iDVD Diary, Day 1: First Appearances

I've been interested in video for a long time. In high school, my friends and I used two VCRs to edit rudimentary movies we had shot on a video camera so old that it predates the term camcorder. My life in video stopped cold after college until last year, when a pending trip to the U.K. and the existence of iMovie led me to buy a digital camcorder and a Power Mac G4.

My vacation's long past and the vacation video has been edited, but in all this time I've been frustrated by the lack of output options I've had. To output to VHS tape seems the most portable, reasonable approach, but it requires that I export my edited video back to my camcorder, plug my camcorder into my VCR, and then record the camcorder's output on the VCR. I tried to make a VideoCD (sort of a "DVD lite" created with a CD-RW disc), but the quality was always atrocious.

The right answer for outputting iMovies is obvious -- in fact it has been obvious since the day Apple introduced iMovie: DVD. And now, introduced with Apple's new 733MHz Power Mac G4 with its SuperDrive DVD-R drive, we've got iDVD, Apple's next logical step in the world of home digital video.

As soon as we got a 733MHz G4 in the Macworld Lab, I took iDVD and the SuperDrive for a spin. I loaded up a gigantic FireWire hard drive with all of my vacation video files, carefully guarded the two blank DVD-R discs that came in the box with the new system, and began my first attempt to create an iDVD. I haven't been this excited since I burned my first CD-R four years ago.

Getting Started

First, a word about why iDVD even exists. After all, why not just add an Export to DVD menu to iMovie? Why a whole new program? (In fact, there is now Export to iDVD in iMovie 2.0.3 -- more on that later.)

If you've ever seen a DVD, you know that DVDs are more complicated than videotapes. They can actually have user interfaces featuring items you can select and then click on to play different movies, enable special features, and the like. That added complexity is the main reason why iDVD has to exist: it's an interface-building tool for your DVDs.

iDVD didn't come preinstalled on the 733MHz G4 we bought, so my first step was to install the software from the iDVD CD-ROM. This was easy enough, and my first step was to launch the Apple-supplied iDVD tutorial.

Apple's tutorial is a clean, well-thought-out way to introduce users to iDVD. You create a summer vacation-themed disc using sample images and movies supplied within iDVD's Tutorial folder. Plus, a simple tutorial is reasonable for this product -- it's not the most complicated interface in the world.

Essentially, iDVD is a streamlined drag-and-drop and button-based system. In the tutorial, one of your first tasks is to add a movie to the top level of the disc. All you need to do is find that QuickTime movie on your hard drive and drag it into the iDVD project window. A button representing that movie is automatically created for you. If you click on the button from within iDVD, a slider appears above the button, allowing you to move within your movie and choose the best image to use on the button. (You can also drag in any image you want from the hard drive and drop it on to the button itself, which will place that image on the button.) Double-clicking on the button will preview the movie.

Interface Tour

Here's what you see when you look at iDVD: a big window filled, in large part, with a preview of what would appear on your TV screen when you play the DVD. At the bottom of the screen, however, is a strip of control buttons that, beyond dragging and dropping, are your main method of working within iDVD.

At the bottom left is the Theme button. This is where Apple's expertise in making complicated projects easy really shines. Clicking on the Theme button brings up a row of DVD interface themes, similar in layout to the Appearance control panel in the Mac OS. Each of these themes contains a complete set of preset display preferences, including font, font size, font placement, background image, and button style.

Next to the Theme button is the Folder button. When you click on Folder, iDVD creates a Folder item in the current page of your iDVD project. This Folder icon does what you think -- if you double-click on it, you enter a new iDVD window, into which you can add even more items (including more folders). Each folder can have a unique look or can pick up the same theme as the rest of your DVD projects. New folders appear with a generic folder icon, but you can drag-and-drop a new button image onto them, or click and use the slider to choose an icon from that folder's contents -- at least, once you've added contents to it.

The next button over is Slideshow, and it's a clever way to add still images to your iDVD. When you click Slideshow, a new Slideshow item is added to the current page of your DVD project. You can then place still images into a Slideshow and play them back on your DVD player. As with Folders, when you create a Slideshow it starts with a generic Slideshow icon, but you can replace it by dragging and dropping an image or by clicking on the Slideshow button and using the slider to choose one of the slideshow's images as an icon.

To the right side of the iDVD toolbar are three other icons. The far-left icon is a green circle indicating how much space you've got left in the project -- iDVD limits you to one hour of video. As you drop in more movies, the green space grows and grows until it's filled.

Next to the green circle is a Preview button, which does what you might expect -- you leave DVD creation mode behind and enter a simulated DVD player environment. Your iDVD window becomes a preview window, and a new floating palette -- which, unsurprisingly, resembles a remote control -- appears. By clicking on the remote control, you can check out how your DVD will work once you burn it.

In the bottom-right corner of the window is the Burn DVD button. Once you're ready to commit to writing a DVD to one of Apple's $10 DVD-R discs, this is where you go.

Once I oriented myself with the interface of iDVD -- which is pretty easy to figure out, made moreso if you've ever used any other Apple software -- it was time to dive in. I had my movies, I had my picture files, I was ready to go. One way or another, I wasn't going to walk in my front door at home that night without a ready-to-play vacation DVD in tow.

Coming Friday: iDVD Triumphs and Frustrations

Got questions about iDVD? Talk about it in our iDVD Diary forum.

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