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A new addiction: DVD recording

Using a Compaq PC, CNET News.com's Joe Wilcox sets out to record an amateur DVD movie that Ma can watch on her TV set.

    I have been looking for the right way to tell my wife about the new love in my life.

    This new love is not another woman, but it might as well be for the time and money I will devote to this new passion: I am hooked, lost, head-over-heels smitten with DVD recording.

    You can choke back that laugh anytime. I am no freak.

    Sure, there is something geeky about it. But shooting your own movie, editing it on a computer, and burning a DVD that Ma can watch on her home player is thrilling. It may not be as exciting as bungee jumping out of a Cessna. But hey, what is?

    The first computers with DVD recording are just hitting the market. Compaq Computer offers DVD-R drives on eight Presario consumer models. Apple ships the same drive, the Pioneer DVR-103, on its top-of-the-line Power Mac G4.

    I opted for Compaq's MyMovieStudio Presario 7000 PC to begin my amateur filmmaking, editing and producing debut. Apple's 733-MHz Power Mac G4 looked promising; but at $3,500 without a monitor, I figured the price would be a budget buster. Meanwhile, Compaq's PCs with DVD-R start at $1,969 with a 17-inch monitor.

    My Presario 7000 packed a 1.5GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of RAM, a 75GB hard drive, and DVD-R and 40X CD-ROM drives. I couldn't figure why Compaq included the CD-ROM drive. Even for burning music CDs--something the DVD-R will do--only one drive is required.

    Compaq placed one FireWire and two USB ports on the front of the system, which makes connecting a digital camera or camcorder a snap. Another two USB and two FireWire ports are located on the back of the PC. The Presario did not come with a FireWire cable for connecting to a digital camcorder, something Apple does supply with its systems. However, Compaq did slip in three free blank DVD-R discs.

    Sorry, Spielberg
    Hooking up the camcorder proved painless, as did reviewing video clips using the supplied Pinnacle Systems Studio DV software. In fact, I found the software surprisingly easier to use than either MGI's VideoWave or Apple's iMovie 2 for the Mac, although VideoWave's overall features are better. On first use, Studio DV checked the Internet for an update, which it found, downloaded and installed.

    A 75GB hard drive seemed a wee bit excessive at first, but I quickly learned video consumes enormous amounts of storage. When it first started up, Studio DV scanned the hard drive and warned that I had enough capacity for only five hours of raw footage. My first nine-minute movie knocked back 550MB of space on the hard drive.

    Video production proved painless and did not require looking over instructions. Transferring movies from the camcorder, drag-and-drop editing and final production in MPEG-2 format proceeded smoothly.

    However, I did find working with the DVD authoring software quite troublesome. Compaq only supplied a light--or slimmed-down--version of Sonic Solution's DVDit software. But given that the upgrade price to the DVDit standard version is $350, or $799 for the professional edition, Compaq might have good reason for sticking with the LE, or Light Edition.

    Unlike when I used Studio DV, I had to pore through Compaq's sketchy instructions on burning a movie and later the DVDit tutorial to get oriented. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past my repeated exasperation with the DVDit LE software. One of the product's coolest features, for example, lets the DVD author create a title menu with links to various scenes of the overall movie. This is reminiscent of professional DVD movies. But I found the tools for resizing buttons and text to be klugey with no easy way of laying them out uniformly. Frankly, I found many of the menu backgrounds and button choices to be tacky.

    At first, the DVDit tools for burning a movie appeared straightforward. But during the initial test-and-create phase, the Presario 7000 spit out the disc and asked for another. For a fleeting, desperate moment, I thought I had burned a $20 coffee cup coaster.

    I nervously tried recording a second time, this time writing the disc directly without first going through a test run. About 10 minutes later the movie--a compilation of recent snippets featuring my daughter--popped out of the Presario. My authoring frustration aside, DVDit delivered when it counted the most and successfully burned the movie to disc.

    The moment of truth had come. Would my love live up to expectations?

    The movie played beautifully on the Presario and a Gateway Performance PC using WinDVD software. But the movie choked on my DVD player. Granted, it's an odd duck, a 2-year-old Sony DVD Discman rather than a newer, full-sized player. But the real promise of DVD recording is watching movies in a home player, whether new or old.

    Later, I popped the disc into a couple of DVD players at my local Circuit City. My face burned with embarrassment and I broke out in a fast sweat, when from one player my movie appeared on multiple 42-inch TVs. After fumbling to eject the disc, I ducked a couple of salesmen moving in for the tackle and hoofed it for the door.

    Budget-busting burners
    For those interested in outfitting an existing computer, Pioneer soon will begin selling the DVD-R drive separately, which can be added to just about any PC. But sticker shock may be a problem.

    Pioneer's retail model, which can record DVDs and CDs as well as play DVD movies, will carry a manufacturer's suggested price of $950 when it becomes available around May. However, much could change when Hewlett-Packard delivers its competing DVD+RW drive this summer.

    Competition should then push down prices to more acceptable levels. But early adopters must be wary that DVD-R and DVD+RW are competing, not complementary, standards. Whichever standard consumers sanction by their buying choices could force the other out of the market. That is a long-term problem affecting recording software and blank discs. Still, both drives should be able to produce DVDs playable in most computer DVD drives or consumer DVD players, which is the bigger issue right now.

    Some folks also may choke on the cost of DVD-R discs, which Compaq sells in packs of five for $99 and Apple in packs of five for $49. Interestingly, the discs are the same, so Compaq PC owners take note: You can save half a C-note buying DVD-R media from Apple.

    Another hidden cost: Movie buffs must pony up for a digital camcorder, which typically costs more than $1,000. Besides providing exceptional picture quality--the kind you might want to put on a DVD--many digital camcorders use high-speed IEEE 1394 ports (aka FireWire) to transfer video quickly to PCs or Macs.

    Obviously, I can't say my relationship with DVD recording is flawless. As with all lovers there are always compromises to be made.

    Perfection is just too much to ask for, although I did pine for easier DVD authoring and did expect to watch movies on my home player.

    The real test will be if Ma can play the movie on her home DVD player. She's a real DVD movie addict, so this home movie of grand-progeny ought to keep her glued to the TV for about the next year. But that question won't be answered until the sequel.