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Optional Hardware

There are the things you can't live without, and then there are the nice-to-haves. Our DVD nice-to-have hardware items may not be 100 percent essential for every project, but they sure can make your job a lot easier and allow you to create a better-quality end product. Depending on the kind of project you're developing, some of these items may, in fact, turn out to be indispensible, especially if you are doing it all yourself.

Input devices

DVD authoring requires you to collect digital asset—everything from video files to still graphics will be incorporated into your project. Here are a few devices that will help you capture the necessary source assets and bring them into your authoring system.

DV camera: A digital video camera will allow you to import miniDV (or pro DV formats) into your computer for editing. Most DV cameras use a FireWire connection to import the video stream into a computer. This is a handy device for capturing short clips for use in menu designs. See Chapter 4 for more information about digital video cameras.

Analog converter: Even if you don't own a digital video camera, you can still use footage from your analog video camera (8mm, Hi-8 or VHS) by using a converter box. The analog converter acts as a bridge between your camera and the computer, digitizing your video on the fly. Analog converters usually cost around $200.

If you already own a DV camera and an analog camera, you may not need a converter box. Some DV cameras will also convert analog video via an AV cable connected between an analog camera and the DV camera. Check your DV camera's specifications to find out if it has analog conversion ability.

Remember that analog video has roughly half the resolution of digital video and will never look quite as sharp, even after the conversion to DV format.

Video deck: Instead of capturing video directly from your DV camera, you might consider a video deck. This specialized device is kind of like a VCR for miniDV tape (or other formats) -—its sole functions are playback and recording. It connects directly to your computer via FireWire or other high-speed interface.

A video deck is definitely professional-level hardware, but it's useful for extensive video editing sessions and saves your DV camera from the wear and tear of frequent rewinds and fast-forwards that occur during the batch-capture process.

Digital still camera: DVD slideshows and menus require source photographs, and a digital still camera is the perfect gadget to capture them with. For the best clarity, make sure your camera is capable of capturing images at 3-megapixels or higher.

Image scanner: Not every graphic you want to use can be captured with a digital camera, so it's helpful to have a desktop image scanner available. Whether you want to digitize old photographs or import an interesting texture, a scanner is a valuable item for menu design.

Microphone: There will be times when you need to capture narration or sound effects for a DVD menu or video edit. You could do this with a DV camera, but if you don't have one, you can record directly into your computer using a simple USB microphone. Prices range from $30 to $50 for units that work on either PCs or Macs.

MPEG-2 encoder card: You should seriously consider buying an MPEG-2 encoder card if you plan to create DVDs for a living or if you have massive amounts of video to encode. The professionals call this hardware encoding, and it's a tremendous timesaver for long video encodes where speed and quality matter. An encoder card fits into one of your computer's PCI expansion slots and has connection ports for your video deck or DV camera. The process is simple: just connect your deck into a port at the back of the card and adjust a few settings in the controller software. Your video will be converted into a DVD-ready MPEG-2 file in realtime, or something pretty close to it. Some cards can simultaneously convert the video soundtrack into the Dolby AC-3 format. Realtime encoding means that if your video is an hour long, it will take an hour to encode.

Several hardware MPEG-2 encoder cards are on the market. Sonic (www.Sonic.com) offers a line of encoder cards for Windows, including the SD-500, SD-1000, and the SD-2000. On the Mac side, the MediaPress X encoder card and software from Wired, Inc. (www.Wiredinc.com), is compatible with the current OS X systems.

These encoders can produce outstanding results, but they're not exactly cheap—entry-level prices start at around $500, and the pro models start at around $4000. Of course a good hardware encoder will pay for itself quickly in time savings alone.

It's also possible you won't need to use a hardware encoder card. For infrequent encoding jobs, the alternative is software encoding, which doesn't involve any special equipment. All you need is an encoding application that takes your source video files and compresses them into the MPEG-2 format.

There's nothing wrong with using a software solution, but these applications generally won't do realtime encoding, and could take several times longer than with the hardware method. The duration of encoding time depends on the length of your video and the quality level you want—high-quality MPEG-2 encodes could take hours to produce.

If you have time to wait, software encoding is your most economical solution. A software encoder will cost a fraction of what a decent hardware encoding card does, while still providing excellent quality MPEG-2 files for your DVD.

Encoding workstation: Often DVD authors dedicate a separate computer workstation for the sole purpose of encoding video. In professional authoring houses, projects are deadline-driven and need to progress quickly, so dividing up the workload and processing time makes a lot of sense. While one workstation is doing the actual DVD authoring, other computers across the room are cranking out MPEG-2 files. This arrangement is probably unnecessary for the casual DVD author who moves at a more leisurely pace.

Quality control and testing

While DVDs are created on computers, they are often played and viewed on non-computer devices. There's almost always a difference between the way a DVD looks on a computer screen and how it displays on a television. A DVD author should know what to expect when her disc crosses from the computer realm over to “the other side.” The following equipment will help ease the transition and allow you to make informed adjustments along the way.

Television: An ordinary, cheap television set for proofing is a very good way to judge how your DVD will look to the rest of the world. A low-quality set is best so you can accurately see how your disc appears in the least-optimized viewing situation. If you can make it look good there, it will absolutely shine on high-end equipment.

Broadcast monitor: A computer screen displays images in progressive scan, but a regular television set uses interlaced scan, which can look quite different. A professional broadcast monitor also displays interlaced video, but it can be connected directly to your video editing computer. It allows you to see how your video looks in interlaced scan while you're editing, instead of waiting until a test DVD is made. A broadcast monitor is helpful for color proofing to make sure that your video and menus appear as you intended. Broadcast monitors don't need to be large—a 14-inch model will do just fine. Expect to pay around $700 or more to add this pro item to your set-up.

See Chapter 10 for more information about interlaced and progressive video.

Set-top DVD player: The real measure of success for any DVD is how well it works in an ordinary set-top DVD player. You'll want to have a player available and use it religiously in the disc testing phase to weed out any glitches in your authoring. Make sure you purchase a recent model, something made after 2001, to ensure compatibility with DVD-R or DVD+R discs. Check to see if the model is compatible with DVD-RW or DVD+RW discs too, since you'll also want to use those for testing purposes.

Output devices

When the authoring and testing is complete, there are still a few more steps to get your disc out into the world on the right foot.

Disc duplicator: Duplicating a short run of 10 to 25 discs with a regular DVD burner can be a real chore. You could babysit your computer's DVD burner, swapping disc after disc, hour after hour, until they're all finished, but frankly, that doesn't sound like too much fun to us.

A better alternative is to load a stack of blank discs into a disc duplicator, press a button, walk away, and let it burn! When you come back a while later, your finished discs will be stacked and waiting for you. In addition to this convenience, some duplicators can print a fancy, color inkjet label onto each disc.

The Primera Bravo (www.PrimeraTechnology.com) is a good entry-level duplicator that also prints labels onto the discs. It costs under $2000. Disc Makers (www.DiscMakers.com) also offers a range of full-featured duplicators in their Elite System product line.

Label printer: What about inkjet labels for individual discs? A DVD with a color label imprint is perceived as having more value than one without. But you don't want to use adhesive labels because the extra weight could throw the DVD off-balance in a player, or the label could peel off and render the disc unreadable.

To work correctly, a DVD label should be printed directly on the surface of the disc. Fortunately, you don't need an expensive disc duplicator to imprint on a single disc.

Epson (www.Epson.com) has recently begun to sell low-cost ($200) inkjet printers that can print right onto a DVD or CD, and other vendors will likely follow suit. For label printing, the duplicators and inkjet printers require a special non-branded disc that has a blank white surface designed to accept the ink. Blank discs are sold in bulk packs from the printer and duplicator manufacturers and most disc vendors.

DLT tape drive: Some DVD projects exceed the capabilities of a burner or duplicator. A project might be destined for the higher-capacity DVD-9 format, or it could require CSS copy protection. In these cases, your authored files need to be saved to DLT.

DLT stands for Digital Linear Tape, a preferred professional medium to transport your finished DVD files to a replication facility. While many replicators now accept DVD-R discs for pre-mastering, DLT is still required if the DVD has CSS protection or is authored in the double-layered DVD-9 format.

A good DLT drive costs at least $1000 to $2000, but you may be able to find a less-expensive used model on eBay. Blank DLT tapes are available for around $50 each, but you'll get a better deal if you buy in bulk.

DLT drives require a SCSI connection to the host computer (sorry, no FireWire for this one). If your computer doesn't already have a built-in SCSI port, you can add one inexpensively with a PCI expansion card. Chapter 17 explains more about DLT.

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