Can't Afford DVD+RW? VCD It!

Like many digital-media endeavors, today we record video to the PC with a look to the future. It's nice to put master copies of your home movies on your hard disk, but eventually, you'll want to copy these videos onto recordable DVDs so you can more permanently archive your memories and share events with friends and family. And although archiving to DVD is possible today, it's also expensive: PC-based DVD +RW drives begin at about a thousand dollars, and the least-expensive Macintosh that can record DVD runs about $2500 sans monitor.

So, in the meantime, I archive video on inexpensive, large hard disks while I wait for the price of recordable DVD to come down. I recently came across an interesting technology called Video Compact Disc (VCD) that's inexpensive and lets you record video onto normal CD-R discs and CD-RWs. You can play these VCD discs in most home DVD players just like a DVD movie. The caveat, of course, is quality--VCD offers sub-VHS quality at best, with frequent visual glitches that are reminiscent of what we see in compressed JPEG-based still images. But you can't beat the price, and VCD technology is available now.

VCD discs can hold 74 to 80 minutes of compressed MPEG-1 video per standard CD-R disc, and the technology also supports stereo sound. NTSC VCDs run at 352 x 240 pixels at less than 30 frames per second (FPS). MPEG-1 video is fairly low quality; for comparison purposes, NTSC DVD movies use MPEG-2 technology, which offers 720 x 480 resolution. The primary differences between MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 are the aforementioned resolution and the fact that MPEG-2 supports variable bit-rate (VBR) recording; MPEG-1 uses only fixed bit-rate recording. If you've recorded audio in MP3 format, you're probably familiar with VBR; it lowers file sizes by encoding at varying quality throughout a single recording.

In theory, making a VCD is simple. You acquire video as always, edit it as you desire, and convert it to MPEG-1 format. Then you write the video to a CD-R disc and play it in any standard DVD player. In practice, making a VCD is a bit more complex. The steps I outline here are just one way to accomplish this goal, but I've found that the VCD-creation process can be somewhat difficult because the video must be in a very specific format. For this reason, you'll need to work with specialized tools. Fortunately, some tools are available for free, and you can also find commercial applications that do the trick.

Let's assume that you created a video in noncompressed AVI format. AVI is generally the best way to go because you want your source material to be of the highest possible quality. However, you must convert your AVI source material to VCD-compatible MPEG-1 format, so you'll need a third-party tool. I've used the TMPGEnc MPEG Encoder for this task.

The TMPGEnc UI (Figure 1) lets you specify an uncompressed video source (typically AVI format) and audio source (typically the same file as the video source). You can then specify an output path, file name, and the settings you'll use. (This last part is particularly important because VCD video needs to be encoded just so.) Click the Load button and navigate to the TMPGEnc directory. Inside the templates folder you'll find a file named VideoCD (NTSC).mcf; this file loads the template for creating VCD files.

After the Load dialog box closes, click Start to begin the conversion process. As the conversion progresses, the video in the TMPGEnc window will step forward slowly, and the Progress section will count down the time remaining.

After you convert the file, you can view it in Windows Media Player (WMP) or write it to a VCD. Several applications can write your file to a VCD, but I use Roxio's EZ CD Creator 5. To create a simple VCD, start EZ CD Creator and select Make a photo or video CD and Video CD. This action launches the VCD Creator application, which displays the Video CD Creator Wizard by default. Because you're working on a simple first VCD, the wizard is probably sufficient for now.

In the wizard's second step, choose Simple Video Sequence because you're adding only one video to the disc. Then add your play items, which in your case is the single MPEG movie you created. Note that you can add more than one play item, as you might on a DVD movie. In the next step, set the play sequence. Then you simply create the CD.

EZ CD Creator will probably give you one or more errors. For the most part, any problems you experience will probably revolve around the MPEG file you created. For example, the resolution might be wrong or the audio bit rate might be too high. If you experience a problem such as this, you'll see it during the Add Play Items phase. For this reason, I recommend testing a short video first; if you experience any problems with an MPEG video, you'll have to reconvert the file, which is a lengthy process.

The process presented here is one of many ways to create VCDs. For more information and alternative methods, I recommend the VCD Help Web site.

TMPGEnc AVI to MPEG conversion
EZ CD Creator

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