Synopsis: Never has a consumer product in the digital media space packed so much power and versatility and made it so easy to get to. For application triage, Creator 7 has no peer. Choose an app by name, or from a handy task list, and you're sure to find what you're looking for, be it video or photo editing, disc copying, CD or DVD burning, or DVD authoring. With the exception of the (still) disappointingly limited DVD Builder, they are all fine tools, and there are logical (and usually multiple) ways to navigate between them. What's more, it's got a mind-boggling price: it's hard to argue with a suite jam-packed with top-notch apps for $99.
The talk of the baseball world in February was the New York Yankees' controversial signing of Alex Rodriguez. Laughing in the face of the luxury tax, and showing up the Red Sox' John Henry and every other multimillionaire owner without the guts to blast through a mountain to bolster his lineup, George Steinbrenner added an all-time great at the peak of his powers—playing and earning—to a team already loaded with pricey, overpowering talent.
Which leaves the rest of the league to fume and fret over a season many have pronounced over before it's begun. How do you beat a team with All-Stars at eight positions, and MVPs at three?
Naturally, journalists are doing their best to poke holes in these intimations of invincibility: A-Rod is out of position at 3rd base, and Jeter has always been out of position at shortstop; Giambi, Lofton, Brown, and Rivera aren't what they used to be; all those all-star egos can't possibly co-exist. Faced with such a team, writers will repeat these arguments until they believe them. But they know they're grasping at straws.
When Roxio's Chris Taylor and Vito Salvaggio flew out to Madison in late January to demo Easy Media Creator 7, scanning the new Media Creator Home Explorer interface that catalogs all the applications in the new "Digital Media Suite" was enough to make my eyes bug out the way a glance at the new Yankee lineup does. Just as Rodriguez, Jeter, Sheffield, Lofton, Giambi, Matsui, Mussina, or Brown might be (or have been) franchise players on another ballclub, Creator Classic, VideoWave, and PhotoSuite are all viable products in their own right that have been rolled into Creator 7 with their full feature sets intact. VideoWave, for example, acquired from MGI in 2002, sells as a standalone product for $79, and competes in the consumer NLE space with Ulead Video Studio, Pinnacle Studio 9, and ArcSoft ShowBiz. PhotoSuite, a still-image tool newly beefed-up with enticing masking and object selection features, sells on its own for $49.95. And Creator Classic and CD & DVD Creator ship in OEM versions with all manner of CD and DVD recorders and recorder-equipped PCs and often prove to be the only recording tools that purchasers of those drives and PCs ever use.
Never has a consumer product in this space packed so much power and versatility and made it so easy to get to. Which is a key point in and of itself: for application triage, Creator 7 has no peer. Choose an app by name, or from a handy task list, and you're sure to find what you're looking for. With the exception of the (still) disappointingly limited DVD Builder, they are all fine tools, and there are always logical (and usually multiple) ways to navigate between them.
What's more, if it took a Yankees-sized payroll to put these elements together, Roxio certainly hasn't passed those costs on to the user. It's hard to argue with a suite jam-packed with top-notch apps for $99.
Like any consumer tool vendor, Roxio makes some basic assumptions about its customers. They make two, in particular about entry-level digital media users: one, that they want digital video editing, digital photo and other asset management, DVD authoring, slideshows, audio CD recording, data backup, and CD and DVD copying in a single tool; and two, that they know and like Windows and its way of navigating from task to task. They've assumed correctly on both counts, and what's more, the way they've implemented those assumptions by combining VideoWave, PhotoSuite, DVD Builder, and Creator Classic and inviting users to access them through the pleasing and purposeful "Media Creator Home" interface couldn't be better. If we gave grades in EMedia, I'd give the Creator Home page an A+.
If you know the app you want, select it by name (VideoWave, Creator Classic, etc.), or choose the task you want from one of five categories (Music, Data, Photo, Video, DVD), with choices related to the kind of disc you want to make or what sort of machinations you wish to perform on your video or photo assets. It's a great way to get started.
In this entry-level division of the digital studio, what we're most interested in doing with a product like Creator 7 is pulling in various media assets, editing and assembling them, and authoring the results to DVD. The first project I undertook in testing Creator 7 involved capturing roughly 28 minutes of video, importing it into VideoWave, and editing it by splitting some scenes, trimming some clips, adding some transitions and effects, placing overlay titles at opportune points, mixing in some background audio, and assembling a music video from those captured clips with a feature called CineMagic.
Capture was painless and seamless. You can go straight to Capture Video from the Task List, and the Roxio Capture module will present you with a "My Computer"-style list of potential capture devices. Among them are DVD movie files from hard disk and DVD movie files from DVD; Creator 7 can unpack non copy-protected VOBs and import them into its Collections media asset bins as MPEG-2 files, which is an interesting feature. You can also rip digital audio tracks into WAV files and record from analog sources in this window, and it's a well-reasoned place to combine all these tasks. What we're interested in here is digital video and photos from their original sources, and when I connected my two capture devices of choice—a JVC MiniDV camera and a Kodak DX3700 digital still camera—both showed up immediately.
I captured the video without dropping a frame, even living dangerously by working in Internet Explorer and Outlook Express during the capture process (don't you try that at home). Like most entry-level NLEs, Creator 7 can capture an entire tape, selected scenes, or a user-set chunk of video (say, 15 minutes, 30 seconds). It can also detect scenes on the fly or after you import your video into a collection and open it in VideoWave. When you're done capturing, there are lots of places you can go—VideoWave, DVD Builder, PhotoSuite 7, etc.—and Creator makes it easy to get there.
Upon arrival in VideoWave, I imported my file from the capture folder into Collections. Immediately, my project presented a problem that wasn't VideoWave's fault: because I'd stopped, rewound, and watched portions of the tape as I added footage to it over 2-3 weeks, and been careless about leaving space on the tape between video shot at different times, my timecode information was invalid, which meant no automatic scene detection. (You can avoid this problem prior to shooting and capture by shooting an entire new tape with the lens cap on, then rewinding and starting fresh. Subsequently, no matter what you do with the tape after that, the timecode information will be constant and complete when you bring the footage to your PC.)
Left with 28 minutes of undifferentiated video, I had to chop up the scenes myself, which is accomplished pretty easily in the video editor after switching from the Storyline to the Timeline view. Slide over to the point in the video where you want a scene break, right click, and select Split from the pull-down, or use the Split-Media Item button from the helpful icon panel above the timeline. There are several other interesting things you can do here. You can add inter-scene transitions from an enormous (though not particularly well-organized) array of choices ranging from simple dissolves, fades, and wipes to very funky and creative 3D stuff with blocks and shapes and a whole set of SMPTE Wipes. Eyeballing it, I'd say you get more here than you do in the non-premium level of Pinnacle Studio, the standard-setter in the entry-level NLE category.
You can also trim your clips in VideoWave, as you might expect; all the trimming is accomplished under the Adjust Duration/Video Trimmer heading, most easily accessed by clicking the clock icon. Here, the rolling dial option is particularly appealing as an alternative to the familiar scrubber/slider. I still prefer Ulead's Multitrim (from MovieFactory 3), but the VideoWave version gets the job done. You can also add title overlays, ranging from the simple and straightforward to the flying and bouncing sort; they get their own "abc" track in the Timeline, which is nicely differentiated from the video, audio, and effects tracks. VideoWave also offers overlays like filmstrip and old photo, and video effects like sepia, tints, mirrors, and swirls for those whose tastes run that way (the search lights are pretty cool), although no color correction or cleaning. (Roxio product management VP Salvaggio says their users don't want that stuff. I say they fall behind Studio 9 by its omission.)
You can also insert additional audio tracks and balance their volume with the original audio from the video (all the way up to wiping it out). All of these tasks are intuitive, effective, and easily performed.
Also of some interest here are the "automatic" video editors CineMagic and StoryBuilder, on loan from VideoWave's MovieCreator spinoff. I liked those tools when I reviewed MovieCreator in December 2002, and I still enjoy 'em now. MovieCreator helped define a new class of "automatic" video editors a comfy step down from tools like VideoStudio and Studio, and even ShowBiz. Including its key components here helps Roxio meet several levels of user needs and wants.
One VideoWave pull-down I find particularly appealing is a small, hodge-podge icon just above the timeline containing a butterfly, a filmstrip, and a pencil. Click it, and you'll be presented with four choices of editors: Adjust, Edit native audio, Motion Pictures, and Edit internal tracks.
Adjust offers very basic color adjustment controls: brightness, contrast, and sliders for increasing/decreasing your reds, greens, and blues. You can also change the speed of the video here. This degree of color adjustment used to meet expectations for entry-level NLEs, but not since Pinnacle raised the color correction and video noise reduction bar in Studio 9.
Edit native audio opens a window in which you can change the overall volume of a clip's native audio, set edit points to amplify or decrease it, and adjust it by frequency range using a simple or advanced equalizer. I like that you can cross-fade and mix tracks within the timeline with impunity in Studio, but the equalizer is a nice bonus in VideoWave.
Edit internal tracks lets you focus on the currently selected scene in the timeline or storyline; double clicking it achieves the same result.
Motion Pictures is where VideoWave really stands apart from the crowd. Motion Pictures opens up your selected scene in a new window where you can perform pan-and-scan functions on the video. Using a combination of slider bar and click-and-drag frame adjustment, you can select different frame sizes and positions for the portion of the screen you want to show, and keyframe the points in the video timeline when you want to move the frame. Naturally, this also works on still images. Minus the vectors, 3D, and complexity, this is essentially what programs like Imaginate and MovingPicture do for still images; to apply these moves to motion video on the other hand, you usually have to move up to mid-level NLEs (like Premiere, Edition, Vegas, and MSP). You can do it with still photos in Studio 9's 2D Editor, but it's much easier to get results in Motion Pictures. It's not exactly a must-buy differentiator for a consumer tool, but it's nonetheless a nice distinguishing feature for Roxio to include here.
Which brings me to my favorite feature of all in the entire Creator 7 suite. As in MyDVD, Studio, MovieCreator, and all the other entry-level products that offer basic video tools and DVD authoring, Creator 7 has slideshow capabilities. As much as I enjoy the way Creator 7 enables you to capture still images and organize them into collections, and as logical as I find it that it lets you rip and import music tracks to accompany your slideshows at the same time and place, it's what Creator 7 lets you do with slideshows that really sets it apart.
Working in VideoWave, import your still images (including screens you may have grabbed from your video clips) into collections and drag the ones you want into the storyboard. Add transitions manually or automatically (Transition Themes are helpful here), and click the musical note icon to add an audio track (interestingly, VideoWave won't import a protected WMA track downloaded from their own Napster service). Click the Fit to Audio icon to sync up the times. Rotate your photos as needed for those that came in sideways. (Roxio will place black bars around photos, rotated or otherwise, that don't fit a 4:3 screen.) Nothing unfamiliar here. Then click select all, right-click on any image, and select Auto Motion from the menu that pops up.
Instantly, mirabile visu, VideoWave adds one of six preset pan-and-zoom moves (applied at random) to each image to create motion throughout your slideshow. With the growing popularity of pan-and-zoom tools like Imaginate and MovingPicture, and with MovingPicture appearing as an add-on to more and more tools, most recently Studio 9, there's definitely a lot of interest in applying documentary-style, frame-shifting motion to still images, but it's a laborious process, meant for careful application to individual or small groups of images, synched to narration and so forth. By automating it, Roxio actually presents image panning to consumers in a digestible way. This approach should also appeal to wedding videographers and digital photographers and anyone working with CD/DVD slideshows who want to give their productions an edge without interrupting their workflow.
The inclusion of PhotoSuite in the Creator suite also gives users additional photo-editing capabilities you don't find in other consumer NLEs. Let's say you need to rotate vertical photos and the rotation leaves you with black bars at the sides. Right click on the photo, select Edit from the pop-up menu, and you'll jump to a screen where you can crop, change the proportions numerically, or click and drag a bounding box until your image stretches to fit the screen. Pro-level photo management products like Ulead PhotoImpact have excellent tools for this kind of thing, but until now, editors have had to venture outside of their NLE to get their photos in shape.
I've spent most of this review talking about VideoWave for two reasons, one good, the other bad. First, the good: Creator Classic, the disc recording engine, is still best-in-show as ever: a wonderful, versatile product enhanced by its association with the Explorer-like task and applications lists, the new colors of the interface, and the fact that it hasn't been "skinned" like too many tools in this MP3 player-aestheticized age. Like the DVD authoring interface in Sonic's MyDVD, Creator Classic is untouchable as an all-purpose CD/DVD recording tool.
The other key component I've yet to address here (the bad, unfortunately) is DVD Builder. Not only is it still not up to the Sonic standard, but it remains the most feature-deprived authoring tool I've seen (well, let's say it's in a tie with Nero on that count). If Nero were the only competing suite that offered general-purpose recording as well, I'd let it slide, but Sonic and Ulead are also playing that all-things-to-all-people game now, and their authoring tools are much more intuitive and versatile; they offer more templates; and they're better integrated with the admittedly limited editing interfaces in their current product suites.
I imported a 24-minute, five-scene video project into DVD Builder by clicking the DVD icon above the timeline. I marked chapters at selected scene changes using a slider bar, and instructed DVD Builder to create a chapter menu, at a level below the title menu. I then added a second title, an Auto Motion slideshow, which also could have been an additional chapter from the first title if I'd placed it in the timeline. All well and good—even with the limited template choices and relatively simple moving and sizing of the chapter buttons—except I could find only one way to edit the chapter sub-menu, and an unsatisfactory one at that. You can create a chapter menu template with a photo or video background of your choice, select text color and font, and rows or columns, but that's it. No re-sizing, rearrangement, or chapter titling. There's a pulldown for menu editing, but it only applies to intro video and title menus. You get much more control—including chapters as the first menu—in other entry-level authoring tools, which makes this a serious omission from DVD Builder. For my five chapters, I got five small icons with numbers underneath them. They were way too small, and inefficient in their use of menu real estate (a small horizontal stripe halfway down the screen). You're better off setting chapter points for in-playback navigation but omitting the chapter menu, if that approach suits your project.
DVD Builder rendered the video and effects quickly and effectively, and several discs burned fine, with the software writing flawlessly to Verbatim DVD+R and DVD-R media (both from DVD Builder and later in DVD copying tests), as well as some Verbatim CD-R discs in audio CD burning and duping. Following the DVD burn, my Auto Motion slide show sputtered on playback on a Pioneer DVD player, but played flawlessly on the PC. It turned out to be an AC-3 audio encoding problem, which Roxio has now identified and fixed.
Roxio's integration continues to shine here—you can get back to VideoWave by clicking Advanced Edit, as well as get back to the Media Selector and Capture and add transitions in your video or slideshow—which is nice, since many users who are all about getting video onto DVD will start here and enter applications only as needed.
And if we pull back a step and look at the bigger picture, thinking of DVD authoring and video editing as integrated activities, rather than effectively linked discrete applications—the goal, again, being an intelligent and seamless process—I still lean toward Pinnacle's approach of offering menu linking in the timeline. I understand that Roxio believes that many of its users who want to make DVDs don't ever want to know about timelines. But that's no reason not to build that capability into VideoWave, if they truly want it to feed DVD authoring projects. There's versatility, power, and control in that approach you can't get elsewhere, and I believe any entry-level editor/author, like me, will always prefer the work they do in Studio, at least in terms of the mechanics of the DVD they create and its effective presentation of the video they've captured and edited.
Creator 7 doesn't integrate video editing and authoring as well as Studio 9, but it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, since Creator 7 integrates much more than video editing and authoring. (In that sense it's more aptly compared to Apple's iLife 4, but lacking a common platform those two obviously don't compete.) Outside of DVD menu creation, Creator 7 offers much more than the Editor's Choice-winning MyDVD 5 Studio Deluxe—Creator Classic beats the shrunken RecordNow, VideoWave offers much more video editing flexibility, there's simply no contest on the photo features (big win for Roxio), disc copying is a push, and MyDVD's opening-screen wizard isn't the omnipotent ombudsman that the Creator Home page is.
But we put a lot of emphasis on DVD authoring in these parts, and if you direct all these wonderful elements toward the final step of DVD authoring and you end up with a disc that's clumsy to navigate and not as structurally elegant as it can or should be, that diminishes the value of what you built along the way. And I'm not saying you can't make a good or great DVD from all the sophisticated media management, editing, and compiling you can do in Creator 7, but MyDVD will make a better DVD of the same project, and ultimately that counts for a lot.
Nobody's got a lineup anywhere near as feature-rich as Creator 7, and despite the shortcomings of DVD Builder, the overall effect is so overwhelming there's really nothing out there than can compete. Roxio's got all-stars at positions the competition doesn't even fill.
If your ambitions aren't DVD-centric, or you can live with a little less elegance in your DVD navigation, you'll never find a computing application that packs as much punch, power, and breathtaking range of capabilities as Roxio Easy Media Creator 7.
Roxio Easy Media Creator 7
• Windows 2000 Service Pack 4 or XP SP1
• For CD burning and copying: 500mHz Pentium 3, 128MB RAM
• For DVD slideshow or video authoring: 1.2gHz Pentium 3, 256MB RAM
• For DVD-Video copying: 4.5GB HDD space, 16-bit color graphics card
• For real-time MPEG-2 capture/burning: 1.6gHz Pentium 3, 1GB free hard disk space per 5 min. captured video