First Do No Harm








Introduction to Digital Software Reviews  

Ok, so youíve got a digital camera. You take pictures. And then one day, you decide to try that option for making a movie. A lot of digital cameras will take digital movies. 

Most of the time, people copy the movies to their computers, play them a few times, and then forget about them. Thatís it.

Then there are those who want to put them on DVDs and  watch them over and over. They are todayís home movies for those of you who donít own a video camera.

Still, there are the movie nuts who love to watch Turner Classic Movies and eventually, they start to record some of these old classics onto DVDs.

Then there are those of us who record everything we see because some freaking doctor changed our meds and a loud television in the background can drowned out those strange voices telling us to.... well, thatís a whole nother subject weíll take up at a later date.

Because of my photography hobby coupled with the fact that I seem to take a pretty good picture, I had received at least sixty emails asking me about my preferences for photo editing software, video editing, presentation software, DVD or CD creation software and the like, and for many, I simply had no answers because it was all new to me and I was certainly no expert.

The reviews in this section are the result of a four year quest to find the best software to do all of the things readers have asked me about. The reviews will be added to these pages as I complete them, but first, some of you might want to know how this journey started, so that you can avoid those steps yourself and learn from my errors and eventual successes.

Beyond presentation software for all your pretty pictures and beyond all the editing software choices to make your pictures even prettier, I had to establish a goal in my DVD/movie/film clip software quest.

Forget the pictures and slide shows; weíre talking video now.

Did you know that Hollywood doesnít even use film anymore (at least to record on)? The final product that shows up at your local theater is on film. This wonít last forever. You can expect that in a few years that all our theaters will have digital projectors.

So, you can bet there are some great digital movie editing packages out there (but Iím sure you canít afford the two million dollars price tag to get the best ones).

For this challenge, I created a simple goal: to record something from my television, move it to the computer, edit out the commercials, put it into a compilation with other movies, possibly a short or two, create a menu, and then output a DVD that could be played on my television. It sounded pretty simple.

Additionally, why waste a DVD in the process? Why not use a DVD-RAM disk that could be recorded over and over and over andÖyou get the picture?

Not being an expert, I sought out an expert. I found a web site that listed at least 20 products for editing movies and making DVDs. I began a conversation with the web owner who seemed to be quite knowledgeable.

He told me that I would need an interim program to turn the movie file on the DVD-RAM disk into an MPEG file and an audio file, and then I would need to find a program that could edit both of those together (which can be tricky if you make an error because your film will look like a badly dubbed foreign film in which the mouths donít quite match the audio. We conducted this conversation for about three months, while he sent me programs to try; my results varied.

Then, since I wasnít having much luck, I just put the project on a back burner and did other things.

Long story short, I discovered that this character Iíd been communicating with, whom I thought was an expert, was a total nut who was probably communicating with me from a padded cell.

Hereís what I discovered:

An MPEG file is exactly what you will find on your DVDs you purchase (or rent from NetFlix); it is simply ďencodedĒ and standardized so that it will play in every DVD player from Honolulu, Hawaii to Bangor, Maine.

An MPEG file is video and audio compressed. You canít uncompress these files without losing something in the translation, and you could not normally edit them frame by frame with most of the early editing software. However, companies realized that people wanted to edit these files and they have begun creating some very interesting programs to do this.

While I was searching for a program to ďripĒ a movie Iíd recorded off a DVD-RAM disk and then edit that, there had already been created software that just copied the movie onto your hard drive and then opened it in an editor. Who knew? I had to learn the hard way that ripping was NOT what I had wanted to do (after buying so many video rippers too).

So, here I had accumulated about 15 worthless programs because I was told (and I believed) it was a complex process that required a PhD, 3 high speed DVD drives, tons of software, a whoopee cushion, a Kalatchnikov, and exact change.

In walks TMPGEnc MPEG Editor. You put your DVD in the drive, open TMPGEnc MPEG Editor, tell the program to go find your movies, click on the drive and whatever movies on that disk will appear as unnamed programs. Click on them, and they are copied to your disk, and listed out, still untitled. Click on one and choose to edit, and bingo, itís there on your screen with a player below it. And editing is a breeze.

So, there you have it. All the software here can make you into a Cecil B. DeMille or an Andy Warhol, or you can be the next John Waters. (Always keep in mind that no one in the world ever predicted that the Blaire Witch Project, done entirely with a relatively inexpensive video camera, would make millions of dollars.) You can create photographs like Ansel Adams, Robert Mapplethorpe, or Arthur Stieglitz. You can create DVDs with menus, video CDs, and presentations of the new baby that Grandma will treasure as long as she lives. The possibilities are endless, limited only my your imagination.

One Last Thing: Learn from Others

Your DVD recorder hooked up to your TV set will record in a few different modes. One of those modes is EP which can record 6 full hours.

You will probably not find software that will record 6 hours of video to a DVD (that is of any quality worth watching). I have no clue why this is, when movies recorded from television with a DVD recorder are just fine in the EP mode (6 hours).

I was told my an industry expert that 8000 kbps (kilobits per second) was equal to the SP (standard play) mode; 6000 kbps was equal to the LP (long play) mode, and 4000 kbps was equal to the EP (extended play) mode. However, at 4000 kbps Iíve been able to get nearly 4 hours on a DVD, and itís not the best quality. So, what he told me was actually in this order: XP mode at 8000 kbps (highest quality), and then SP and LP.

This seems to be how many software programs handle these rates. We review one package, the Roxio Easy Media Creator Suite, and at the EP rate, we were able to fit only 4 hours of video onto a DVD. Then I got a copy of TMPGnc's DVD Author 3, and found that it is the most flexible DVD making software available. It has features that beat out programs costing much more.

If you make menus with ďaction,Ē such as action thumbnails for your menu choices, or an active main menu (the movie in the menu actually plays), or perhaps many menus listing out chapters in your movies, and lots of sound clips, you will use up a lot of space on the disk leaving less space for video.

Some DVD creation software will allow you to transcode (turn your video into DVD video that can be read by most DVD players) at a 2000 kbps rate, the real EP, six hour quality, but Iíve done this and itís very VERY bad quality. Itís not even close the EP quality youíll get from your DVD recorder hooked up to the TV.

Additionally, that DVD recorder hooked up to your TV can record one program in the EP mode, and then the next program in the SP mode, and then the nextÖ you see what Iím getting at.

Iíve only found one DVD creation software package (TMPGnc's DVD Author 3) that will allow you to create a DVD with videos of varying playback quality (modes). Most software output DVDs with one transcoding rate for all the videos. This seems to be the standard in the software industry.

Most people seem to chose a constant rate when they transcode. However, for the best picture, choose a Variable rate. Youíll see them listed as CBR (constant bit rate) and VBR (variable bit rate). Choosing the VBR gets you the consistently best video quality. Believe me.

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