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Writers Bloc: The Current Crop of DVD-Recording Software

Hugh Bennett

July 2000 | A trip into DVD land can be a little like driving downtown: a detour here, an accident there, malfunctioning traffic signals, areas under construction and all the rest. What I'm trying to say is that before examining what is available in DVD-Recording software, we should preface the discussion with a few points to keep it all in perspective.

To begin, there really hasn't been much demand for standalone software packages capable of processing or recording DVD-Video or DVD-ROM discs. The reason is that most of the initial interest for DVD recording and production has originated with the video authoring community, and the high-end turnkey video production systems they use typically take care of this process themselves.

This indifference to a more general-purpose DVD recording market is quickly changing, however, as the installed base of computer DVD-ROM drives continues to increase. Recent capacity improvements and price reductions have also made DVD-R attractive to a new and larger user group. New opportunities for DVD-Recording software now include archiving applications, asset management, DVD-ROM prototyping, data distribution, service bureau output, and boutique publishing businesses, as well as the usual straightforward corporate training and sales presentations opportunities, to name but a few.

Controlling a DVD-Recorder for the purpose of writing a DVD disc or creating a DVD image file for replication, as with compact disc and CD-R, requires using software to sequence and convert the author's files (be they audio, video, or other data) into the correct logical format and structure preliminary to the final step of writing the disc.

While names such as Sonic Solutions, Spruce, Optibase, and Daikin are immediately associated with DVD-Video production, the world of DVD-Recording software has been taken over by companies best-known for their CD recording software packages. This latter group includes GEAR Software, Prassi Software (USA and Europe), Smart Storage, and Adaptec. Such is only to be expected since, when it comes right down to it, DVD recording involves essentially the same process as does standard CD-R creation (via packages like Easy CD Creator, Nero, Toast, etc.). There are, however, a few important differences that must be mentioned, including support for additional file systems, the selection of new output devices, and control over DVD-specific features.


While features may vary from product to product, one characteristic common to all DVD-Recording software products is their ability to write discs in the UDF 1.02 (UDF Bridge) logical format. This means that recorded discs will contain both UDF and ISO 9660 file systems to allow them to be read using computers employing older as well as current operating systems, and even set-top devices such as DVD-Video players. For example, UDF 1.02 discs are readable by Windows 3.1/95/NT or UNIX using ISO 9660 drivers, and by Windows 98/2000 and Mac OS 8.1 (or higher) using UDF drivers.

To improve backward compatibility, some packages also have extended support for long file names through Joliet extensions to ISO 9660, and capability for preserving UNIX file attributes through Rock Ridge. Given the vastly different restrictions on file and volume names in UDF and ISO 9660, it's not hard to imagine that authoring truly cross-generation discs is indeed tricky business.

In addition to basic UDF formatting, most DVD-Recording software also writes discs in the proper DVD-Video layout from previously authored VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS directory structures. And for DVD-Video discs to operate properly, files must be written in the correct sequence and in specific physical locations. Experience, however, has shown that early DVD-Recording packages weren't up to the challenge. But most of these difficulties are generally considered gestational problems which have been overcome by the current generation of products.


As a write-once technology that closely approximates a pressed/replicated DVD disc, DVD-R can be read by most DVD-Video players and DVD-ROM drives. DVD-R is therefore an excellent choice for distributing information, one-off prototyping, and creating check discs [See Hugh Bennett, "In DVD's Own Image: DVD-R Technology and Promise," July 1998, pp. 30-45--Ed.]. Pioneer New Media Technologies is (and has for some years been) the only game in town when it comes to manufacturing DVD-Recorders. Its latest model, the $5,500 DVR-S201, offers straightforward recording onto 3.95 and 4.7GB DVD-R media [See Hugh Bennett's review, December 1999, pp. 31-34--Ed.]. DVD-R media is currently available from several manufacturers, including Kodak, Verbatim, Mitsui, TDK, and Pioneer itself.

Currently, DVD recording is a Disc-at-Once process in which the entire disc is written in one continuous operation, with no option for adding more information after the initial writing has been completed. Incremental or packet writing, which allows files to be recorded and added as few as one at a time, is anticipated in the DVD-R specifications, but has yet to appear in any available product.

The DVD Forum, the body which oversees the technical and licensing details of DVD technology, has recently divided the specifications governing DVD-R into two categories [See Dana J. Parker, STANDARD DEVIATIONS, "Fifteen Flavors of DVD," June 2000, p. 80--Ed.]. When the dust clears later this year, the market will offer two classes of DVD-Recorders, one for commercial authoring and the other for general consumer use. As a result of these specification changes, we can expect to see the release of much lower-cost DVD-Recorders ($2,000-$3,000) marketed from a variety of vendors rumored to include Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics/Panasonic, Philips Electronics, and probably others.

A more recent development in output options emerging from the new class of DVD-Recording software is the DVD-RAM drive. Originally conceived and primarily marketed as a general-purpose removable storage device, DVD-RAM is now finding acceptance with the DVD authoring community. Currently offering 2.6GB of storage on a single-sided and 5.2GB on a double-sided disc (with an increase to 4.7GB and 9.4 GB expected shortly), DVD-RAM has become attractive for prototyping and check-disc creation [See Philip De Lancie, "The Write RAMifications: DVD Authoring and DVD-RAM," April 2000, pp. 44-50--Ed.].

DVD-RAM discs are reusable and present an economical alternative to DVD-R in some circumstances. Similarly, a degree of hardware choice is offered by the three companies manufacturing DVD-RAM drives (Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba). It's important to keep in mind, however, that DVD-RAM media can't be read by current DVD-Video players, and is only compatible with DVD-RAM drives and very recent DVD-ROM drive models from Panasonic and Hitachi. DVD-RAM's utility is limited further by the fact that not all computer DVD-Video player software recognizes video content if saved onto DVD-RAM discs.

It's interesting to note as well that several DVD-Recording packages allow DVD-Video content to be written onto CD-R/RW discs for testing or for distributing small projects, although the results can only be viewed using a DVD-ROM drive.

Commercial DVD replicators, until recently, would not accept DVD-R discs as input media for mass reproduction. However, the latest upgrades to the current generation of industrial mastering systems will now allow DVD-Rs to be used if the projects they contain do not employ Content Scrambling System (CSS) copy protection (i.e. commercial video titles). You should know too that when it comes to creating material that can be sent off to a service bureau to have a check disc recorded, or to a replication plant for mass reproduction, magnetic tape is still the predominate medium of choice. So it's always advisable to check first with the provider you are dealing with before shipping out something they can't use. Typically, however, reproduction facilities will accept projects encoded in industry-standard Disc Description Protocol (DDP) 2.0 format on Quantum Digital Linear Tape (DLT), Sony Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT), or Exabyte Mammoth tape cartridges.


Most domestic users' first experience with DVD-Recording software will be DVD Rep 2.0 from Prassi Software USA, which only comes bundled from the factory in North America with Pioneer's DVR-S201 DVD-Recorder. Prassi was founded by several CD-R industry pioneers involved in Incat Systems' Easy CD software products (the forerunner to Adaptec's Easy CD Creator), and became one of the first software companies to embrace DVD-R.

Of the products available, DVD Rep takes the simplest approach to disc creation and thus is more of a general-purpose tool than a professional-level premastering product. DVD Rep operates as a small recording window where files and folders for writing to disc are dragged and dropped from the Windows Explorer. Files are automatically arranged according to their original directory structure on the source hard drive and with a volume name manually assigned before recording a disc or creating a physical image file. A file verification feature for comparing source data against finished discs is also provided.

In addition to its recording and image- creating capabilities, DVD Rep provides a handy way to duplicate non-copy-protected DVD-ROM and DVD-Video discs. Direct disc-to-disc copying is the quickest way and simply involves reading the disc to be duplicated in a DVD-ROM drive and then recording live to Pioneer's DVR-S101 or 201. In some instances, imperfect masters can prevent the source drive from keeping up with the recorder. In such cases, the software generates a temporary intermediate physical image on a hard drive to act as a stable recording source.

Notwithstanding DVD Rep's significant virtues, the software's lack of several higher-level features has persuaded some users to pursue other products. Aware of these limitations, Prassi USA's European counterpart (Prassi Europe) is planning to offer an entirely new product called PrimoDVD, which promises the additional functionality necessary to bring Prassi again to the forefront of DVD-Recording software.

Highlights of PrimoDVD include output support for Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba DVD-RAM drives as well as DDP 2.0 DLT tape and CD-R/RW; correct formatting of DVD-Video discs; Joliet extensions; high-speed disc copying to hard disk using a DVD-ROM drive instead of the recorder; and an improved interface. Prassi Europe is marketing PrimoDVD more towards the one-off DVD-R market, so certain commercial-level features such as dual-layer (DVD-9 and DVD-18) disc creation and advanced disc geography are not included.


One extremely desirable feature unique to Smart Storage's DVD Maker is its ability to emulate a DVD from either a virtual or physical image for testing and verification purposes. This means that after the contents of a disc are prepared, the result can be previewed in a virtual form that behaves as would the final DVD.
Although it's priced at a relatively modest $695, the most sophisticated DVD-Recording program currently available is GEAR Pro DVD 2.01 from GEAR Software of Jupiter, Florida. Designed to run under Windows 95, 98, and NT, GEAR Pro DVD is essentially a DVD-enabled version of the company's popular CD recording software. In the European market, GEAR Pro DVD comes optionally bundled with Pioneer's DVR-S201 DVD-Recorder.

Like most contemporary recording products, GEAR Pro DVD is relatively straightforward. The process of creating a DVD begins by specifying the type of disc, including DVD-ROMs (with either ISO 9660-only or UDF 1.02/UDF Bridge file systems) or DVD-Video titles, and the size of the project (3.95, 4.7, 8.5, or 17GB).

After the basic parameters are established, the disc contents are assembled as a virtual image by dragging and dropping files from an Explorer-like window at the top of the screen (displaying the contents of storage volumes accessible to the computer) to the creation area at the bottom of the screen. Here, directories can be added or deleted and files moved around as needed. Full UDF support (up to version 2.0) is offered, and with ISO level 3 compliance or Joliet and Rock Ridge extensions as well as user access to the Primary Volume Descriptor (PVD). Previous versions of GEAR Pro DVD used Software Architect's file system creation engine to assemble UDF-compliant discs, but the latest version of the program uses GEAR Software's own technology.

GEAR Pro DVD is the first recording package to offer control over most of the essential low-level disc attributes. These include encoding the DVD book type (read-only, rewritable, recordable); the disc size (8 or 12cm); the number of layers (1 or 2) and their layout (Opposite Track Path/OTP or Parallel Track Path/PTP); the version of the DVD specification (0.9, 1.0, or 2.0); the minimum required transfer rate (2.52, 5.04, or 10.08mbps); the linear density (0.267 or 0.293um/bit); and the track density (0.74 or 0.80um/trk). For those creating DVD-5 and DVD-9 masters for replication, GEAR also allows you to specify if there will be a Burst Cutting Area (BCA) on the disc. With these parameters set during the premastering process, the result doesn't need to be modified by the replication facility before mass production.

After assembling contents and establishing appropriate parameters, GEAR can output a disc in a variety of ways. These include as a physical image file; a magnetic tape in DDP 2.0 format (DLT, Exabyte, and DAT); or on-the-fly to a DVD-R or DVD-RAM disc. Currently, Pioneer's DVR-S101 and DVR-S201 DVD-Recorders and Panasonic's LF-D102U/103U DVD-RAM drives are supported. In addition to DVD disc creation, GEAR also authors most types of CDs and writes to most CD-R/RW recorders.

Although GEAR offers a fairly complete set of tools, there are several features still missing from the package including the lack of manual control over file placement (disc geography), which can be an issue when creating multilayer-data DVD-ROMs. Disc-to-disc copying is also not supported.


Like PC-based DVD-Recording software packages, Toast DVD creates UDF 1.02-compliant discs, but is unique in that it is the only product that can additionally encode the Macintosh extended attribute set (resource forks, window and icon positions, view types, etc.)--essential for maintaining the functionality as well as the distinctive look and feel of the Mac environment.
Another fixture in the CD recording world that has successfully made the jump to DVD-Recording software is Smart Storage of Andover, Massachusetts. Best known for its line of jukebox and network storage and archiving software, Smart Storage now offers SmartStor DVD Maker 6.00 for Windows NT 4.0 systems, a DVD-Recording product available by itself for $2,500 or, as with GEAR Pro DVD, optionally bundled in Europe with Pioneer's DVD-Recorder.

By current standards, DVD Maker's interface is a little dated. Its main window is divided into two sections: an upper content window showing the composition of the virtual image, and a lower status window for providing feedback to the user. The creation process begins by specifying disc type (DVD-ROM, DVD-Video, and DVD-Hybrid--containing both video and data). The user then sets project parameters for volume name, ISO 9660 compliance (level 1 or 3), file name restrictions, automatic conversion of invalid to valid characters, optional Joliet extensions, and for completing the Primary Volume Descriptor (PVD).

After the ground rules are set, files are simply dragged and dropped into the content window from the Windows NT Explorer and physically laid down on the disc in the order in which they are added (DVD-Video files are automatically assigned to their correct locations). Unlike GEAR Pro DVD, the content window in DVD Maker is not a full-featured editing environment, so files and folders must be properly arranged before they are added to the mix.

One extremely desirable feature unique to DVD Maker is its ability to emulate a DVD from either a virtual or physical image for testing and verification purposes. This means that after the contents of a disc are prepared, the result can be previewed in a virtual form that behaves as would the final DVD. This saves the user from committing a flawed image to an expensive DVD-R disc or sending it off for final replication. The emulation process simply involves selecting the appropriate option and specifying the perspective from which you wish to view it (as ISO 9660, Joliet, or UDF). After processing, the virtual DVD appears in the Windows NT Explorer as just another read-only volume and can be worked with under those terms.

Compared with some of the other recording programs, DVD Maker's output options are a little limited. They include writing a physical image file, a DDP 2.0-formatted DLT tape (for 1 or 2 layers with either OTP or PTP layout), or a DVD-R disc using Pioneer's DVR-S101 or DVR-S201 DVD-Recorders. For the moment, DVD Maker offers neither DVD-RAM nor CD-R/RW support.


Controlling a DVD-Recorder for the purpose of writing a DVD disc or creating a DVD image file for replication, as with compact disc and CD-R, requires using software to sequence and convert the author's files (be they audio, video, or other data) into the correct logical format and structure preliminary to the final step of writing the disc.
Given the popularity of the Macintosh as a multimedia authoring platform, it really wouldn't be right if there wasn't at least one DVD-Recording software package available for the Mac OS. It therefore shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Adaptec offers a DVD-enabled version of its legendary Toast CD recording product--called, appropriately, Toast DVD.

Available directly from Adaptec for a paltry $99, Toast DVD is a solid general-purpose recording product which operates under Mac OS 8.5 or higher (previous iterations required only 8.1 or higher). While it may lack some of the niceties of its more mature CD-R counterpart, Toast DVD shares the same simple interface, which allows individual files or folders to be dragged and dropped into the disc assembly window from any volume on the desktop. A full-featured editing system also allows material to be rearranged, added, and deleted at will. DVD-Video discs can be laid down as well from either supplied images or valid VIDEO_TS directory structures.

Like PC-based DVD-Recording software packages, Toast DVD creates UDF 1.02-compliant discs, but is unique in that it is the only product that can additionally encode the Macintosh extended attribute set (resource forks, window and icon positions, view types, etc.)--essential for maintaining the functionality as well as the distinctive look and feel of the Mac environment.

This latest upgrade to Toast DVD incorporates a few new output devices asked for by the video authoring community. As it stands, Toast DVD users can compose physical image files, write directly to SCSI hard disk and DVD-RAM drives, control Pioneer DVR-S201 and DVR-S201 DVD-Recorders as needed, and output to DDP 2.0 DLT tape as well. A handy emulation feature also allows disc image files and hard disk images to be mounted on the desktop and previewed (albeit only from a Mac OS perspective) before committing them to more permanent form.

Like Prassi's DVD Rep and Primo DVD on the PC, Adaptec's Toast DVD is marketed more as a DVD-R product than as a comprehensive tool for formatting all manner of discs. As a result, full-blown features such as dual-layer formatting (for DVD-9 and DVD-18) and manipulation of low-level disc attributes have been left to others.


The current state of DVD-Recording technology is much like the early days of compact disc premastering--a time when compatibility wasn't a given, recorders were thousands of dollars, blank discs were expensive, and the software needed to put it all together didn't come cheap. For the moment, these barriers will keep most people out of DVD recording, but the market will mature rapidly over the next year as technical challenges are resolved and manufacturers release less costly recorders designed for the more general-purpose user.

Lower-cost devices will surely pique the interest of major CD-R software producers, resulting in greater DVD software selection and ease of use. One issue of concern for commercial DVD-Video and DVD-ROM producers is the ongoing availability of professional-level DVD recording tools. The mass market has no need for dual layers, DDP tape drives, or low-level feature control, so when consumers become the driving force, will the right tool for the commercial producer still be available? If Easy CD Creator and DirectCD are here, can Easy DVD Creator and DirectDVD be far behind?

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Adaptec, Inc.
691 South Milpitas Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/945-8600; Fax 408/957-4545; http://www.adaptec.com

GEAR Software, Inc.
14125 Capri Drive, Suite 5, Los Gatos, CA 95032; 561/575-3200; Fax 561/575-3026; http://www.gearcdr.com

Eastman Kodak Company
460 Buffalo Road, Building 800, Rochester, NY 14652; 800/353-4751; Fax 716/722-0838; http://www.kodak.com

Mitsui Advanced Media, Inc.
2500 Westchester Avenue, Suite 110, Purchase, NY 10577; 800/682-2377; Fax 914/253-0790; http://www.mitsuicdr.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
2265 East 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 800/444-6784; 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990; http://www.pioneerusa.com

Prassi Europe
SARL Worldwide Headquarters 75 Bd. Oyon, Technopôle Novaxis 72100, Le Mans, France; http://www.prassieurope.com

Prassi Software USA, Inc.
5448 Thornwood Drive, Suite 201, San Jose, CA 95123-1225; 888/477-2774; Fax 408/224-0649; http://www.prassi.com

Smart Storage, Inc.
100 Burtt Road, Suite 204; Andover, MA 01810; 888/479-0100; Fax 978/470-1908; http://www.smartstorage.com

TDK Electronics
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050; 800/835-8273; Fax 516/625-2940; http://www.tdk.com

Verbatim Corporation
1200 W.T. Harris Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28262; 704/547-6500; Fax 704/547-6609; http://www.verbatimcorp.com

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia Magazine contributing editor and columnist for THE CD WRITER, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems (http://www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and DVD-ROM recording, replication, and consulting services as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems, software, and blank media sales.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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