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Pinnacle has already won us over with its excellent DV editing software for beginners. Can it do the same with low-end DVD authoring?
In contrast to developments in video editing software, it seems that the biggest strides in DVD authoring are happening at the entry- level. Witness the recent arrival of budget DVD authoring programs from Ulead (review, p44) and Pinnacle, each selling for under £50. Pinnacle Express is a remarkably simple program, aimed squarely at the home user, rather than the enthusiast or professional. With almost no bells or whistles, Express is designed purely for putting simple movies onto disc as VCD, SVCD or DVD presentations.
Import and preparation
Pinnacle Express operates in three stages - capturing video, laying out the project, and burning to disc. The capture interface makes use of standard OHCI FireWire ports for connection to DV camcorders or decks - there is no ability to import via analogue cards or to handle any video format other than Open DML Type-2 DV AVIs. The program controlled our Sony TRV900 camcorder and captured footage from it without a problem, importing the DV file directly into its library. Express can also import stills into its library (in BMP, JPG, PCD, PCT, TGA, TIF and WMF formats) and Type-2 DV files. We discovered, however, that Express didn't like TIF stills saved using LZW compression.
Clicking Express's Stage-Two icon brings up a different screen. Each video and image file is shown in the main preview window with its own button link, though this can be changed by clicking on the Edit Video icon at the bottom of the window (denoted by a pair of scissors and a strip of film).
Doing this brings up a separate pop-up Edit Video window. To the left, this has a clip bin containing all media elements in the project. To the right is a small video monitor allowing media playback. In between is a set of basic controls for splitting video clips and joining them together. This isn't a well-featured video editor - nor is it meant to be - so the best results are attained by importing material that has already been edited in another program.
No MPEG import
Annoyingly, while most DV editing programs - particularly at the entry level - can export video in MPEG format, Express is not able to make use of such files, because it can't import MPEG. This means that finished edits produced in other programs must be remade at full DV quality, taking up more hard drive space than should be necessary. Right-clicking on a video clip or still in the bin, and selecting Properties, calls up a box with, initially, five options in it - how long a still image is displayed; whether to have a file's title visible during playback; whether to return to the main menu after playing (rather than playing the next element); fade to black between scenes; and the self-explanatory 'Use dissolve transitions between scenes'.
If still images are included in the presentation, these can be grouped together as a slideshow by highlighting them all in the bin (not by Ctrl-clicking, but by dragging along their right-hand edges), and clicking the 'Combine' button, or right-clicking and choosing Combine. At this point, all stills are grouped together as an expandable subset.
Video clips can also be combined to make single elements - which is useful if scene detection has created unwanted divisions. Perhaps even more usefully, they can be split into separate scenes, too, creating new chapter stops. The video has real-time audio preview during playback - unlike many other DVD authoring programs - so it's easy to choose where to split clips to select exactly the right point for each chapter to begin and end.
Bringing it together Back in Express's main authoring window, there's a settings option (a spanner icon), where the user chooses which type of video disc is going to be produced, and the status of the disc that's to be written to. Express supports VCD, SVCD and DVD disc formats, and this same settings box allows the disc burner to be selected if there's more than one on the system.
Express recognised a Pioneer A03 drive and made it available for CD and DVD writing, but it wrongly recognised Ricoh's MP5120A DVD+RW drive as only a CD writer, and wouldn't use it for DVD-based projects. On another system (Athlon 1.1GHz, running Win 2K SP2), Express correctly detected a 700MByte Intenso-brand CD-R disc in a Plextor CD-RW burner (PX-W1610A), but thought that a 650MByte Philips CD-RW disc was a DVD!
Once project and disc types have been selected, Express updates a CD- shaped pie chart sitting alongside the spanner icon, showing the project's data requirement against overall capacity of the disc. Express allows 63 minutes of video to be used in a VCD project, 33 minutes for SVCD and 83 minutes for DVD. The menu preview window to the left of the main monitor allows users to browse back and forth through a selection of menu styles. As each one is selected, the preview monitor is updated accordingly.
Burning it up
Burning the final project to disc should be a straightforward business. The 'Create final disc' interface is basic, giving an option of making one or more copies, and providing access to a pop-up settings box, allowing writing speed and the location of temporary files to be specified. From there, it's a simple task of clicking Start and waiting for the MPEG to render and the disc to burn. In practice, things weren't that simple. MPEG encoding is a slow process with Express. Even on our rather speedy 1.4GHz Athlon test system, 18 minutes of DVD-quality MPEG-2 took almost two hours to encode from DV, while the same duration of SVCD files took much longer - closer to three hours.
VCD MPEG was far quicker by comparison, completing in just under an hour. The initial wait for DVD files to encode was tolerable, until it came time for Express to write the disc. The disc writing progress bar crawled along until it reached 99%, and then just stayed there. Cancelling out of this operation, we checked the disc to find that nothing had been written to it at all - it was still blank. In the second attempt, Express finish encoding the video and then immediately spat out the disc, bare-facedly claiming it to be finished.
A visit to Pinnacle's website provided us with a possible solution - a version 1.02 updater (1.1MByte in size) which provides support for the Pioneer A03 drive and which, to our shame and Pinnacle's credit, we could have installed at the time of original installation, by simply accepting the program's offer to check the web for recent updates! However, this does rather beg the question, since the A03 was the very first general use IDE DVD writer to become available, which other DVD burners - if any - are supported by the original 1.01 version.
Having exited Express and (unwittingly) failed to write a disc, all our temporary files (rendered MPEGs) were lost, meaning we had to start the whole export process over again with the updated software. After two hours of MPEG crunching, Express proved no more willing to write to DVD-R or DVD-RW than it was before. Frustrated - to put it mildly, we suspected the problem may be caused by the virtual drives - previously installed with Roxio's VideoPack 5 (review, p50). This virtual drive proved a difficult thing to shake, and we ended up reformatting the system drive and reinstalling Windows 2000, all drivers and the Express software, plus the update. After all this, Express was still refusing to write to the Pioneer A03.
Finally, we formatted the system drive once again and this time installed Windows Me, instead of 2000. At last, everything worked sweetly, with DVD, VCD and SVCD discs (these last two to CD-R only) burning without complaint on the Pioneer A03 drive - though still after lengthy encoding periods, unfortunately. Might some rather urgent work be needed to strengthen the program's support for Windows 2000, perhaps?
After the many long waiting periods we'd had to endure, the results of Express's MPEG encoding were quite disappointing. AT DVD quality, subtle graduated colours lost their subtlety, looking quite blocky at times and, while definition was generally good for static shots, camera movement and on-screen motion caused the image to lose detail. This degradation was even worse in VCD and SVCD video.
DVD and VCD discs played back well on a Yelo 800 DVD set-top player. Selection of scenes from the menu was instant, and picture searching through videos was responsive. We didn't have as good a response from the SVCD discs, however - they took a long time to load, and when the 'forward' button was pressed to picture search, we were rudely returned to the main menu.
Regardless of format, we were disappointed to see momentary pauses between chapters during playback. While this was expected for VCD (chapters must be broken down into separate files), playback across chapters for DVD should be seamless.
In keeping with Pinnacle's product-development track record, Express is a good and intuitive entry-level program, but one that is in need of considerable work. The program seems to need much improved Windows 2000 support, and to require regular updates in order for it to work with all current and future DVD burners.
We'd like to see Pinnacle add more comprehensive titling tools, and the ability to import MPEG files from a range of encoders, some of which will certainly produce better output than Express can. And, while we're asking, it would be a huge bonus, if not just for Pinnacle, if Express could be reworked to open Studio 7 projects. Ultimately, the low cost of basic DVD authoring tools such as Express can only have a positive effect on the market. We expect prices for more professional programs to fall, and hope to see the market expand further as software is split into professional and consumer versions - based largely on the limitations of general use DVD writers and media. This is only the first generation of consumer DVD products, and we hope that development will now move quickly.
Concerning the here and now, though, Express's interface is of the same family as Studio 7 (to our minds, the best entry-level DV editing software available) and, despite its shortcomings, the program should prove an easy tool for even the greenest of novices to use.
For the full review, see the December 2001 issue of Computer Video.