Business-like, isn't he?



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    Digital video software is still far from user-friendly

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver July 19-25, 2005; issue 821; High Tech Office column

    Working with digital cameras and photos is pretty mainstream these days. But what about video?

    I had 12 minutes of footage on a Sony Handycam and wanted to end up with it on a DVD or video CD disc, ideally playable both on standard DVD players and on computer. No fancy editing or special effects needed, though a title screen and optional menu would be a plus.

    Most digital camcorders include a Firewire (called iLink on Sony models or IEEE 1394) connector. This makes it easy to connect the camera to a computer - at least one with a Firewire port. All recent Macs include a Firewire port. It was easy to add a $35 PCI Firewire card to my Seanix desktop. And the card included ULead Video Studio DV 5 software. The ($100) LG DVD burner I had previously added to the computer bundled CyberLink Power Producer software, and Windows ME and XP include Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker software. I tried out all three, along with Apple's iMovie and iDVD on a Mac.

    Each recognized the camcorder and did a reasonable job of importing the raw video footage from the camcorder (though it took me a while to discover the small, unlabelled camera icon in the ULead software). Each included buttons to rewind, play, pause or stop the video camera.

    But what to do next was not always so apparent.

    Power Producer appeared to offer a one-stop solution, not only capturing the video, but also promising to create a multi-chapter production and burn it to VCD or DVD. But the menu creation was cumbersome. Even worse, the DVD player displayed the opening screen but wouldn't get past it.

    On the plus side, it optionally adds a player that automatically runs when the disk is inserted into Windows PCs.

    When Video Studio started up, a help file automatically popped up. This seemed annoying but turned out to be vital: the user interface is very obscure. As well, options are labelled with technical terms with no explanation (not even in the help file) leaving this non-expert user puzzled as how to choose between, for example, AVI 720x480 DV NTSC and MPEG-1 352x240 NTSC.

    I couldn't find any options to burn the resulting file to disc.

    Microsoft's Windows Movie Maker interface was much easier to use. It automatically split the captured footage into scenes, though it didn't offer any obvious ways to edit the scene selection. That didn't matter, though.

    In the end, it (very slowly) burned the resulting footage to CD as a single Windows Media format file; no menu, no chapter headings. That would have been OK, but the resulting disc played fine on a Windows PC, and not at all on my DVD player.

    I was able to take the saved files from both Video Studio and Windows Movie Maker and convert them into the version of Nero that had come with my DVD burner. There I discovered that the higher-quality Super VCD disc option was only available with a paid upgrade version. The standard VCD discs played (with a lower but OK resolution) on my DVD player.

    Moving over to the Mac, Apple's iMovie was similar but slicker than Windows Movie Maker. It offered to send the captured footage to stable-mate iDVD, which, however, I found confusing. Again, I had to poke around in iDVD's help files to learn how to add images to the "drop zones" for the menu page.

    And when I burned the project, the 12 minutes of video turned into over two GB of files - far too large for a video CD. (iMovie has an option to "share" the movie in a variety of slimmer QuickTime formats, sans iDVD's fancy title and chapter headings).

    My conclusion: be prepared for some work whether you're wanting to send vacation footage to Grandma or make a sales video for the boardroom.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan