Review: Sonic MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe
Posted Nov 4, 2003

Synopsis: MyDVD is the best all-purpose CD/DVD creation software I've seen, offering as near to the best of DVD authoring and CD creation as you'll find anywhere these days, and with its video editing features, it essays competence in areas that others don't even attempt.

As a callow assistant editor at my first trade show (the late and occasionally lamented intermedia), I stuck close to the EMedia (then CD-ROM Professional) booth, hawking the magazine, tongue-in-cheek, as "all things to some people, and nothing to others." In a way, that was more true then than it is now—if that makes any sense—since the 1995-vintage CD-ROM Professional, though beginning to broaden its purview and diversify its appeal, was a stuck-in-the-stacks, niche-within-a-niche, library-oriented publication, exploring the minutiae of mass-database applications for CD-ROM and the hardware that produced and played them.

Perhaps echoing the spirit of those bygone days, two recent reviews by Ron Miller have used similar "all things to all people" terms to criticize two long-standing CD recording tools, Roxio's Easy CD Creator and Ahead's Nero. In recent versions they've attempted to expand their appeal, both in terms of versatility— adding DVD authoring capability, in the main— and offering a surfeit of features for both the consumer and professional. The problem, Miller argued, came in the tools' tendency to spread themselves too thin, and offer too little to too many. That's putting it in terms more dramatic than Miller did—neither of these tools came up all that short, and both are powerful applications, particularly on the recording side, and admirable ones in their first efforts to throw DVD recording into the mix. But again, in the name of pro/am fusion, he argued that their identities aren't as well-integrated as they might be, and having worked with both tools, I agree.

That said, versions 6 of both tools (the latest, in both instances) have redefined the parameters for software previously known as "premastering" or "CD recording" tools. The old terms simply don't fit anymore, since so much of what these tools do pertains to DVD. Both tools also broke that new ground in much the same way, adding first-generation DVD capabilities to tools well-heeled in CD creation. And while both tools (Nero in particular) can stake a reasonable claim to pro capabilities on the CD recording side, they approach DVD from a decidedly consumer standpoint. Then there's Sonic, who invented DVD authoring "for the rest of us" with MyDVD, and arguably reinvented "the rest of us" as potential DVD authors, with help from Pioneer, HP, and Sony, who brought us affordable DVD recording. MyDVD, which is now in version 5, is bigger and more feature-enriched than ever. What's more, Sonic has added video editing and CD recording to the mix with this version, which is welcome news. But unlike Roxio and Ahead, which are combining the raw and the cooked, Sonic has an ace up its sleeve (mixed metaphors aside). With the acquisition of Veritas' MyCD recording technology in November 2002, they've got a seasoned CD application at their disposal—RecordNow Max, an Editor's Choice winner in 2002. Best of all, they've chosen not to dispose of it, but rather to bundle it with MyDVD in the newly released MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe, released by Sonic in September and distributed by Adaptec. And if that sounds to you like a suite that could stake a legitimate "all things to all people" claim, you wouldn't be far off. What's more, if it sounds like a lock for Editor's Choice, the single best mass-market DVD/CD creation tool on the market, you'd be right again.

A Period of Transition
There's so much that's new in MyDVD, we'll go quickly over the familiar—and even the relatively mundane among the new—and progress right to the new and the cool. Part of the idea of an all-purpose consumer tool like MyDVD is that it should take care of everything you need to get your video to DVD, from capture to editing to authoring to burning. MyDVD 4 had a solid real-time capture utility, but it's much improved in version 5, with a facile new capture window, and the ability to set capture time and not have to worry about starting and stopping. You can also set MyDVD to detect scenes and make chapter menus from scenes, which is fairly handy, but given that there's more interesting stuff you can do later on, trimming video and customizing transitions and chapter breaks, unless you're in a hurry, you can make better use of MyDVD's rich feature set by holding off and inserting your own chapter points. Under Record Settings, MyDVD gives you a few options for scene detection, such as a slider bar for determining detection sensitivity.

There's no batch capture option or quick scan feature for surveying your source tape before capture, which is disappointing, but more importantly, capture proved fluid and clean in testing, yielding a nice 10-minute DV-AVI file with no dropped frames, which is what you really need to move on to authoring and editing.

Whether you capture new video or pull video from your hard drive (using "Get Movies" in the main authoring window), MyDVD will drop a thumbnail of your video in a working title menu with default text. Double-clicking on the thumbnail or right-clicking and selecting "Edit Video" from the pop-up will take you to Sonic's brand new video editing window. If you didn't enable "Detect Scenes" during capture, you can have MyDVD do it now, and have it place those scenes in a storyboard layout for editing. You won't find a timeline layout like those found in popular consumer video editors like Pinnacle Studio or Ulead Video Studio here; Sonic says customer feedback indicates their users were looking for something simpler.

MyDVD includes five categories of between-scenes transitions (Fades & Dissolves, Iris Wipes, Pushes, Slides, Splits, and Wipes), which run the gamut from the straightforward to flashy and goofy stuff that screams "consumer editor," but makes the process more fun, which is certainly part of the goal here. Pick the transitions you like and drag and drop them into the storyboard, or ask MyDVD to generate random transitions. MyDVD also gives you four categories of options for altering the look of your video (Filters, Frames, Image Adjustment, and Orientation). This type of hokey foofaraw was the trademark of ArcSoft ShowBiz, the "only try this at home" video editing software that Sonic bundled with the Deluxe edition of MyDVD 4. Some of it is kind of fun (like "Alien TV Overlay" under Frames, and the "Scratchy Old Film" and "Sepia" filters), and some of the Image Adjustment tools will have practical use if your source video is a little too dark or bright, or needs its contrast adjusted.

You can also add titles in the video editing window, and most importantly, trim unwanted segments of scenes by double clicking the thumbnail in the storyboard and (as it opens in the trimmer window) dragging the slider bar to new in- and out-points. You can pinpoint these points digitally by specifying them in the clock, then preview your new scene. Here you also have the option of adding soundtrack audio, with audio features accessed by clicking the "Add Audio" speaker icon from the vertical panel at the left side of the screen. Again, very simple and straightforward and accessible to the novice. Nothing unfamiliar or shocking here, but it's a big advantage to have it available within the MyDVD application itself.

Back on Top
Once you've got your video trimmed and transitioned, it's time to head back to the DVD authoring windows, and help MyDVD do what it does best. There's less to note that's new here. MyDVD was always pretty accomplished in the entry-level DVD arts. Chapter and menu creation—automatic, by scene, or customized—is simple and straightforward as can be and, as always, MyDVD gives you a nice selection of background options. You can make motion menus of all your chapter buttons here, too, check your button links (using the on-screen DVD remote-like preview control), and add chapter titles as desired. Then it's just one click to burn—red button, lower right, can't miss it.

Also new in MyDVD 5 is the ability to choose AC-3 as your audio format. This is a nice space-saving feature (as in, leaving more space for video), since AC-3, unlike PCM (the CD-Audio standard that was previously your only option), is a compressed format. And it's a much more appealing option than the "MPEG audio" format available in many tools, which is also compressed, but much lower quality than AC-3.

But the real distinguishing feature of the latest MyDVD as a DVD authoring tool involves OpenDVD and Sonic's CinePlayer software playback tool. CinePlayer never seemed like any great shakes to me in past versions, and Sonic itself admits that for most playback tasks it's more limited than leading competitors like WinDVD and PowerDVD.

For those who don't know, OpenDVD is proprietary Sonic technology that places project information on a recorded disc along with the DVD-Video title itself (this information is invisible to a DVD player). By doing so, Sonic allows users to re-open their MyDVD project from the disc, provided source media like AVI files, images, and MP3s or WAVs used for soundtrack music are still available or you don't intend to re-edit your original video. Arguably, OpenDVD has limited appeal for many applications, since it requires a pretty convoluted scenario to be worthwhile: How likely are users to keep hefty AVI files close at hand but trash their DVD project files while they're still potentially revising a disc? OK, I admit it, I've done that and regretted it, but I still wonder if that's terribly common. Of course, given timecode consistency, it's easier to capture and replace AVI files than re-create DVD project files, so maybe they've got something there.

In any event, OpenDVD (like CinePlayer) never seemed all that great to me until I learned that with version 5, you can actually launch MyDVD from CinePlayer as you review your work and discover something you'd like to correct, and thanks to OpenDVD, re-open your project file and jump in right where you left off, more or less. And because all DVDs created with MyDVD are "OpenDVD-compliant" (which means they include the project files), this applies to any disc you create in the software.

Into the Music
The other keynote of the MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe bundle is RecordNow, the all-purpose CD and DVD recording application based on technology acquired from Veritas last November. Sonic has made some interesting cosmetic changes to RecordNow, and a few less apparent ones. First and foremost is casting the whole application in a Wizard that looks quite a bit like CinePlayer.

I wouldn't say all the changes have been for the best, but it's certainly a powerful and usable tool. Getting started with RecordNow (a discrete application that installs along with MyDVD) is simple—choose one of the four iconic project tabs (Audio, Data, Copy, or VideoCD) from below the main player window, and RecordNow will launch one of these categories with its several attendant choices. In Audio, for example, these include "Audio CD for Car or Home CD Player," (you can also jump straight to this option from the main window), "Exact Copy," "Convert Audio CDs to MP3s," and more.

The music compilation option is simpler than ever. In addition to the familiar drag and drop for files already on your hard drive, they've also reduced the steps in the rip and import process. (Audio extraction, aka "ripping," was buried in the "Drive" pull-down in the old RecordNow Max.) This all happens in a simple two-window interface, consisting of "Music on System" (at left) and "Music to Burn." Interestingly, if you try dragging a whole folder's worth of files into the "Music to Burn" column, the last shall always be first (i.e., if your files are properly ordered in the source folder and named Track 1, Track 2…Track 24, Track 24 will end up first every time). This quirk (certainly more a curiosity than a bug) lingers from several previous versions of the software. I've never remembered to mention it in a review before, but I'm doing it this time and we'll see if it makes any difference. In any event, using two handy, green arrows, you can move the tracks to your heart's content and get everything in the proper order before burning.

RecordNow also includes a basic CD labeling application, which you can launch immediately after completing a disc. RecordNow will directly import track information into your label, which may or may not be helpful, depending on how cryptically you've named your tracks. The "Sonic Express Labeler" is far from overwhelming, but that's no surprise—bundled labeling tools are usually pretty lame. It's nice to have a DVD option, but I couldn't even find a way to label the spine of a CD jewel case, which is the main thing these tools are supposed to do (besides position text and images on sticky labels) since it's so difficult to do without them.

RecordNow remains a fine CD burning application, though I have one major complaint: as far as I can tell, there's no way to save a project file in the "Audio CD for Car…" area, which is absurd. Is Sonic planning to develop some sort of "OpenCD" technology for CD-Audio creation, and thus alleviate the need for saving CD project information before or after burning? I burned a compilation CD in RecordNow Deluxe and returned to it three times to tweak it, and had to rip the tracks from the previous version of the disc each time.

Down the Road
Whatever its occasional shortcomings, MyDVD is the best all-purpose CD/DVD creation software I've seen. Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 and Nero 6 Ultra Edition were on the right track—jacks-of-all-trades, masters of one. But MyDVD offers as near to the best of both (DVD authoring and CD creation) as you'll find anywhere these days, and with its rudimentary video editing features, it essays competence in areas that ECD and Nero don't even attempt. In a broad evolutionary sense, it's fascinating that these three tools are even competing in the same space now; you could have predicted that a couple years back, but even Roxio, Ahead, and Sonic might have doubted you. And even if it isn't quite all things to all people, Sonic's MyDVD ought to make believers out of quite a few.

Sonic MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe
$99
Sonic Solutions, www.sonic.com
Adaptec, Inc., www.adaptec.com

System Requirements:
• 800mHz Pentium 3 or higher (1gHz recommended)
• 128MB RAM (256MB recommended)
• AGP video graphics adapter with 8MB RAM
• 10GB free HDD space (20GB recommended)