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The Apple of My i: Apple's New DVD Authoring Offspring

Jeff Sauer

July 2001 | When Apple purchased Astarte more than a year ago, public information about future plans for Astarte's existing products and DVD/MPEG expertise were hard to come by. Indeed, in the months that followed, Astarte personnel were virtually sequestered and DVDirector, Astarte's then-price-busting DVD authoring application, was pulled from the shelves as if it were a civil hazard. Yet, Apple's isolation of Astarte wasn't punishment for bad behavior. Much to the contrary as we now see, Astarte's product wardrobe spent a year at the tailor being resized and refitted to grand marshal Apple's latest revolution: do-it-yourself video.

Recently, iMovie and Final Cut solidly re-established Apple's commitment to both consumer and small-studio and corporate professional video editing, but Apple still needed to close the loop on distributing all those newly made videos. DVD is their answer and the re-emergence of Astarte's DVDirector, now as Apple's DVD Studio Pro, and the introduction of the consumer-level iDVD gives amateurs and pros alike ample reason to take notice. Here, we examine both in a 733mHz G4 Macintosh configured with Apple's new SuperDrive DVD-R burner and find that the year of silence was worth the wait. With the new tandem of tools, Apple quickly becomes a major player in DVD authoring.

More importantly, Apple's participation immediately makes DVD authoring a more vibrant business. Video over the Internet is burgeoning and output to tape is always possible for finished videos, but neither of those solutions makes video creation and distribution easy enough for the masses, be they corporate or consumer. Apple's vision, shared by virtually everyone in the DVD industry, is to allow a computer user to create an edited video, burn it to a DVD disc, and have that disc play in any of the exploding numbers of DVD players in homes and businesses.

With its new 733mHz G4 models with SuperDrives, Apple takes an enormous step in that direction and gives the fledgling DVD authoring industry a champion with heavyweight marketing muscle. That should be long overdue and welcome news for companies like Sonic Solutions, Spruce, and Multimedia Technology Center, who have been battling lack of education and market ambivalence for some time.

The Real Deal

We'll get to Apple's software in a moment, but the centerpiece of this DVD puzzle is what Apple calls the SuperDrive (not the first time Apple has coined the term: remember the floppy drive capable of reading 400K, 800K, and 1.44MB discs!). It's actually a Pioneer product that Apple OEMs: a DVD-R/ CD-R/CD-RW burner that will be sold separately as Pioneer's DVR-A03 for an expected list price of $995. While that's still expensive for a consumer product, it's some $4000 less than the previous low for a DVD-R and carries manufacturing and OEM costs low enough to allow Apple to bundle it in their 733mHz G4 Mac for total price of $3499–quite normal for their top-of-the-line system.

More interesting for price-sensitive shoppers, once Pioneer's production volumes increase and Apple can get more drives, they will likely bundle the SuperDrive with some lower-priced G4 configurations as well. And Windows users aren't going to being left out either. Pioneer's main Windows-based partner, Compaq, is already bundling the same Pioneer drive–without the catchy SuperDrive marketing name–in Presario 7000 Series, 1.5gHz systems starting below $3000.

Yet, while you'll soon be able to purchase the DVR-A03, along with other inexpensive software from Sonic, Spruce, or MTC for authoring on Windows, Apple deserves credit on two counts for promoting the SuperDrive. First, Apple worked with Pioneer through the development process to ensure compatibility with Macintosh computers and altered the firmware on the bundled units to ensure maximum efficiency. Apple firmware recognizes the specific blank media (for example, Apple-branded media) inserted into the drive and if the SuperDrive confirms certification, it will enable 2X write speeds. If not, it will drop back to 1X to afford the greatest chance at a successful burn and satisfactory consumer experience. (Apple claims the list of certified media continues to grow beyond Apple-branded discs, but it is unclear if drive owners will be able to update firmware in the field.) Pioneer's reward to Apple for its efforts is having units more than two months before off-the-shelf units are available.

Second, Apple has bundled software that works seamlessly with the drive and has built a national marketing campaign around making videos for DVD distribution. Regardless of whether you're a Mac user or become one because of iDVD or DVD Studio Pro, Apple's presence in the industry gives DVD authoring far more prominence that ever before. And their easy-to-use, start-to-finish video creation story–from FireWire in, to iMovie editing, iDVD authoring, and SuperDrive burning–is a grand achievement that should bolster the entire DVD business.


If you've been wondering what Astarte has been doing since being purchased by Apple, look no further than iDVD. That's not to say that DVD Studio Pro isn't an improved tool and more appropriate for experienced users, just that in the big picture, iDVD is the Apple's pièce de résistance. It's a simple, yet powerful, authoring tool for anyone who has never created a DVD before and for plenty of people who have. It takes Sonic's DVDit! idea for easy authoring and puts Apple's predilection for user interface design to work. The result is an almost idiot-proof gem.

iDVD has just one simple interface with five buttons and disc capacity indicator along the bottom. This main view is your first menu and starts with a sample title and background already in place. You can, of course, click on and change the text of the title. You can also click the Theme button below to open a panel for changing font, color, background pattern, and more. For backgrounds, you can choose from among several presets or import a picture of your own. Being idiot-proof, iDVD automatically resizes images to the appropriate dimensions for DVDs.

That's the hard part! To import video clips, you just drag QuickTime (not MPEG) files onto the main interface. iDVD automatically creates and positions a button using the first frame of the video. Drag in a 2nd, 3rd, 4th... clip and iDVD immediately repositions everything to fit. You change the shape of the buttons from several presets (rectangle, oval, bevel in, bevel out, splash-shape, etc.), the button title, and even the button picture by single-clicking and scrolling through the clip.

If you have too many videos for one menu page, click the Folder button and iDVD places a "Folder" in your menu next to the video clips. This Folder is a new button that automatically links to a new menu page.

The other three buttons along the bottom are: "Slideshow", which opens a window into which you drag and drop stills for a DVD Slideshow and automatically creates a menu button; "Preview", which launches a DVD emulator; and "Burn", which automatically encodes QuickTime files into compliant MPEG-2, multiplexes them, and writes the project to the SuperDrive. The process of creating DVDs with iDVD is so straightforward that we were literally ready to burn a DVD, with three menus, seven video clips, and a custom background within five minutes of opening the application for the first time.

Of course, iDVD has limits–some serious. First, Apple has set the MPEG encoder to always use the maximum DVD bitrate of roughly 9Mbps (Megabits per second). That's apparently to ensure idiot-proof, top quality from any source footage, but unfortunately limits the amount of video on a disc to just over one hour, about the same as a VideoCD (albeit with MPEG-2 quality rather than MPEG-1). Also, while Apple's automatic button and style creation tools remove 99.9% of the complexity of DVD authoring, and are quite acceptable for most casual projects, you are not able to manually reposition menu buttons, titles, or redirect any navigation. You can reorder buttons, but not, for example, position them around a subject in a background image. Naturally, iDVD doesn't do motion menus, subtitles, multiple languages, region control, or any advanced features.

Finally, in perhaps the most annoying feature for professional use, iDVD sports the outline of the Apple logo, not only in the user interface, but also in the lower right-hand corner of every menu page you create. Thankfully, this is not the rainbow-burst logo of years past, just a mildly beveled outline of the apple with a bite out of the right side. But, it's there, burned into every menu you make and on every disc you write. Apple thinks consumers won't mind and, perhaps, thinks corporate customers will either not mind or spend the money for DVD Studio Pro. Unfortunately, that application isn't the one to broaden the user base for DVD creation. We'd like to see Apple release a "corporate runtime" version without the logo. At $99, that product would still be best in class.

Of course, iDVD is a free software application that will likely be available for download at some point in the future (though Apple will not confirm this), so it's hard to quibble with too much (with anything other than the phantom logo). If you need more features, DVD Studio Pro is Apple's answer, and a good one. However, for consumer users, and many professionals in particular situations, it's easy to see iDVD being more than adequate and plenty efficient for doing the job in a polished way.

DVD Studio Pro: DVDirector 2

EMedia reviewed Astarte's DVDirector in November 1999 [pp. 65-67–Ed.] and much remains the same in DVD Studio Pro. The interface continues to be dominated by the large Graphical View, where you essentially create a flowchart of the menus and clips in a project much like other professional authoring tools. DVDirector's unique and handy Property Inspector remains the programming focus for any of DVD's more detailed functionality–setting First Plays, timeout actions, looping playback, jump-to a, color mapping, and much more. And, the Asset Bin remains a humble alphabetical list of video and audio clips, menu graphics, programming scripts, and subtitle streams. And, with a few notable exceptions, the features and functionality have stayed fairly consistent with the original Astarte release.

The most striking upgrade comes in the form of a major interface spit-shine, borrowing heavily from Apple's Final Cut Pro video editor (there's no linking between these two applications, but the stage is clearly set for it). That means that the shapes of interface buttons, borders, and fonts have changed, but it also begets the addition of helpful trigger buttons at the base of the Graphical View, and undockable tabs for separating various folders. The trigger buttons are shortcuts for adding Tracks, Menus, Slideshows, and Scripts to a project, as well as an ever-present Preview button for launching a DVD emulator with a–now–software-based viewer.

Yet, DVD Studio Pro isn't all about a facelift, and Apple has dealt with at least three serious omissions from the Astarte days. Most notably, DVD Studio Pro now supports drag-and-drop functionality. Simply dragging a graphic onto the Graphical View window creates a new menu, dropping a video clip creates a video track, and dragging audio onto that video track links the two. Double-clicking on any Graphical View track or menu opens a more detailed editor. We did experience some minor bugs and erratic behavior while performing some fairly straightforward drag-and-drop operations–exposing the newness of the drag-and-drop feature–but never had trouble when going back to the original pull-down menu method of work.

DVD Studio Pro now supports multi-angle tracks and DVD slideshow functionality, both by either dragging multiple assets onto existing tracks or by opening a more detailed window. Regrettably, DVD Studio Pro still lacks a traditional Track Editor that would allow you to shift the offset to more accurately sync multi-angle videos, or audio/video events. Of course, that functionality could also be served by tighter integration with Final Cut Pro, a step Apple is almost sure to take in the future. For example, DVD Studio Pro allows you to add chapter marks to tracks, but it's easy to see how that metadata could also originate in Final Cut.

And rather than simply creating a disc image and requiring another burning application, DVD Studio now includes built-in DVD burning, accessible directly from the main interface and simplifying the process of creating a one-off disc. Not unrelated, DVD Studio Pro now includes a visible bit budget indicator in the top-right corner of the Graphical View showing the projected size of a project as you add assets. The application also supports 9GB projects and discs.

There are other, more subtle changes to DVD Studio Pro–including that Apple bundles QuickTime Pro's software MPEG-2 encoder–but ultimately more has changed in the industry over the last year. At about $5000, DVDirector used to be an inexpensive and mildly feature-reduced application in a sea of very thorough, but hard to use, professional applications. Today, at $995, DVD Studio Pro is very similarly priced to other feature-reduced applications for doing most of what users want most of the time, yet it omits fewer capabilities than most. And with very simple tools like iDVD, Sonic's DVDit!, and Spruce's Spruce Up, DVD Studio Pro also represents a professional tool for all but the most exclusive needs. From either perspective, DVD Studio Pro is well-positioned and well-priced at just under $1,000.

Ripe Apples

From an amateur's perspective, there's no middle ground between iDVD and DVD Studio Pro to give users just a little more flexibility and control in creating more customized appearances, but without the relative complexity of a professional authoring tool. Fortunately, while DVD Studio Pro does require a baseline knowledge of several DVD authoring concepts, it is not as difficult to use as similar tools.
In the bigger picture, the release of both applications puts Apple center stage in the DVD authoring and burning worlds. Apple wants you to think it's a good time to buy a Mac and, from a video creation and DVD perspective, that's true. Yet, whether your solution is Mac or Windows-based, it's a good time to think about creating DVDs. Apple has raised the bar on competition and, at the same time, brought new users into the market with a greater DVD awareness. And Pioneer has come through with the burner. DVD player sales are hot. Sounds like a good time for DVD, indeed.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Apple Computer, Inc.
1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; 408/996-1010; http://www.applecomputer.com

Compaq Computer Corporation
P.O. Box 692000, Houston, TX 77269-2000; 281/514-0484; Fax 281/514-4583; http://www.compaq.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
2265 E. 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 800/527-3766, 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990; http://www.pioneerusa.com

Sonic Solutions
101 Rowland Way, Novato, CA 94945; 888/766-4248, 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; http://www.sonic.com

Spruce Technologies, Inc.
1054 S. DeAnza Boulevard, Suite 200, San Jose, CA 95129; 888/255-6734, 408/861-2200; Fax 408/863-9701; http://www.spruce-tech.com

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com), EMedia contributing editor and columnist for THE MOVING PICTURE, 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 Video Systems magazine, Presentations magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

Copyright 2001 Online, Inc.
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