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Sonic Solutions DVDit! SE

Jeff Sauer

Sonic Solutions DVDit! SE
synopsis: At $499, Sonic's DVDit! SE is about a tenth the price of almost any DVD authoring software currently available, and more than 20 times lower than most. Of course, its capabilities are limited, but if you need to put high-quality video clips (encoder not included) with straightforward navigation into a compliant DVD disc image, DVDit! is the simplest way to do it. Corporations considering larger-scale DVD production might well spend the $500 for just a couple of intra-company trial titles before spending thousands on a full-featured system. Even professional service bureaus might off-load very basic projects from their professional authoring stations to DVDit!, probably paying for the software in just one job.

price: $499

Sonic Solutions, Inc.
101 Rowland Way, Suite 110
Novato, CA, 94945
415/893-8000
Fax 415/893-8008
info@sonic.com
http://www.sonic.com

May 2000 | With five-digit prices the norm, until recently, DVD authoring software has simply been too expensive to attract a wide audience. And while the early adopter phase has allowed service bureaus to establish good businesses with both Hollywood and forward-thinking corporations creating DVD titles, Sonic Solutions believes the consumer success of DVD players and DVD-ROM-equipped PCs marks the time to change that.

At $499, Sonic's DVDit! SE is about a tenth the price of almost any DVD authoring software currently available, and more than 20 times lower than most. Of course, it offers far fewer capabilities, but Sonic thinks that's a fair trade-off, calling DVDit! the simplest way to publish DVD titles. For simply putting high-quality video clips (encoder not included) with straightforward navigation into a compliant DVD disc image, DVDit! undoubtedly offers a well-needed option for bringing new users into the fold.

If you're thinking about testing the DVD waters, DVDit! is currently the best way to dip your toe. Corporations considering larger-scale DVD production might well spend the $500 for just a couple of intra-company trial titles before spending thousands on a full-featured system. Even professional service bureaus might off-load very basic projects from their professional authoring stations to DVDit!, probably paying for the software in just one job.

DVDit! is far from perfect, with annoyances and non-standard Windows conventions that take some orientation. However, with the breadth of the tool so narrow, most users will be able to adjust without much difficulty. And it's hard to quibble with the basic product concept given the current DVD authoring market and competition. With DVDit!, Sonic Solutions hopes to alter the authoring landscape radically and make DVD creation available to almost anyone. DVDit! may be unsophisticated, but it begins to solve the exclusivity problem of DVD production.

a tool to grow with

DVDit! SE is one of three versions of the DVDit! product, all sharing the same general design. A light version, DVDit! LE, already exists but is only available through OEM bundles--thus far, in Matrox' DigiSuite DTV and RT2000 cards, Sigma Designs' DVR, and Margi Systems' DVD-To-Go PC card MPEG2 decoder--and is not planned for retail sales. A Professional Edition, DVDit! PE with added features, is planned for release much later this year, with a tentative price of around $3,000.

The most basic LE version limits you to just a single navigational menu from which you can link up to 36 video clips. It automates a DVD "First Play," enabling a disc to start automatically in a player. But that's it. It makes a DVD-Video disc image that will play in a consumer player for almost nothing compared to current alternatives.

The Standard Edition increases the possibilities to a "First Play" with ten menus, each linking to 36 clips or other menus. You won't find any advanced navigation, if/then logic, parental control, multi-language, or even chapter marks within clips. There's also no color mapping, since DVDit! does button highlighting automatically. You will, however, get helpful button and background templates along with text creation tools to make building a DVD project quick and easy.

With the Professional Edition still several months away, a complete feature list has yet to be finalized. However, it will likely add one or two subtitle tracks, additional audio tracks, additional navigation features, and some sort of project overview such as a timeline. Sonic sees DVDit! PE as a possible upgrade for those starting with, and ultimately outgrowing, the Standard Edition, implying that its features and timing may depend greatly on DVDit! SE's success, user feedback, and other market conditions. Yet, with both DVDit! and Sonic Solutions' own professional authoring system, DVDCreator [See Jan Ozer's review, May 1999, pp. 27-30--Ed.), to pull from, Sonic seems primed to grow as fast as the affordable DVD production market can go.

just DVDit!

DVDit!'s interface has just three areas. The first is the main viewer, which "plays" menus and video clips, and is where you drag and place buttons and clips onto menu backgrounds to create links. The second area, a menu placeholder bar, is where you drag graphic backgrounds to create your initial menu. That may sound redundant compared to dragging backgrounds directly to the main viewer; however, DVDit! uses this palette to "log-in" menus within a project, thus allowing them to accept links. The menu palette also acts in a limited way as DVDit!'s project overview, showing all menus in use and allowing renaming. Unfortunately, you can't reorder menus to storyboard your project, though Sonic is looking at this feature for a future version.

Beyond that, DVDit! has no project overview. There's no timeline, nor any graphical interface showing links. Checking links requires users to view each menu individually in the Viewer, right-clicking to "Show Links" or "Hide Links" exactly as in Minerva's Impression DVD authoring software. On the other hand, with a maximum of 10 possible menus, a QA check on each isn't too overwhelming.

DVDit!'s third area is the Theme or asset bin, into which you import media and graphics by either right-clicking or simply dragging and dropping from the Windows Explorer. The bin is helpfully organized into four groups, with buttons at the bottom to toggle between background graphics, button graphics, text, and media clips. In DVDit! SE, if you're toggled to the wrong group and try to drag and drop, you'll get an "invalid media type" error message. We re-encoded MPEG files before noticing the slightly depressed toggle button had us in the wrong area. Sonic plans to offer a more helpful error message or automatically toggle in the next software revision due in early spring.

Sonic's clever use of Themes allows you to group assets either by project or category. For example, Sonic bundles two collections of background and button designs: a default group and "Corporate" Theme group with office-style graphics for royalty-free use. Only one Theme can be open at a time, but you can open, use, and close any Theme from within any project. Or, you can name Themes to coincide with specific projects. Sonic plans to offer more button and background templates for download from the http://www.dvdit.com Web site for a small fee (perhaps $29 per set). Of course, you can also create your own graphics in Photoshop or other design tool, saving them in almost any standard image format. Oddly, DVDit! does not yet support MPEG-1, only MPEG-2, due to a technical obstacle that Sonic is hoping to rectify shortly.

In addition to button graphics, you can even use video clips as their own buttons. DVDit! smartly searches for a clip's first non-black frame and uses that image as a button graphic. While Sonic agrees it would be best to let users scroll through a clip and pick an appropriate frame, that feature was ultimately beyond the scope of version 1.0, but will hopefully arrive before too long.

no mistakes allowed

While it's hard to think of another Windows application of any type without "Undo," it's a nearly universal omission among DVD development products--apparently, DVD authors and the tools they use never make mistakes. Oddly, Daikin's Scenarist, Intec's DVDAuthorQuick, Minerva's Impression, and now DVDit!, all lack the ability to reverse an errant drag-and-drop, unsuccessful text resize, or any other simple mistake. All companies also deny they're copying each other or that DVD inherently prevents Undo. Sonic rightly notes that there are few operations in DVDit! that can't be easily overwritten or deleted without causing great angst, but acknowledges that Undo is a necessary function that should appear in a future version.

Undo would be helpful in learning DVDit!'s otherwise nicely designed, built-in text tools. You can add text by simply dragging a font into a menu, typing words, and adjusting colors and a drop shadow. The tricky part for new users is with Sonic's unique use of anchor points for resizing and moving text. A center anchor point in the middle of the text box, which would normally reposition the text, counter-intuitively resizes the box outward from the center, maintaining your text's relative position in the background. Dragging down on this center anchor increases the size of the entire text box and dragging up makes it smaller. This is a great little feature and well worth the trouble to learn, but until you understand it, you'll be looking for that missing Undo.

check under the hood

Since DVDit! ultimately offers very little DVD authoring functionality, what you're paying for is an engine that builds compliant DVD streams and disc images. We successfully played a DVDit! disc image from two software player emulators; however, we had trouble with a third. We also couldn't use the bundled Cinemaster player under Windows NT to preview a project within DVDit! before building a disc image. Cinemaster-maker Ravisent is working on a fix for this problem. Sonic provided us with Ligos' DVD player and we were able to preview. Lastly, we experienced a couple of blue-screen system crashes, though we could not recreate them in specific situations.

Nevertheless, frustrations aside, DVDit! remains well worth considering if you're looking into DVD creation. Because projects created with DVDit! are necessarily so straightforward, even system crashes are unlikely to lose large amounts of unrecoverable work. For putting video on a disc, DVDit! is tough to beat.

If DVD authoring takes off as Sonic Solutions hopes, DVD engines are likely to get even less expensive. And, in the extreme, for parents to be burning DVD discs of their children for relatives across the country, DVD production has to be considerably less than even $500. Yet, with this first version of DVDit!, Sonic is putting itself in a position to capture the market as it takes off. If you're looking to get in early and ride that wave as well, DVDit! is a good place to start.


Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com) is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to NewMedia Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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