Apple G4 733 and iDVD

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Apple G4 733 and iDVD

After months of waiting, DVD authoring is now here at affordable prices. Rather going against the grain, Apple was quick to adopt DVD-R, but only offers a burner in its most expensive flagship system.

With Apple's current focus on DV editing, it's only natural that the company should be an early adopter of new-generation DVD-R technology. DVD writers can now be bought on their own at pretty reasonable prices. There's the Panasonic DVD Burner, costing £500-£550; or the more pricey £650 Pioneer A03 drive. Apple has opted to install the Pioneer A03 in its system, as have some makers of Windows PCs but, while DVD-R-ready Windows systems sell at very keen prices (in the case of Packard Bell's offering, as low as £1,500), Apple has chosen to make the drive an incentive to buy its most powerful (and most expensive) 733MHz system.

The machine
The PowerMac uses Apple's now familiar graphite casing, which is very cleverly designed to give ultra easy access to the machine's innards. As for power, Apple seems confident that its 733MHz processor will give the current range of blisteringly fast Pentium and Athlon processors a good run for their money - even those with speeds well exceeding 1GHz.
The installed NVIDIA GeForce 2 MX graphics card is a nice bonus - gamers are sure to approve - but will serve well for serious usage up to and including 3D modelling applications. Add to that 256MByte of PC133 SDRAM, and a 60GByte ATA66 hard drive, and the machine has all the makings of an excellent workhorse. It's well connected too, with two six-pin FireWire ports, two USB sockets, and a standard VGA port for monitors, plus a proprietary powered connection for Apple's LCD Studio monitors. There's also a built-in 56Kps modem, a Gigabit Ethernet connection and a slot for an optional wireless networking card.
Apple calls the installer burner an ÔApple SuperDrive', but it is, in fact, a version of the Pioneer AO3 drive. The system also comes with a simple DVD authoring program, iDVD, intended to work alongside Apple's excellent entry-level video editing program, iMovie 2. As the DVD burner can write to CD and CD-RW as well, the machine also comes pre-installed with iTunes - an application for turning MP3, AIFF and WAV files into audio CDs, for playing CDs, and for transferring songs to MP3 players. CD writing with the installed Pioneer drive was fast, with 76 minutes of music being burned to CD in only 11 minutes. As for other CD burning software, we found that Ahead's Nero Max was unable to identify the Pioneer as a CD writer, but that Roxio's Toast 5 Platinum worked like a charm.

On yer marks...
There's no doubt that this system has a lot of power under the hood, but our main interest is how well that power is used for video editing and DVD creation. In Apple's higher end video editing program, Final Cut Pro 2, rendering times proved to be quite reasonable, with 10-second cross dissolves and a 10-second mirror effect each rendering in around 43 seconds.
Final Cut Pro 2 allows projects to be exported as DVD-compliant MPEG-2 files. This functionality is provided as a plugin installed with DVD Studio Pro, rather than as an exclusive feature of Final Cut Pro itself. Annoyingly, all effects, transitions and titles need to be rendered by FCP 2 as full-quality DV before an MPEG can be made. Once that's done, however, export is very speedy - we exported a 43-minute video as MPEG-2 at 8Mbits per second, and found the process took around 94 minutes. We also take our hats off to Apple for its MPEG encoder software, which did an excellent job in keeping up the quality of the image and sound.

Get set
iDVD accompanies iMovie as standard with the 733 PowerMac. It's a very simple program designed for authoring simple DVDs featuring video and slideshows. We were surprised that it wouldn't allow us to use any of the MPEG files created with Final Cut Pro, and so we set about making more with iMovie 2. As we'd expected, MPEG exporting from iMovie 2 is a beautifully simple process. The Export Movie dialogue box now features an ÔExport for iDVD' option - making it a one-step process to create compatible files. There are no options allowing users to customise settings or change the data-rate of files, the only choice is to export or cancel. Encoding was even faster than with Final Cut Pro, with a one-minute DV file encoding in almost exactly one minute. We figured this had to be some kind of record for a software MPEG encoder, but were made suspicious by the fact that the clips had been given a standard QuickTime MOV extension. Closer investigation showed that the exported files were actually DV files, not MPEG, and encoding would be done later by iDVD itself.

iDVD is the easiest authoring program we've seen. In part, that may be down to the fact that there's not much to it, but we're certain that even the greenest of novices will hit the ground running. Unlike its big brother, DVD Studio Pro, iDVD is a simple drag-and-drop affair, and the interface is visual and self-explanatory. The program occupies a small, self-contained window, displaying the DVD's first menu. Beneath the menu display is a set of five buttons - Theme, Folder, Slideshow, Preview and Burn DVD. There's also a small indicator showing how much space is left in the DVD project - iDVD will only allow up to 60 minutes of video to be written to a single disc.

The PowerMac 733 is a very impressive machine, and its DVD authoring potential is sure to have many Mac enthusiasts drooling. But, as with many things Apple, this is far from the most cost-effective solution, and we very much doubt that Apple will convert many video enthusiasts from the ways of Windows by offering its entry-level DVD authoring tools only on its most expensive system. Things aren't helped much by the fact that iDVD isn't yet available to buy as a stand-alone program for those buying a DVD-R drive for an existing Mac.
Pricing aside, we feel that the 'SuperDrive' and supplied software do provide a good way in to DVD authoring. What's missing from the suite of tools - perhaps most importantly - is the ability for users to set chapter markers within long videos. As it stands, all video clips used within iDVD are self contained, and send the viewer back to the menu once they've finished playing. This removes much of the non-linear appeal of DVD - which is sure to be the one aspect that users - and viewers - require most.

For the full review, see the August 2001 issue of Computer Video.

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