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Review: Sonic DVDit Pro 6
Posted Oct 11, 2005 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

Sonic Solutions DVDit Pro 6 has something to offer nearly every class of user. Those moving up from consumer tools will find the program easy to learn and more flexible and powerful than their current tools. And those who've worked with other prosumer-level products will find DVDit much easier to use, and quickly realize that the capabilities enabled by the bundled eDVD are essential to producing compelling, competitive DVDs. All users will value the stability that DVDit brings to bear, and appreciate the newly redesigned interface, which is as intuitive as any we've seen for DVD authoring.


Sonic Solutions DVDit Pro 6 has something to offer nearly every class of user. Those stepping up from consumer programs like Adobe Premiere Elements, Pinnacle Studio, and Ulead MovieFactory will find the program easy to learn and more flexible and powerful than their current tools.

If you're also considering or currently using prosumer tools like Adobe Encore or Sony DVD Architect, you'll find DVDit much easier to use and will quickly realize that the capabilities enabled by the bundled eDVD are essential to producing compelling, competitive DVDs. Sure, you can buy eDVD standalone for $200, but that reduces DVDit's purchase price to under $200—almost a no-brainer.

All users, however, will value the stability that DVDit brings to bear. We tested the program on an absolutely toxic computer, with virtually every Windows editor and authoring program known to humankind installed, and authored one of the most complex for-profit DVDs I've attempted, a collection of the videos produced during the ongoing four-part "Battle of the Software NLEs" video editor review, which included 39 videos, 13 slide shows, and one playlist. This DVD included MPEG-2, AVI, and MOV videos encoded by all five editors, a complete recipe for disaster with most authoring programs.

If you've worked with content creation software long enough, there comes a time in every complicated project when you think to yourself, "Cripes, I hope this freakin' thing works." And work DVDit did, first time, every time, which is enough to earn it a permanent place on my hard drive.

To be fair and balanced, the story isn't all roses. DVDit has some feature gaps (no AutoSave?), and is generally less powerful and often less efficient than programs like Encore and Apple's DVD Studio Pro. However, you won't notice this if you're upgrading from a consumer program or even from a prosumer program, unless you're really pushing the creative envelope. If your goal is to quickly and easily produce professional-looking DVDs with extra capabilities when played on computers, DVDit is an excellent, if not ideal-for-everyone, choice.

OK, that's the compelling, hard-hitting intro; now on to the pithy, insightful reviews. First I'll look at DVDit, and then focus on eDVD.

Intelligent Design

In producing DVDit Pro 6, Sonic incorporated multiple audio and multiple text tracks. Unlike Ulead, however, who shoehorned these features into an existing interface with Workshop 2, Sonic took the opportunity to completely redesign DVDit, and much for the better.

The result is the most intuitive authoring program we've seen to date. Sonic has boiled production down to three components: menus, titles—either videos or slide shows—and playlists, which link multiple titles together. A project window graphically displays all product components, with a familiar-looking timeline, content bin, and attributes window. Menu design and preview are achieved in the same window, with tabs for switching between the two activities.

None of this is new, feature or design-wise; there are shades of Sony's DVD Architect and Apple's DVD Studio Pro in DVDit's construction. However, in DVDit, function follows form more logically, with the interface naturally leading you through the workflow. The result is comforting for most users, with none of the "what do I do now?" blank-page syndrome that hinders the early stages of most Adobe Encore projects.

Menu Creation

Like most DVD authoring programs, DVDit offers multiple menu-creation options. You can start with one of the ten templates, which are about average quality—more attractive than those supplied by DVD Workshop, about on par with Encore, and miles behind DVD Studio Pro, whose dazzling templates are head and shoulders above the crowd.

You can also build your menus from dual-layer Photoshop PSD files, with the bottom "image" layer containing the full color background and the top "overlay" layer containing the subpicture images that change color or form when a button is selected or activated. If you're a Photoshop amateur, you'll appreciate the extensive Photoshop instruction in the Help files.

Or you can design your menus like I did, creating background images in Ulead's PhotoImpact (or any other image editor) and then using text or the supplied buttons and button frames to link to other menus and content. Sonic enhanced the new version's text design capabilities, adding outline fonts and drop shadows. These improvements will make them sufficient for most users, but advanced authors will miss precision tools like kerning and leading, and niceties like textures, glows, or gradients.

Sonic has added the ability to insert videos into the menu (in addition to video backgrounds), coming close to matching the "drop zone" approach used in DVD Studio Pro. DVDit supports audio and video menus, and you can delay the appearance of sub-pictures to accommodate buttons that fly in with the video and other similar effects.

Dressing up your buttons is a snap. You can choose between three color sets for your normal, selected, and activated buttons states, as well as four alternatives for subpicture style, which you can set globally and customize for each button.

When designing our menus, we found the enhanced alignment tools very helpful, especially the ability to copy and paste attributes from one object to another. The program's grid functions need work, however. Most troublesome was a tendency for objects to shift to the grid when touched with the grid enabled. For example, if you left-aligned a set of text buttons (potentially taking them out of precise alignment with the grid) and then later clicked the button to change the font or other attribute, DVDit shifted it to the grid position if grid was enabled, and out of alignment with the other buttons. In the end, we found it more efficient to work without the grid, using the alignment tools to line up menu objects.

Content

After importing a video asset, you convert it to a title by dragging it onto an icon in the project window. Titles are presented in a timeline, which makes it easy to add multiple audio and/or multiple text tracks. Like DVD Workshop (and unlike Encore 1.5), DVDit has a useful, dedicated slide show function, pretty much borrowed en mass from MyDVD. The tool offers transitions and the ability to match slide duration to background music, but no pan and zoom capabilities.

Creating and naming chapter points in a title is simple and logical, and you link chapter points, titles, and menus to buttons via drag-and-drop or by choosing a target via right mouse-click. We missed the ability to drag chapter points directly from the timeline to the menu, a la Encore, but once we got hip to the DVDit workflow, all went smoothly.

Navigational Options

DVDit offers a solid array of navigational options, most of which work fairly logically. The main exception is button routing, which is kind of screwy but workable once you know the rules. I'll use this image as an illustration.

Button order specifies the routing the viewer works through when clicking the arrow keys on the remote. In the figure, you'd want the viewer to proceed fairly logically through the menu, like moving down all the buttons in the left column, then up to Pan and Zoom on the right, then on down that column.

From button 1, which is shown in the button attributes panel on the right, you might decide to let the viewer jump to button 5 with the right arrow key, or make the operation of the down and right arrows identical as I did. Either way, you want operation to be reasonably logical so the viewer understands how to move through the buttons.

Accordingly, most authoring programs assume some desired button order, either top to bottom then left to right, or vice versa, and often this is configurable and customizable. However, DVDit numbers the buttons based upon the order in which they're added to the menu.

For example, suppose when producing the secondary menus, I completed the HDV Downconvert and Stabilization menus first, and linked them to the main menu. These would become buttons 1 and 2 under the DVDit schema. Though DVDit's button routing function adjusts for this automatically, our button order always seemed out of whack. The solution is to add items to your menus in the desired order, and to check button order extensively before burning the DVD.

Thankfully, setting end actions is more straightforward. You can specify the end action for each title (that is, what happens next when the video in that title finishes playing), then override that control for buttons and playlists that play the title. For example, imagine a product marketing DVD with six videos linked to six buttons on a single menu.

At a trade show, you might want the menu to time out, then play all six videos in sequence and keep looping. To accomplish this, you would set the end action for each video to play the next video. However, if a sales rep was driving the DVD manually during a sales call, you might want each video to return to the menu after playing. To accomplish this, you would set the button override for each video to return to the menu. In this fashion, you can control the end action based upon how video playback was actually triggered.

Playlists

Also new in version 6 are playlists, or the ability to link multiple titles together for sequential playback. Like Encore and DVD Workshop, however, DVDit can't exit at a chapter point, which makes the value of this feature to your productions dependent upon how you prepare your content. Bear with me for a moment—this is complicated but important.

I'll use a concert video as an example. I produce most of my concerts in a linear style, creating one long file and linking to each song via chapter points. In DVDit, this would translate to a single title with multiple chapter points. Now, if I wanted to create a playlist that played my three favorite songs (say, songs 1, 4, and 8), I couldn't do it in DVDit because once I enter the title in a playlist—either at the beginning of the title or at a chapter point—I can't exit the title until if finishes playing.

The same holds true for Encore and DVD Workshop, but not DVD Studio Pro, which can exit a title at a chapter point. This lets me enter at song 1, exit at the end of that song, jump to song 4, exit after that song, then jump to song 8.

In DVDit, Workshop, and Encore, I could render each song separately and import them as separate titles, then link them together into multiple playlists—say, one for the entire concert and one for my favorite hits. However, this would ruin the smooth linear flow of the entire concert because there would be a brief but noticeable black-screen delay between titles.

However, if your project isn't comprised of one long video, DVDit's playlist function can be fantastically valuable. For example, in the DVD I was preparing as I tested DVDit, I wanted the ability to link together different footage from the various editors in sequence, with narration. Since my test footage was already in separate titles, this was very easy to do.

Another application might be a narrated slideshow. With DVDit's slideshow feature, all slides have the same duration, so narration can be challenging. However, you can create a series of single-image slideshows, each with their own narration, and then link them together into a cohesive whole. True, you lose the inter-slide transitions offered by DVDit's dedicated slideshow feature, and still get the one-second delays between the slides, but these are much less objectionable in a slideshow presentation than a concert or wedding ceremony.

Preview, Error-Checking, and Rendering

Here's where things get disappointing. DVDit can't preview video menus without first rendering them, unlike most other prosumer programs, and previewing end actions is confusing. Unlike Encore, the poster child for specific and comprehensive error-checking, DVDit presents an error message, which for me triggers thoughts of a psychiatrist's diagnosis in a Woody Allen movie (you have a problem, but I'm not telling you what it is). Whether you find this helpful or not, either way the lack of specific direction translates to lots more manual error checking, especially for complex projects.

Rendering controls are generally straightforward, but that lack of a "fit to disc" function, which appeared in the last version of MyDVD, is frustrating. We did appreciate that DVDit didn't re-encode the MPEG assets imported into the program, saving time and an extra layer of compression degradation, though you can force such a recompression if desired.

Now on to eDVD.

eDVD

eDVD is a program that lets you create links to additional content that can be accessed when the DVD is played back on a computer. When a Windows user pops the DVD into a DVD drive, the InterActual DVD software player included on the DVD runs and plays the DVD. Macintosh users will have to install the InterActual software manually, but will still be able to access all the content on the disc.

Not to sound like a marketing stiff, but the possibilities suggested by eDVD are truly endless. For example, if you shot in HDV, you can deliver a standard SD DVD that plays at SD resolution on a DVD player and delivers HD content in Windows Media format on a computer. If you shot high-resolution still images, you could create a high-resolution slideshow to display on the computer, or open a folder on the DVD to copy images to the computer. You can also create auto-run pages with active Web links. To order more copies of your wedding DVD, folks can click here to access your Web page or click there to print a PDF order form.

The high-level workflow is as follows: You create your DVD title in any authoring program (DVDit included) and write the volume to disc. Then you use eDVD to insert the external links, and burn the files and volumes to DVD±R with any CD/DVD burning software.

Operation is simple, once you grasp a few key points. First, you can only create links to external programs at a chapter point. To do this, we created a one-screen slideshow; Sonic includes a sample screen on the installation DVD. When selected on a normal DVD player, this image plays, and tells viewers that they can't access the content. On a computer, the same screen shows in the InterActual player, but the extra content plays in a separate player (e.g., Windows Media Video would play in the Windows Media Player).

You create the buttons and links to the image in your authoring program, then write the finished title to a volume on disc and run eDVD. Once in eDVD, the problem becomes finding the right title to link your external content to. As you can see in Figure 4, this project had 52 titles, of which six had external links. To identity the target buttons, we used the eDVD player to preview the title, clicking on the target buttons and noting the title information displayed in the player's bottom right information window (the Title 50/Chapter 1).

Then you click the title in eDVD, and assign the links, which proved very simple. Most other operations are wizard-driven, and I had my first enhanced DVD up and running in about two hours.

Whether your goal is to distinguish your DVDs from the competition, enhance sales, or just show off the HDV video from your lovely HDR-FX1 camcorder, eDVD is essential. Though we hope Santa brings us enhanced error-checking features in subsequent revisions, along with exit-at-chapter point capabilities in the play list function, DVDit is definitely highly functional for most projects, with an interface that DVD novices will love.

Sidebar

System Requirements

  • 800MHz+ Pentium 3 (2GHz Pentium 4 recommended) running Windows XP with 128MB RAM (512MB recommended)
  • Direct X 9.0c
  • Windows Media Player 10
  • QuickTime 6.5.1
  • 16MB VRAM (64MB recommended)
  • 10GB available HDD space



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