Review: EDITOR'S CHOICE--Sonic DVDit! 5
Posted Aug 3, 2004

Synopsis: After skipping a couple of generations, DVDit! hits the comeback trail with a new version well-equipped for videographers looking to jump into pro DVD authoring and users looking to move up from MyDVD and the run of entry-level tools. It's also well-positioned to compete head-on with other prosumer contenders such as DVD Workshop2 and Encore 1.5, thanks to powerful and accessible navigation customization features such as first play, routing, and end-action control, VBR transcoding, A/V sync, and forced selection controls that deliver many of the functional hallmarks of professional DVDs.

My genetecist uncle used to have a saying about the type of pseudo-genetics that seeps into popular discourse—when people talk about this or that trait "skipping a generation," they only say so with such confidence because whoever they heard it from "skipped the explanation." In other words, there was generally quite a bit more to the genetic principle at hand than whoever happened to be passing it on knew.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Take Sonic's DVDit! 5, the just-released successor to the eons-old (in DVD years) DVDit! 2.5. You're right if you think Sonic skipped a few generations—there was no DVDit! 3 or 4—but there's less to the backstory than you might think. According to the folks at Sonic, they jumped DVDit! to version 5 simply to bring it into generational accord with MyDVD 5, the company's ubiquitous consumer DVD tool.

Those who know some of the history of DVDit! probably recall that in the days before MyDVD, DVDit! was Sonic's "consumer" DVD tool—the first sub-$5000 DVD authoring product with any visibility, in fact. Today, DVDit! is a mid-range tool, aimed at videographers and corporate-level users looking to add some professional sheen to their DVD projects; its direct competitors include relative johnny-come-latelies Ulead DVD Workshop, Adobe Encore DVD, and Sony DVD Architect. Did DVDit! get more challenging, or more sophisticated since its "consumer" days? No, the wave of $100 DVD tools that MyDVD ushered in simply lowered the bar, or opened the doors to a new generation of DVD authors with little if any pre-existing knowledge of the format.

So that's a bit of DVDit!'s history in the DVD authoring field. But what about its future with videographers looking to work DVD creation into their workflow without starting at the bottom? That is, to start making commercially viable DVDs that match the quality of their shot and edited product? It's interesting to see Sonic position DVDit!—via the generation skip—in relation to MyDVD. It also makes sense, since everyone knows MyDVD these days; a key target demographic for the new DVDit! is would-be pro DVD authors who know MyDVD because it shipped with their burners, but want to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi of the entry-level crowd, and elevate their DVD work over the kind of thing their clients could produce. To Sonic, that means several things: allowing control over first-play clips and end actions for all videos, button customization and alignment, Easter Egg creation, full link management, Dolby Digital support, and VBR encoding.

The Edit! Window
When DVDit! first came out, DVD authoring tools were terribly task-specific; that is, things like asset preparation, video editing, and slideshow creation happened outside of DVD tools. All-in-one products like MyDVD have created different expectations. Pro tools don't necessarily have to meet those expectations, of course, but given that Sonic is pursuing an upgrade market, they've made several concessions to multipurpose use in DVDit! 5.

One important new aspect of DVDit! is the Edit window. There, video editors will find a familiar timeline setup and a two-pane arrangement for bringing media into an asset bin and importing them into a project. DVDit! can import both elementary streams (video- or audio-only files) as well as files with both audio and video components. DVDit! identifies files with both audio and video components with a speaker icon in the lower right-hand corner of the thumbnail. You can also identify a file as a multiplexed A/V file in the Properties window, which contains all sorts of useful information, from resolution and aspect ratio to format, video and audio bit rates, field dominance, and the asset's location on your hard drive.

When you import a media asset from the asset bin (which DVDit! calls the Palette window) into your project, it opens in the timeline. There you can set chapter marks which will be recognized at the authoring stage. The timeline has two tracks, one for video and one for audio. If the imported file has no native audio track, you can add an elementary audio stream to the audio track and DVDit! will multiplex the A/V components at the "burning" stage (which includes transcoding, menu rendering, multiplexing, etc. as well as burning the DVD).

Whether it's the media file's native audio or an imported stream, you can right-click on the audio track to open the Audio Options menu and add bilingual support or sync up your audio and video using the Audio Offset controls. During testing, this came in handy right away; I had a couple of video clips languishing on my hard drive with audio sync problems dating back to capture and once I learned the mechanics of the offset controls, got everything properly re-aligned.

Author it!
Most of the real excitement in DVDit! happens in the Author window. Here you create all the menus and organization for your DVD, and it is in this part of the program that it becomes evident you're working with a tool that offers substantially more customization and control than the likes of MyDVD. DVDit! offers a range of templates for menus, buttons, and button frames. You can also import your own images into the tab with the menu templates (it's called the Images tab); under the Media tab you'll find any video or audio files you imported during editing, and you can continue to import content into this bin while you're authoring your DVD.

In testing, I created several titles of varying levels of complexity. One in particular included a motion menu, authored with both an elementary-stream video clip and an overlaid audio track, and with the audio and video imported together, which played for 59 seconds and looped. The first motion menu also contained a Play All button (drawn from DVDit!'s extensive palette of cool button designs) and a Chapter menu button that was a gateway to three second-level sub-menus containing nine chapters. Using the single-click duplicate features, I was able to make all my menus identical (where applicable), with the same background clip, identical and  identically placed chapter buttons, and equivalent Next and Back buttons (again, supplied by DVDit!). I could have used motion clips for my chapter buttons, too, simply by dragging the clip into the menu as a button, but chose not to since there was already enough motion going on.

Once you've created your menu design, it only takes a couple of clicks and selections to link each button. Here, DVDit! gives you excellent control over where your buttons link, and where the DVD will take the viewer next after the linked clip has finished playing by allowing you to set end actions for each linked clip. You can also select a first-play video; this might be the top-level menu, the first clip/chapter of your video project with instructions to play through, or a short animation or introductory clip as with many DVD movies. Finally, you can also choose a Forced selection for each menu, which means the button that is automatically highlighted when the menu appears. If your first-play selection is the top-level menu, this is a nice feature to add for viewers who just want to play the video straight through—if Play All is the forced selection, they simply need to press Enter on their remotes to get where they want to go.

One of the problems DVD authors face when they build complex navigation into their titles is losing track of their links and specific elements of the project's navigational tree. In DVDit!, you can figure this out by painstakingly working through each menu and clicking the appropriate tabs to check links, routing, and end actions, or you can get a good, general overview of your project's navigation by selecting the Details view in the menu tab of the center pane of the Author menu. This is a most handy feature.

For additional refinements and professional sheen, Sonic has included alignment controls and a grid view, as well as safe-zone viewable-area boxes to help you make sure all your menu elements will be viewable on a typical 4:3 CRT TV. The text palette isn't as rich as what you'd get in a full-featured video editor, and of course you can build greater complexity into your menu designs by creating multilayered Photoshop documents and importing them into DVDit!, but the native tools should serve many authors well.

The new version of DVDit! also meets the expectations of the upwardly mobile MyDVD crowd by offering a slideshow creation feature straight out of MyDVD. You don't get any pan and zoom here, as in consumer tools like Roxio Easy Media Creator 7 or prosumer applications like Canopus Imaginate 2, but according to Sonic, what you get instead is according-to-Hoyle DVD slideshows because the program maintains the integrity of the stills instead of turning the whole series of images and any music you add into an MPEG-2 video stream. Slideshows produced in testing looked fairly good, although still-interlaced screen grabs looked terrible (you'll have to de-interlace them in Photoshop or PhotoImpact before trying to use them in a DVD slideshow, but that's a must-do with any program, not just DVDit!). One slideshow dropped in the middle of a project as a chapter had some technical problems, playing normally when accessed from the chapter menu but starting halfway through when acccessed via the next button.

Finish it!
The Finish stage of DVDit! includes several parts: preview (a typical DVD viewer), which is useful but, like most tools, doesn't pre-render motion menus so you won't be able to preview those; and three disc/image-writing options for burning to DVD or placing a DVD image or volume on your hard drive. When you choose one of these options, DVDit! checks all your links. With several projects I tried, DVDit! noted the same problem—overlapping menu buttons. I did manage to do some projects that didn't have this problem, but couldn't figure out how to fix it in the ones that did. In any event, the overlapped buttons did not (as Sonic warned they might) affect playback on any of the players, burners, or ROM drives I tried.

When it comes time to transcode and burn a disc, DVDit! again offers options that distinguish DVDit! as a useful tool for the professionally minded author. For one thing, you get variable bit-rate encoding, which always classes up the joint; you can also customize your video bit rate. In each case, I chose 7000Kbps, worrying that some of my destination players might choke on anything higher. Another welcome transcoding option is optimizing for quality over speed, which means the transcoder does motion estimation and the like instead of glossing over that stuff to improve encoding quality. You can also choose between LPCM and Dolby Digital, which is kind of a no-brainer—there's no quality tradeoff, but Dolby Digital, as an intelligently compressed format, will save more room in your bit budget for video and other assets. You can also tweak the audio bit rate for further bit-budget micro-management. (DVDit! always gives you a running bit-budget tally—GB remaining—in the lower left-hand corner of the screen.)

Finally, it's on to the "burn," which—as mentioned earlier—is somewhat misnamed, since the process encompasses much more than DVD burning, and the recording component of the process takes the least time. For the most part, I selected quality-over-speed transcoding, and on my testbed 3GHz HT Pentium 4 Gateway, was pleasantly surprised by the transcode times, which averaged about 1:30 per minute of video. Sonic also tore off repeated 4X burns to the factory-installed NEC 1300A DVD±R recorder using 4X-certified media supplied by Verbatim and Ritek. And the video quality looked great.

DVDit! also offers a modest disc-labeling tool (disc surface and case) for the final step in the finishing process.

Best of all, for someone who tests consumer DVD authoring products all the time, and has grown tired of not knowing what will play first or where a DVD will go next when I pop in a new disc authored in a review product, it was a welcome change to have all those questions answered by a sophisticated product with all the control and customization options I was looking for. These are the things that I wish I had every time: first play, end actions, and predictable ways of nesting and linking menus. And DVDit! has got 'em all.

How Does it! Measure Up?
All of which means that DVDit! will serve well at least one key demographic of its new target user base—those who've outgrown MyDVD—by appeasing their pet peeves. And thus it also serves well the event videographer or other video pro who may be new to DVD, but whose needs won't be met by entry-level tools, and wants to start a few rungs up the ladder: DVDit! offers near entry-level ease of use, but its power and flexibility make it a solid competitor to newer prosumer tools that have followed in its wake like Ulead DVD Workshop and Adobe Encore DVD. You don't get the level of Photoshop integration you get with Encore DVD, nor anything like the degree of edit/author unity you get in Pinnacle Liquid Edition—but if you're not a Premiere or Edition editor, those tools won't help you much. Likewise with DVD Architect--very powerful in concert with Vegas 5, its suitemate NLE, but suite-specific by definition.

DVDit! is more authoring-specific than Workshop 2; although you can trim your clips in the Edit window, there's no capture or scene detection here. Like other DVD tools of its vintage, DVDit! leaves those asset preparation chores to other products. (Significantly, one of those products is the capture-capable MyDVD—you can easily import MyDVD project files into DVDit!.) DVDit! also lacks the button tilting/rotation capabilities of DVD Workshop 2 (although you do have some nice drop-shadow controls), which costs its users something in terms of creating menus with a unique look. DVDit! and Workshop 2 share some great features, too, such as as the choice to loop a motion menu or select an alternate end action like automatically playing a selected clip after the first time through the menu. Unlike Workshop 2, DVDit! does let you set the order of menu buttons via simple manual button-routing controls (auto-routing is available as well).

DVDit! seems to have half the Playlist functionality of Workshop 2: you can set continuous play of discrete titles/chapters (not marked segments of the same clip), but that only seems to work if you imported your video clips into your project in the desired sequence. That said, I'll take the ability to select an end action for every clip (which DVDit! and Encore have, but Workshop 2 doesn't), the Workshop 2's playlist feature, although that's really a judgment call. Playlists are more intuitive and more convenient for a specific task; universal end action control is more powerful and versatile. And they both now offer DVD+R DL support (although no DLT in DVDit!), which is about as meaningful as H.264 encoding in the short-term--given the scarcity, costs, and compatibility concerns of DL media--but may likewise pay off sizeable "next big thing" dividends in the future.

System Requirements: 800mHz Pentium 3 (1GHz+ recommended) running Windows XP (Home, Pro, or MCE), 128MB RAM (256MB+ recommended), DirectX 8.1 (9.0b+ recommended)

Companies Mentioned:
Sonic Solutions
www.sonic.com

Adobe Systems
www.adobe.com

Pinnacle Systems
www.pinnaclesys.com

Ritek Corporation
www.ritek.com.tw

Roxio
www.roxio.com

Sony Pictures Digital
www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com

Ulead Systems
www.ulead.com

Verbatim Corporation
www.verbatim.com