Break Through the Digital Learning Curve

I've been working on a series of showcase articles about the new features in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), and the next one I post to the Windows SuperSite will be about digital movies. I had hoped to have the article finished by the end of the year, but given this rather complex subject, I probably need a few more weeks to finish it. In the meantime, my mention of digital movies last week in Windows 2000 Magazine UPDATE garnered a number of responses, so I thought I'd take a quick look at what's available today and what we can expect to see in Whistler later this year.

The problem with most digital media, frankly, is the barrier of entry, which has several levels. Digital media—be it audio, photography, or video—is expensive in some cases, but it's also confusing, requiring a vast array of knowledge to perform the simplest tasks. One might be a CD music aficionado, for example, but what are the chances that one then understands the differences between encoding and ripping or the costs and benefits of various bit-rates? What's MP3, and how does it compare to the Windows Media formats? How do you make your own music CDs? Etc.

When we talk about digital video, a number of similar issues crop up immediately, and unfortunately, they're exponentially more complicated than anything in digital music or photography. Like many of you, I'm just getting my feet wet, but I've "produced" a couple of low-quality videos for my son's Web site recently, and I hope to be able to archive my home videos on the computer soon. Here's what I've learned.

Hardware-wise, you can get started with an analog camcorder (e.g., 8mm, VHS, VHS-C) or VCR and some sort of hardware interface for the computer. The interface could be a USB dongle (low-quality), a FireWire-based solution (medium-quality), or a dedicated PCI card, such as the Dazzle Digital Video Creator II device I'm using and strongly recommend. The type of hardware you select determines the quality of the end product: For example, USB-based solutions are typically limited to 320 x 240 video, adequate for the Web, but not for a finished VHS tape. USB dongles, of course, are much cheaper than FireWire and PCI solutions and companies such as Belkin offer excellent solutions. But if you're serious about getting into digital video, a higher-end device, such as the $250 Dazzle, is definitely a smart buy, and you can still create low-end Web videos with such a product.

A number of readers expressed dissatisfaction with FireWire, and in my talks with the people at Dazzle, which supplies USB, FireWire, and PCI devices, they corroborated FireWire's inability to transfer DVD-quality video to and from a camera. Most digital camcorders today do include a FireWire interface, of course, and Apple Computer (which owns the FireWire brand name) is pushing this standard as the way to go, but I can't recommend it. FireWire cards seem to be a hit-or-miss proposition on Windows 2000 also. For the best bandwidth, and the best results, stick to a dedicated device such as the Dazzle I'm using, even if you already have a digital video camera. The PCI card connects to an external module with a variety of inputs and outputs, such as RCA jacks and S-Video, so you're going to get the highest quality possible, based on the hardware you use.

In my case, that's a low-end mono 8mm camcorder at the moment, although I'm hoping to experiment with VHS and DVD players soon, and then move up to a digital camcorder, which will offer a better picture and stereo sound, later this year. The camcorder plugs into the Dazzle's external module via the RCA jacks, and then I use the bundled software—the excellent MovieStar—to record the video and audio to the computer, create clips, insert transitions (some of which are quite professional), and perform other video-editing tasks. When you "produce" your final movie, which can be outputted back to a VHS deck or whatever, you get to choose the format and quality, all the way from DVD-quality—720 x 480 Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG)-2—down to something so small and ugly it's barely worth discussing. And reader Dean Flansburg tipped me off to the impending release of MPEG-4, which will offer even better picture quality in less space. Windows Media and Real formats are also available for conversion purposes.

All this movie production requires a lot of fiddling with settings, including such esoteric options as "input gain" for audio and the seemingly infinite number of video types that are available. As I become more proficient, I hope to produce some slicker movies with voice-overs, music tracks, and nice fades and transitions. These features are all available today in the Dazzle and other similar products; it's just a matter of spending the time and figuring it out.

On the Windows side, Microsoft includes Windows Movie Maker (WMM) in Windows Me, and a slightly newer version, WMM 1.1, will be in Whistler desktop versions as well. WMM isn't the most compelling product, especially when you compare it to Apple's iMovie 2 (free with Macs) or the software that's bundled with the Dazzle. But WMM can actually be a good place to start because it has so few options: The learning curve is that much easier, and WMM gives you immediate feedback. The little videos on my son's site were actually captured with MovieStar on Win2K and then copied over to a Whistler Beta 1 laptop, where I used WMM to combine the clips with titles I created in Microsoft Paint (I *told* you this was low-budget production). They're not great quality, of course, but they do the job for the Web. Like I said, I'm still learning.

Speaking of the Web, publishing these videos—stored in Windows Media format, incidentally—requires the Windows Media 7 (WM7) software development kit (SDK) and some knowledge of HTML. The number of skills one needs to publish a video end-to-end just keeps growing, I guess. I'll revisit this topic in the future when I know more and can make additional recommendations. In the meantime, keep the questions coming, and peruse the following Web sites for more information.

TAGS: Windows 8
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