Desktop TV Gets Another Boost at Macworld

It was last January when Apple Computer introduced the first simple and affordable personal DVD mastering system. This summer, at Macworld, the company gave desktop television another boost by improving its DVD authoring software and significantly cutting hardware costs.

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed his Macworld audience a preview of iDVD 2 for Mac OS X. This new version of DVD authoring software for Apple's new operating system is included with Macintosh computers equipped with a SuperDrive, the company's multiformat burner. SuperDrive writes to standard 4.7GB DVD-R discs that can be played back on standard consumer DVD players.

Scheduled for September availability, iDVD 2 allows videomakers to create DVDs based upon Apple’s pre-designed themes. Each theme features backgrounds and menus capable of displaying full motion video. "In less than one hour, iDVD 2 users can create a custom DVD with super-cool menus that rival anything coming out of Hollywood," said Jobs.

To add motion video to the DVD’s menu buttons or background, users drag and drop iMovies or QuickTime files into the iDVD 2 interface. Slide shows, accompanied by music, can also be created using digital still photos.

The new authoring application enables the creation of DVDs capable of holding 90 minutes of material, and harnesses Mac OS X’s multitasking power to allow background MPEG encoding of the DVD while authoring is in progress.

Apple's new "Quicksilver" Power Mac G4 867 MHz also lowers -- by about $1,000 -- the cost of entry to desktop DVD mastering. At $2,499, this new mid-priced model comes with a SuperDrive, iDVD software, 256K L2 & 2MB L3 cache, 128MB SDRAM memory, 60GB Ultra ATA drive, NVIDIA GeForce2 MX, Gigabit Ethernet and 56K internal modem.

At the high-end, Apple introduced a dual 800MHZ Power Mac G4 at $3,499. It adds 256MB SDRAM memory and an 80 GB Ultra ATA drive to the mid-range model's features. In order to gain the benefits of the dual processor configuration, use of Apple's new OS X operating system is mandatory. This speed demon, said Jobs, can encode a DVD at under 1X real-time.

In an on-stage demonstration, Apple staged a speed test to prove that comparing the megahertz ratings of Macs with Windows PCs is like comparing apples and oranges. Jobs and company showed the Power Mac G4 dual 800 running up to 83 percent faster than a 1.7 GHz Pentium IV-based PC while running a series of routine Photoshop 6.0 tasks.

In additional to jolting low budget videomakers, it's clear that iDVD 2 and the dual processor G4 are out to jump start interest in Apple's new OS X operating system. A requirement is that the second-generation iDVD application, bundled at no extra cost with Apple's SuperDrive-equipped Power Mac, can run only under the Mac OS X version 10.1, a new, much faster version of the operating system due for release in September. It will be offered as a $19.95 upgrade to current iDVD users.

For professional users still committed to Mac OS 9.x and willing to spend a $1,000, Apple is offering DVD Studio Pro 1.1, a more elaborate DVD authoring application. Projects authored with DVD Studio Pro can include nearly every feature the DVD-video standard allows -- including motion or still menus, web links, multiple language tracks, up to 99 video tracks (each enhanced with up to 9 different angles), 8 separate audio streams and 32 subtitle streams.

The pro application comes with an MPEG encoding software plug-in that works within QuickTime-compliant video editing software products, such as Final Cut Pro (also priced at about $1,000). With a few settings you can create MPEG video files to use in DVD Studio Pro.

Included with the authoring and encoding software in the DVD Studio Pro package are DVD@CCESS software to create DVDs that support web links; Dolby Digital encoding software to produce surround sound audio; tools to create subtitles; QuickTime Pro software and a comprehensive tutorial and sample files for learning how to master DVDs with the package.

Finally, if you have an existing Power Mac G4 without a SuperDrive, all is not lost. Apple's internal SuperDrive is actually the same as Pioneer's Model DVR-A03 DVD/CD burner, which was introduced separately in May at $995. CD Cyclone sells it as the DVDRevo DVD-R/RW, a $990 external FireWire drive. LaCie also introduced a $999 DVD-R/CD-RW FireWire drive this summer.

These third-party drives don't come with Apple's iDVD software, however. Unless you buy a new SuperDrive-equipped Power Mac, your choices are Apple's DVD Studio Pro or a third party authoring application.

In only half a year, Apple has singlehandedly made low-cost DVD mastering available to the masses. There are strong hints of more to come. Reports have surfaced that Apple is considering the purchase of Spruce Technologies, a company that makes a range of advanced DVD authoring and hardware products. Though there's no confirmation of such a deal, it's clear that Apple is just beginning an impressive drive that could eventually make DVD authoring easier than setting the timer on a consumer VCR.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.