Review: Ahead Nero 6 Ultra Edition
Posted Aug 1, 2003

Synopsis: With Nero 6, Ahead has attempted to make their product friendlier for mainstream users, but hasn't always succeeded in their implementations of consumer-oriented interface changes. Nero remains a solid package for CD and DVD recording with a tremendous (and much-expanded) wealth of features, and packs plenty of power for those users who want it. But it's hard to be all things to all people, and if Ahead is determined to make Nero the tool of choice for consumers and power-users alike, they need to find ways to integrate the two identities more cleanly.

Software users often take comfort in pigeonholing software packages and CD/DVD recording software is no exception. Based on this type of thinking, one could say, Nero is the tool for the technically minded, while Roxio Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 is the tool for consumers. (True, Roxio has its own pro-oriented tool in CeQuadrat WinOnCD, but that product lacks the visibility of ECD or Nero, at least in North America.) Though there is a nugget of truth in generalizing Nero as a pro's preference and ECD as a consumer's choice, with the release of Nero 6 Ultra Edition, the line that had made it so easy to divide the two programs in previous versions has become somewhat blurred (and to a certain extent it already had begun to blur with version 5).

Much like Roxio, Ahead has decided to make its flagship product kinder and gentler for the average user. To this end, they have added a project launcher interface similar in many ways to Roxio's program selector. In addition, Ahead has decided (like Roxio) that recording CDs and DVDs wasn't enough for one program and has rebuilt itself into a digital media one-stop shop providing such new elements as Nero Vision Express 2, a tool for capturing video and creating DVD movies and slideshows, a DVD viewer (so you don't have to use a third-party viewer any longer), backup software, audio editing, enhanced MPEG-4 support (a feature they expect to take on greatly increased significance in the next year), and more.

While Ahead has for the most part maintained the flexibility and control that made Nero a favorite of more technical end-users in the past, by trying to cross the line into consumer-friendly tool, they have in some ways made the program more confusing to use. That's because those "friendly" features have been implemented to a large extent in an awkward fashion. There's certainly a lot to like about this program, but they need to work harder if they truly hope to make the leap to the consumer side, or to mix their two alter egos into one program. This review looks at some of the highlights of the latest version.

Installation Shuffle
In an effort to give users control over the installation process, Ahead has divided the install process into a series of separate installations, the theory being that the users can pick and choose the items they want. Unfortunately, if you want to install the entire feature set, this process becomes tedious because as you complete each installation, you need to move down the menu, pick the next item, and go through the same process several times (and there is no system to tell you which ones you've already installed).

It would have made more sense to use an Office-like single installation interface (as Roxio did) where users can pick and choose the elements they want to install and can easily see which tools are already installed. While Ahead deserves praise for taking into consideration that every user might not want to install every piece in the package, they could have done a better job designing the installation interface.

That said, the applications installed fine on the test PC, a Sony VAIO Pentium 3 running Windows 98SE with 256MB RAM, with a Datoptic Speedzter 5 DVD Recorder used as the test recorder for both CD-R and DVD-R. Nero will run on all versions of Windows from 95B to XP (plus NT); minimum system requirements include 300mHz Pentium 3 for basic CD recording; 500mHz for DVD playback; 800mHz for video capture; and 1.6gHz for direct-to-DVD capture and recording; and 64MB RAM (128MB RAM recommended).

Is SmartStart a Good Start?
Although Nero still provides users with the ability to launch each program in the product separately, they have attempted to integrate the entire package into a single interface dubbed Nero SmartStart. This bone is tossed to the consumer side who want to see exactly what is included in the program; again, Ahead gets credit for effort, but the implementation needs some adjustment.

The interface opens with a set of icons with a single sentence for instructions. There is no additional Help available, which really should be a must if they want to make this attractive to a consumer audience. It's up to the user to figure out several key concepts here.

First of all, you need to run your cursor over each icon to display the various features associated with that choice. Next, you need to understand (so long as you have a CD and DVD recorder installed) that there are two small toggle switches at the top of the screen labeled CD and DVD, and you need to click the appropriate toggle to reveal the correct tools. In addition, there is another, not terribly obvious, button at the bottom of the window that allows you toggle between "Standard" and "Expert" modes. Clicking the Expert toggle allows you to see additional functions that Ahead has decided are too complex for the standard user. Unless you happen upon the button and view the tool tip, however, it's hard to tell it's there.

Finally, there is an Expand window button on the left side of the window. Clicking this button reveals a list of the full suite of tools. It might have been smarter to display this view as the default. It's important to note that Roxio had a similarly awkward interface in ECD 5 before opting for a more streamlined approach in the latest version. Ultimately, this menu approach needs some tweaking to be a truly useful integration tool.

Recording CDs
When all is said and done, the most important reason to buy this software is to record CDs and DVDs, and that is what Nero does best. You can record CDs in several ways, using Nero Express or Nero Burning ROM just as you could in previous versions. Ahead has made some cosmetic changes to the interface, but for the most part, users of version 5.x of the program should find everything familiar. You simply select the files you want to record or make a copy directly in Nero Burning ROM software. It lacks that handy little burn button that you find in Roxio, but it does the job and it does it quickly.

Nero 6 also includes the NeroMIX program. You can play and record a variety of music formats from this player including MP3, WMA, and Audio CD among others. You can also record a CD directly by clicking the Record button. The player has the obligatory visualizer (does anybody use that?) and skins, but the skins are on the lame side with a couple of PDA looks (the most sensibly laid out of the bunch), a Roman coin, flames and the default Remote. Depending on the skin you use, it's not always clear how to generate a playlist. Experienced users will hunt and peck to find it, but the consumer audience may be baffled and there is no online help available to find more information about using the tool.

Making Movies and Slideshows
Ahead has integrated several tools to make it easier to record and play DVDs. Among these is the new NeroVision Express 2 (not to be confused with the CD burning tool Nero Express, a stripped-down version of Nero 5.5 found in numerous CD/DVD recording bundles), which allows you to capture video (and still pictures) and save it in a variety of formats including VCD, SVCD, DVD, mini-DVD, and DV. You can access this program from SmartStart by selecting the movie icon, then selecting the appropriate project type, or you can launch it directly from the Start menu.

When you select a project such as Capture Video, NeroVision Express opens with yet another project selector interface, this one integrated into NeroVision Express, asking you what you want to do. It would make more sense to take you directly to the Video Capture application since that's what you asked to do. (To be fair, selecting other project types does take you directly to the correct window to begin the process.)

Regardless, to capture video, you choose the Capture Video to Hard Drive option and the Capture Video window opens. Your camera is detected automatically and you can put your camera in VCR mode (or capture live video by recording directly through the camera). The program recognizes stops and shifts and breaks the movie into logical chapters. If you don't like this, however, you have the control to shut off the feature from a simple check box. Like most of their programs, Ahead hides much of the advanced functionality with a More button at the bottom of the window. Clicking this button reveals additional functions that allow you to tweak the program to your liking. This provides a convenient way to keep the program from becoming too cluttered, but giving the core technical audience the tools they need to get under the hood.

After you complete the video capture, you can move into the editing mode. Here, Nero differentiates itself with a more straightforward editing process than you'll find in the Roxio tool (which had a somewhat busy editing interface). The storyboard/timeline is located at the bottom of the screen and you can easily switch between the two by clicking a tab. You add elements by locating the files with pictures or video. From the Movie Editing screen, you can add transitions and effects by simply dragging and dropping them onto the storyboard or timeline. There are no transitions for the slideshow tool in the initial release of the product, but Ahead will be offering a free download that includes slideshow transitions, red eye correction, and advanced audio options.

In addition to the elements covered earlier, there is a nice little backup program, something Roxio doesn't currently offer, along with some audio editing tools, a cover designer, disc utilities, and more than can fit in one review. 

Ahead of the Game, or Moving to the Middle?
While staying true to their core audience, Ahead has continued to make changes in an attempt to move the Nero suite of products further into the mainstream. The trouble is that they need some work on the consumer stuff and they risk alienating the technical users by adding bells and whistles to simplify the product. At some point, they have to overcome their identity crisis and pick a direction and stick with it, or they need to find a cleaner way to merge these two identities, or risk losing both markets.