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Review: iDVD '08

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While the biggest surprise in iLife ’08 is the completely new iMovie, a close second in my eyes is Apple’s waning interest in DVDs. At the press event where Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduced the new suite, iDVD ’08 came across as an afterthought. “For people who still want to make DVDs,” he said without much enthusiasm, “we’re going to make it better with iDVD in iLife ’08.” Apple’s prevailing view seems to be: Sharing movies online is the future, whereas burning DVDs is so 2004.

Whether you buy into that thinking, Apple has not yet abandoned iDVD—this new version gains a few welcome features, some interface enhancements, and performance boosts that make it easier to use than earlier versions.

New themes

As usual, Apple has added a new set of professional-looking themes—10 of them, this time around—all of which are designed with animated elements and drop zones for your content. (All previous themes are also included, so there’s more variety than ever.) And as with the themes introduced in iDVD 6 (   ), each works well in standard (4:3) and widescreen (16:9) aspect ratios. A nice touch is that the new version is much faster when switching between themes. When you’re exploring the different options, you’ll no longer tap your fingers waiting for the theme’s assets to load.

Customizing themes

iDVD continues to offer a good balance between working with stock themes and modifying their elements. You won’t have the design flexibility of DVD Studio Pro, but that’s exactly the point.

iDVD ’08 incorporates a few changes that make it easier to customize DVD menus. The Buttons button is no longer a catchall for everything related to the navigation elements in each theme. Instead, you get to choose from several options in two categories: icons or underlines when a button is highlighted (and which can be applied separately to each button element) and the appearance of the buttons themselves (in frames, stylized rectangles, geometric shapes, and the like).

The other controls, such as label styling and custom thumbnails, now appear in a floating inspector, which seems more appropriate and reduces the clutter in the main window’s panes. It also gets rid of the sometimes-confusing discrepancy between a button label (formerly found in the Buttons pane) and a text label such as the theme’s title (formerly in the Menu pane). The exception is when you’re retyping a button label: If the Inspector isn’t visible, a contextual trio of pop-up menus appears beneath the text to choose font family, style, and size.

Another good improvement is the enhanced Drop Zone Editor. Clicking the new Edit Drop Zones button adjusts the preview pane to make room for drop zone wells, eliminating the old floating Drop Zone Editor (which always seemed to be in the way). You can still drag-and-drop media onto drop zones in the theme itself, but in some themes the zones aren’t always visible. Now they’re not only visible, but also convenient. iDVD can import video in any format supported by iMovie—thus, you can import MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 video and burn it to DVD.

Professional Quality encoding

iDVD still retains a two-hour limit to how much media you can put onto a standard single-sized DVD, but now iDVD ’08 provides another encoding option: Professional Quality.

The Pro setting uses two-pass variable bit rate (VBR) encoding, which means that iDVD examines every frame of video twice to determine the best amount of compression to apply; the High Quality setting uses single-pass VBR. The Pro setting takes more time, of course. I burned a two-hour project in 3 hours 52 minutes on a new 20-inch iMac; at High Quality, the encoding and burning took 1 hour 15 minutes.

In my testing, video encoded at the Pro setting benefited most in terms of color quality. The high quality version appeared slightly washed out in comparison. The Pro encoding also enhanced the appearance of still photos in slideshows. Speaking of slideshows, you can now add movies to them, letting you punch up photo essays with a little motion.

Macworld’s buying advice

All in all, iDVD ’08 is a solid incremental upgrade. Given that iMovie no longer creates DVD chapter markers (which let your viewers jump to specific sections of a video), I’m disappointed that the chapter marker feature in iDVD hasn’t changed: You can add chapter markers, but only at fixed time intervals, such as a new chapter every five minutes. (iDVD ’08 works just fine with movies created in iMovie HD 6.)

Even if you prefer to burn your movies to DVD instead of uploading them to a Web site or YouTube, chances are iDVD alone won’t sway you to buy the iLife ’08 suite. But given Apple’s disinterest in the format, it’s encouraging to see the fine improvements in iDVD ’08. The question is, will we see another iDVD in the future? I, for one, hope so.

[ Jeff Carlson is the managing editor of TidBITS and the author of the forthcoming iMovie ’08 and iDVD ’08 for Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2007). ]

The new Drop Zone Editor appears in the preview window, where your menu is still editable.iDVD ’08 can import iMovie video shared at multiple resolutions using the Media Browser.The Professional Quality encoding setting in iDVD ’08 produces richer color fidelity (above) than the High Quality setting (below).
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