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iDVD 4

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iDVD, Apple's user-friendly DVD-authoring software, exemplifies the real secret behind the company's appeal: Apple makes Mac users look good. Without a lick of design talent, you can use iDVD to burn a shiny platter that will make most folks think you hired a professional.

The newest version, iDVD 4, gives amateur moviemakers even more power, thanks to some slick new themes, additional navigation options, and improved encoding technology.

A Bigger Theme Park

One of the secrets to iDVD's success is its selection of prefabricated navigation environments -- which makes the process of creating menus and backgrounds a simple drag-and-drop affair. iDVD 4 adds 20 new themes to this lineup. In Road Trip One, for example, you watch a view from inside a car driving down a perpetual highway and use the rear-view mirror as a drop zone for your media.

A few themes even tie together -- a particularly nice touch. For example, Road Trip Two offers a view out the back of the same car that's in Road Trip One, showing the highway roll away. This lets you keep a consistent theme throughout your project without recycling the same layout over and over.

Also, motion menus can now be longer than 30 seconds -- in fact, they're limited only by the amount of free space available in your project. To top it off, you can finally create button titles with line breaks.

AutoPlay and the Map

Another new trick that adds professional polish to your movies is iDVD 4's AutoPlay feature. It lets you play a media file before the first navigation page appears.

Naturally, you can choose your own media files for AutoPlay. To do this, you use iDVD 4's new Map feature. Clicking on the Map button displays a hierarchical view of the assets in your project. Drag any media file to the AutoPlay area in the upper left corner of the Map window, and the file will play as soon as the DVD is inserted in a player. But keep in mind that viewers can't skip over the AutoPlay movie to jump to the navigation, even if they've seen it several times before (although they can fast-forward).

It's disappointing that the Map feature is only a window to your data -- you can't actually move things around in it. I'd like to be able to rearrange the media hierarchy in the Map's flowchart format.

Improved Encoding

With iDVD 4, Apple at last breaks the 90-minute barrier, allowing you to burn as much as two hours on a DVD. iDVD 4 adopts the same MPEG-2 encoding technology that Final Cut Pro uses, which translates to not only more data per disc but also better-quality data. In my tests, burning a 48-minute iMovie project at iDVD 4's Best Performance encoding setting (which is equivalent to the encoding scheme in iDVD 3) took roughly 50 minutes on a 1.25GHz PowerBook G4. By comparison, burning a 118-minute project at the new Best Quality setting required 4 hours and 40 minutes. (Unlike the Best Performance encoding setting, which begins encoding your DVD assets in the background while you're designing the project, the Best Quality setting doesn't start encoding until you click on the Burn button.) The video quality, however, was indistinguishable from that of the shorter project in most aspects. One scene, of a mountainside at dusk shot from a moving car, did contain compression artifacts that weren't in the shorter movie, possibly because the clip's content was noisy to begin with.

For schools and offices that can't afford to supply everyone with SuperDrive-equipped Macs, iDVD 4 can now run on any Mac with a 733MHz PowerPC G4 processor or higher. A new archive feature collects all iDVD media assets and stores them in an OS X package file, which you can transfer to a SuperDrive-equipped machine for burning later. This is also useful for offloading encoding duties to another machine while you work on other projects.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Despite slow encoding and a few minor quibbles, iDVD 4 is a strong program and an important upgrade. With comparatively little effort, I was able to burn professional-looking DVDs that contained more media than previous versions could handle.

How Does It Stack Up? > GarageBand > iPhoto 4 > iMovie 4 > iDVD 4 > Putting a Price on iLife

The Big Picture iDVD's new Map feature gives you an overview of your DVD assets.
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