Sonic MyDVD Studio Deluxe 6
Posted Sep 29, 2004

The search for the perfect consumer media-creation tool goes on. That doesn't mean some of the candidates haven't come close. Nobody has put more of the pieces in place than Roxio with Easy Media Creator 7; they combined video editing, image management, pan and zoom, DVD authoring, CD/DVD recording, and DVD-9 recompression in a single, wonderfully balanced and easily navigated tool. But the DVD authoring—a key part of the equation for me and just about anyone reading this magazine—was a big disappointment. Nero tried to combine the same elements with Nero 6 Ultra Edition, although they didn't come as close to the perfect all-purpose application; the reloaded version added a better photo tool, and the versatility of the Recode application (much more than a 9-to-5'er) was especially impressive, but the integration was clumsier than it should be and the DVD authoring not much better than Roxio's.

Coming from the DVD authoring side (rather than the recording side, like Roxio and Nero), Ulead threw their hat into the ring with DVD Movie Factory 3 Disc Creator, adding a nice CD/DVD recording application. Then there's Sonic Solutions, who arguably invented the consumer DVD authoring category with MyDVD. Nobody touches them on DVD authoring elegance and power in an entry-level tool, and version 5 added the newly acquired RecordNow CD/DVD recording application (in a limited version), a cool new wizard, and modest video editing—clip-trimming and transitions—as well as rock-solid slideshow capabilities. But they couldn't match the jack-of-all-trades razzle-dazzle of Easy Media Creator 7, which had upped the ante in the feature-wealth department.

Sonic says that doesn't matter now, and in at least one respect, they're right. The first, and harder-to-quantify, reason is that Creator and MyDVD play in different markets, sell through different channels, and target and reach different audiences (Roxio used to say it didn't matter because they sold so many more units). But the second reason—in a rather striking recent development—is that Sonic announced plans to acquire Roxio's software division on August 9, with the expectation that the deal will be completed in the fall [see "Sonic Acquires Roxio," p. 7]. Which does kind of render the question moot, although it raises all sorts of other questions, like how the products will co-exist in the Sonic stable and what, if any, cross-pollination may occur in future versions. Like, say, pan and zoom in MyDVD slideshows (unlikely, since MyDVD renders slideshows as MPEG I-Frames, which is good for quality but doesn't allow room for additional effects), or using AuthorScript to ratchet up the DVD authoring power of Easy Media Creator's DVD Builder into at least the respectability zone.

Of course, as long as we're playing Dr. Frankenstein, we might as well throw in Ulead's big preview window and MultiTrim feature; Nero's Recode, CD/DVD Speed, and Wave Editor; and…well, no reason to go down that road. The big news in entry-level DVD authoring right now (besides the intriguing Sonic-Roxio acquisition) is MyDVD Studio Deluxe 6, and its new features are well worth exploring.

Only Fitting
Not much has changed in the opening screens of MyDVD. It's still well-organized and easy to navigate to the various functions in five categories, including Audio, Copy, Data, Video, and Tools, with subsections within each. The color scheme seems a little cooler, and within the Video and DVD selections there's an option to upgrade to DVDit!, which gives you some idea of the theoretical upgrade path Sonic has in mind now that DVDit! is available in the Editor's Choice-winning version 5 [see review, August, pp. 38-40].

One of the first things you notice when you try to make a DVD in MyDVD 6 is not so much Roxio's design influence (which you see in the new just-for-beginners task panes) but a feature more reminiscent of Pinnacle's Studio 9 (a wrench-in-the-works DVD contender from the consumer NLE side). The default video-quality/compression option for MyDVD 6 is Fit-to-DVD, which eschews MyDVD's typical bit budget approach (i.e., you have this much space left for your video and audio) with a quality meter that shows the quality level—high, standard, long, or extended, or somewhere in between—you can expect if you burn your DVD at its current length.

Pinnacle takes exactly the same approach with Studio's Diskometer. Manual video quality settings remain the familiar HQ (high-quality, one hour), SP (standard play, two hours), LP (long play, three hours), and EP (extended play, four hours). The only real difference between Fit-to-DVD and the Diskometer is that Pinnacle's version gives you a percentage, and also lets you burn at over 8Mbps, which is too much for most DVD players to handle; as far as I can tell, Sonic saves you from yourself by stopping the bitrate inflation at 8Mbps. MyDVD's double-layer DVD+R DL support—with compatible drives and media—nearly doubles all the durational numbers that correspond to the various quality levels.

Other new features in the DVD and video editing areas include 16:9 support (something Pinnacle also added in the latest version of Studio), writing to DVD+R DL, several new effects and transitions (the offerings are still rather modest in that area, but the new gradient wipes are much appreciated), fading and looping options for sound- track audio, and the ability to apply different styles to different menus, which gives you nice flexibility in theory but can look a little sloppy in practice.

Consumer video fans also will enjoy the new import options, which now include MPEG-4 and DivX. And MyDVD's capture utility still works well. I'm not sure if they've done anything to upgrade the post-capture scene detection capabilities since version 5, but they worked a lot better for me in this round of testing, even if it's still annoying that the detected scenes don't pop up individually in the asset window (letting you know that it's working) as they do in most other tools. Seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.

A final, interesting new feature is the ability to import DVDs created in MyDVD or other applications as MPEG-2 files and work with them within MyDVD. That's another one that everyone seems to be doing these days, but Sonic's implementation certainly ranks high among the competition.

Slip Sliding Away
One new area in which MyDVD has managed to stay abreast of the competition is in slideshow creation. It's easy to stick your nose in the air if you're Sonic and say you're the only guys out there who do DVD slideshows the way they were meant to be done—even if it's true. But ignoring recent developments like the integration of pan-and-zoom capabilities into entry-level tools like Easy Media Creator and (now, thanks to PhotoShow Elite) Nero—not to mention the new pan-and-zoom slideshows in the new pan-and-zoom slideshows in Canopus Imaginate 2.0—is short-sighted at best.

The good news is that Sonic says it will add some pan-and-zoom effects in a 6.x version. They'll be limited, especially compared to Imaginate 2.0, but they ought to be sufficient for MyDVD's clientele, and a welcome feature for any longtime MyDVD user who's intrigued by the technology and might have ventured elsewhere to get it.

The current release of MyDVD 6 also lets you drag and drop entire folders of pictures into the Filmstrip window to make slideshows, although it's not particularly easy to insert new groups of pictures anywhere but the end. Sonic has also upped the maximum number of pictures per slideshow from 99 to a staggering 1,000 per show, a feature that should prove especially appealing to those users who aim to go the extra mile in trying their party guests' patience. Would you sit through a 1,000-shot slideshow?

In My Experience
Of course, there's much more to MyDVD 6 than new features. It's a powerful, versatile tool, and by my estimation the most straightforward and intuitive DVD authoring product on the market. Even when I've reviewed a piece of software in one or more previous iterations, I always have to re-learn it to review a new one, whether they've revamped the interface or not. After cycling through so many other tools in the meantime, there's always an adjustment period. But with MyDVD it's virtually non-existent. Granted, I do tend to use MyDVD oftentimes when I don't have to. That is, I don't just run it through its paces when there's a new version to review; I actually use it when I have DVDs to make and it seems like the right tool for the job.

That said, it's been a while, but I had no trouble at all digging right back in and creating a project that incorporated various features like capture (video and still images), scene detection, clip-splitting and trimming, adding transitions and titles in the storyboard (incidentally, still MyDVD's only editing mode—there's no timeline), as well as building a DVD with slideshows, chapters, and sub-menus. The project went fluidly and quickly. With the titling utility (very basic), I couldn't figure out how to prevent a title from running through a whole clip without splitting the clip after a few seconds. It doesn't make a difference in the final movie, but I'd rather replace that clip-splitting step with a more logical "set duration" feature.

But that's a minor quibble. In testing, MyDVD proved effective and easy to use, with an impressive capture-to-complete time for an edited and authored project that resulted in a high-quality DVD. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there's no easier way to make a DVD—not a professional- or commercial-quality one, mind you, but a navigable and attractive one—than using MyDVD, and that's as much the case in version 6 as in version 5. Which in and of itself is saying something, since the competition got better in the meantime.

System Requirements:
• 1GHz Pentium 3 (1.5GHz+ recommended) PC running Windows 2000/XP
• 128MB RAM (256MB recommended)
• 10GB available HDD space (20GB recommended)
• Microsoft DirectX 8.1 (9.0b+ recommended)
• Video card and monitor supporting 16-bit color at 1024x768

Companies Mentioned in this Article
Ahead Software, www.nero.com
Pinnacle Systems, www.pinnaclesys.com
Roxio, Inc (now a division of Sonic), www.roxio.com
Ulead Systems, www.ulead.com