State of the Art: A Look at Consumer-Oriented DVD Movie Making

Since the beginning of the year, I've discussed in this newsletter several new Apple Computer iLife applications, including iMovie 3, iPhoto 2, and iTunes 3. In this issue of Connected Home EXPRESS, I examine iDVD 3, Apple's latest iDVD release and the final piece of the iLife puzzle, and see how it stacks up against MyDVD 4, the current Windows champion. Note that both of these applications are consumer-level--not professional-level--DVD movie-making applications, so they're easy to use and offer accessible, basic functionality. If your needs are more complex, however, both the Macintosh and Windows platforms offer higher-end tools designed for the video professional. If a demand exists, I can look at these packages in the future.

When I looked at iDVD 2 last year, the application blew me away. Apple's consumer-grade DVD-making application was without peer; it had an elegant, simple UI and stunning design templates, some of which were nicely animated. Now, with iDVD 3, released in January, Apple has improved the product dramatically, and the new version offers several features--some obvious, others subtle--that once again elevate iDVD above the competition.

First, iDVD 3 is faster than earlier releases. One of the biggest problems with digital video in general--and with DVD movie making specifically--is the amount of time it takes to render video to DVD-compatible MPEG-2 format so that you can encode the video on disc. To offset this concern, iDVD renders videos in the background as soon as you import them into the application. That way, as you go about designing menus and performing other tasks, in the background the application is silently getting some of the more time-consuming tasks out of the way. And you can switch to the new Status page on the side-mounted shelf to see the progress of the rendering process for each imported video. In my tests that compared iDVD 3 with MyDVD 4, I found rendering speeds, overall, to be faster on the PC. But that difference probably has more to do with the underlying superiority of PC hardware than anything else. And which platform you use doesn't really matter: In either case, video rendering takes a long, long time.

In iDVD 2, Apple added motion menus, which gave finished DVD movies a more professional look. I had trouble imagining how the company could improve on this feature, although I eventually expected to see more motion menu designs. But in iDVD 3, Apple has raised the bar yet again. Now you can add your own video clips to special motion areas of certain menus; the effect is simply stunning. Imagine a DVD menu, with various links to movies and photo slide shows, that includes one of your own home movies animating in the background. This feature is amazing, and the PC world has nothing like it.

Speaking of themes, iDVD 3 ships with a large collection of professionally designed themes, most of which are quite beautiful. Apple really excels in this area. Say what you will about the company, but Apple knows quality and makes no bones about distributing only the highest-quality themes with iDVD. The same can't be said for Sonic Solutions' MyDVD 4, which includes a few nice themes but also several that look like children designed them.

Another advantage of iDVD 3 is its thorough integration with the other iLife applications. If you want to make a photo slide show, for example, you can access your iPhoto library directly from the iDVD shelf's Photos page--a nice shortcut that doesn't require you to move between two applications. Likewise, thanks to integration with iMovie 3, iDVD 3 recognizes the chapter markers you created in iMovie and adds them to your finished DVDs. Apple's integration strategy is paying off because one company makes all the applications, and creating cross-application functionality is therefore easier for the company. By contrast, in MyDVD 4, you can create chapter points only when you record video directly from MyDVD 4. Because I prefer to record (and edit) video in Windows Movie Maker (WMM) 2 and MyDVD 4 doesn't let me add chapter points to video recorded in another application, this feature is useless to me, as it would be to anyone who uses a third-party application to record video.

That Apple still owns the consumer-oriented DVD movie-making market is clear. That's not to say that MyDVD 4 is horrible. It's the nicest Windows-based consumer-oriented DVD movie-making application on the market and features a simple, attractive, Windows XP-like UI and, more important, compatibility with the Windows Media Video (WMV) 9-formatted movies WMM 2 creates. A few months ago, I declared that Windows video editing had pulled ahead of the Mac because of WMM 2, and I still believe that statement is true, as iMovie 3 still lags behind the Microsoft product. But when it comes to DVD making, the Mac has little viable competition.

The obvious question is which platform makes more sense for the typical home user who is trying to record his or her home video and photo memories on DVD. If you'll excuse the cop-out, both platforms are equally viable. The Mac has a better DVD-making application in iDVD, and Apple's other iLife applications are all excellent. Windows has the superior movie-editing software in WMM 2, but no integrated DVD movie-making functionality, leading users to the third-party market in which MyDVD 4 is king. Thanks to Apple's single source, however, the company's products are now highly integrated, which makes working with them somewhat simpler than their Windows equivalents. Whether that's enough to cause consumers to switch platforms is debatable.

I've chosen to use both Windows and the Mac because each platform offers various competitive advantages over the other. However, most people can't afford to make that choice for all the familiar reasons--inertia, a preexisting library of software, and data-compatibility concerns (whether real or perceived). Windows will likely continue to dominate, even in digital media. But don't let that fact scare you away from the Mac. Apple has many plans in the making--including an online digital-music store and new iPods--that might further cement the company's stake in the digital-media market. The debate, such as it is, only gets more interesting over time.

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