Cutting-edge help with digital video

August 29, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

Home video production still isn't as easy as it should be - or as easy as PC makers promised it would be a few years ago.

To be sure, computers are faster than they were and better-designed to manipulate digital video. For their part, video software publishers have continued to try to make the process simple enough and fast enough for people to use confidently.

But all too often, prospective videographers are still struggling to get raw footage out of the camera and then edit it into something watchable.

Macintosh owners whose computers are equipped with Apple's iMovie and iDVD have one of the easiest computer movie-making systems on the planet, as long as they're working with movies shot by a digital video camera.

But our review of a several programs for Windows-based PCs turned up some solid performers, with one pre-eminent in helping you to convert those old analog VHS and 8 mm camcorder tapes of the baby's first steps, graduation ceremonies and your best friend's wedding.

All the programs reviewed have nonlinear editing tools (meaning you can move video snippets around), as well as cutting tools for overly long clips, title creators and a variety of scene transitions.

Each program advises you on how to render your movie for different playback devices and formats, including Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and QuickTime.

The programs also offer different levels of DVD authoring, but we won't talk about that here because of the complexity of the process. Some DVD burners take up to an hour just to save a few minutes of video. And all too often, you get an error message long after that hour began. Suffice it to say that DVD editing and burning still isn't easy enough for average users.

Video CDs may not have quite the same visual or audio quality as DVDs, but they may be the ticket to sharing video on disc. They can be recorded on standard, inexpensive CD-RW drives, and more than half of stand-alone DVD players can play them (including virtually all newer machines). Moreover, most basic video-editing programs, including those reviewed, support them.

Emmy Award-winning Pinnacle Systems' Pinnacle Studio Version 8 remains the best of show for consumers with its $100 price and its streamlined drag and drop editing process.

If you have a digital camcorder (for example, any of the popular Mini DVs), an IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port on your PC and a cable to connect the camcorder and computer, you can get right to work with any of the programs here.

But Pinnacle goes the extra mile by offering slightly more expensive ($129) packages for the rest of us - those without a digital camcorder or the hardware to import video into a computer.

If you're completely analog, which means you have a VHS or 8mm camera and no FireWire port, you can purchase the software with an analog video converter and capture card (called the AV Version). To use it, you'll have to open your computer and install the analog adapter card in an expansion slot.

If you have a digital camcorder but no FireWire adapter in your computer, Pinnacle sells a package with a DV capture board. And if you want to cover both bases, you can buy the $299 Studio Deluxe package, which has an analog and DV capture board.

Studio Version 8 also captures video from the new Sony Neo Micro MV camcorders.

Previous Studio versions have earned high marks for Pinnacle's SmartCapture system, which reduces the hard disk space needed to capture your video. DV is a space hog - an hour of video can gobble 13 gigabytes, more than half of the space available on an average 20-GB hard drive. SmartCapture compresses DV so that an hour takes up only 400 megabytes of space. Even so, you shouldn't begin a video project without 4 to 5 GB of free space.

Editing in Studio Version 8 is straightforward, thanks to a simple timeline interface. When you import from a camera, Studio Version 8 detects individual scenes and snips accurately between them so that you can move clips anywhere along the timeline. Lay in music, drop in a transition or two and place a title up front, and you can be done relatively quickly.

Studio Version 8 requires a 500-MHz Pentium machine with 128 MB of RAM and 300 MB of space that runs Windows 98 or later.

Ulead VideoStudio 6 ($100) is a solid second choice, but it doesn't offer integrated hardware options: You'll have to buy a separate analog converter and video capture board if your PC isn't equipped with FireWire.

Still, I liked Ulead's new expanded storyboard mode, which provides additional space to look at clips that you want to organize. Of course, you can also use the regular storyboard mode (in which you place clips in the order that you want them to appear), or the timeline mode (which provides the exact time length for each clip).

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