop manual covers Selecting the Audio and Video files. You just go to the Setup tab in the DVD Shop main interface and click the More button. An Untitled window will pop up over the DVD Shop interface. It has ten tabs to adjust numerous parameters. Don't go to the Pre-Captured Files tab yet; it won't work. Go to the Project tab to indicate Use Pre-Captured Files instead of Use Video Capture and Realtime Encoding. Now, click the Pre-Captured Files tab, which before had been blank but has now changed and provides the ability to select elementary streams already on the hard drive.
Click Enter/Edit File List and a Pre-Captured File List window pops open on top of the windows already there. Here you can type in your files, import a CSV, or click in the cell under the Video File header. Click twice in that cell and a three-dot Browse button will appear.
When you click the Browse button, another window pops up over the windows already there. Now you can navigate the hard drives to select the video or multiplexed file you desire. At this point, you are three dialog windows deep, so you can't check back to find out where DVD Shop was putting your files. This is why it is important to set up your project folder in the beginning. The video files are put in a folder automatically created with the project name you entered into the Setup tab in the DVD Shop main interface. Click on the clearly named file called Video0. If you have more than one file in a project, DVD Shop will name them sequentially (Video1, Video2, etc.).
Now that you have selected the video, you need to select the audio. You do this by following the same steps described above, unless you already selected the audio by choosing a multiplexed video file.
If there's any drawback to DVD Shop, it's the main interface, which, as discussed above, is slightly less than intuitive.
Ready to Burn?
After you do all this, the Write button at the bottom of the DVD Shop main interface immediately sets the internal DVD burner to work. In just a few minutes, the built-in 16X DVD burner finished my rather short test disc. Or so I thought. The progress bar stopped, and I ejected my disc only to find that it was as blank as it was when I put it in. In calling tech support, I was greeted by a recording that told me to leave a message for tech support and someone would give me a call back within 24 hours.
Thankfully, reviewers have other resources, so I persisted and was helped by a knowledgeable Applied Magic representative who walked me through the process. As it turns out, since shipping my test system, the company has updated the software to fix the burning bug I was encountering.
Because DVD Shop is a full-fledged computer, you can update the pre-installed software online as you would just about any other program you'd purchase these days. Simply connect to your home network or internet connection and locate the relevant update.
I browsed the Applied Magic website and downloaded a new version of the program. One of the key features of this new version is that it automatically checks with Applied Magic to see if there are updates available and enables you to download and install those updates directly.
The Out-of-Box Experience
It is important to note that DVD Shop is not just a box; it is, more importantly, a suite of software—and capable software it is. It comes with a hardware dongle that enables you to install the software on other hardware you choose, but the catch is that wherever you install it, there needs to be an MPEG-2 video encoder to get recorded video onto a DVD.
The Applied Magic rep I spoke with said that he knows of one individual who has installed the DVD Shop software on a laptop and uses it in the field. This combines the computer and screen in a much more portable package than the DVD Shop deck-plus-external computer monitor. However, Applied Magic does not sell DVD Shop without the deck.
In my opinion, this is not really a problem. You can put the USB dongle in the front USB port and leave the DVD Shop deck fully wired up in your rack in the studio. When you go mobile, you take the dongle with you and use it with the software installed on your laptop.
One way to look at DVD Shop is as a PC (albeit a somewhat expensive one) on which you can install your full suite of video editing apps, photo editing apps, graphics, music, etc. The DVD Shop software and encoding setup adds more than DVD authoring; it can handle the printing of labels, and it can control DVD duplicators ranging from multi-drive towers to automated duplication and printing solutions like those from Primera and Rimage.
On the other hand, the fact that it is a full-fledged computer means you need to give DVD Shop all the attention you give to every other PC in your studio: firewalls, antivirus, updates, etc. Ordinary DVD decks are generally more static and hands-off.
Other features worth mentioning are the ability to hold on to projects and change themes on previously burned projects. For instance, you can change a template from among those included or build your own. Applied Magic is also looking to offer new theme packs from third-party providers.
In the end, DVD Shop is a very powerful tool if you intend to use it to its full ability. However, if you don't need the advanced features DVD Shop provides, there are other software packages that can do each aspect of what DVD Shop does and are not tied to a piece of hardware.
Anthony Burokas (firstname.lastname@example.org) of IEBA Communications, a self-confessed "gadget guy," has been an event videographer for more than 15 years. He has shot award-winning video internationally and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.