Pinnacle Express
Pinnacle Express DV
Believe the hype: it's quick, easy, and maybe even fun. But is that enough?
Express and Express DV 1.06
Pinnacle Systems
In their marketing materials and on their Web site, Pinnacle repeatedly invoke the words "quick" and "easy" when referring to their Express DVD-authoring software (it also creates Video CDs and Super Video CDs). "Harumph!" I harrumphed, at my most curmudgeonly. "The true test of speed and simplicity is if an under-the-gun creator can use the product at the tail end of an all-nighter with FedEx due to pick up the disc at 8 a.m.--after discovering he's lost the manual."

Never one to back down from a challenge, I decided to model those very conditions. It wasn't a real all-nighter--rambunctious toddlers' needs generally preclude those--but the other conditions were there. First, I captured a dozen or so different video clips, selected a handful of still images from my library, and ripped a few songs from my CD collection. These served as the edited media that the supposed all-nighter generated. Then I ate a pasta-heavy meal and downed a few cans of Coke to simulate the carbs, sugar, and caffeine that serve as the fast-food lifeblood of the pressured auteur. For good measure, I kept a bag of jellybeans on hand in case the sugar high wore off.

Once I was sufficiently jittery, I ran the program. Pinnacle touts Express's three-step creation process, so I was more than a little surprised to see the program immediately jump to step 2--constructing the DVD menu. How does it expect me to do that without any footage? I wondered, reaching for a plump green jellybean. I clicked on the icon for step 1 and imported eleven of the video clips and three of the stills, then used the built-in capture function to snag 30 seconds of video from a DV camera. (Express DV includes a FireWire card with the software.)

I went back to step 2, where I could put together the DVD menu. This step was quick, but curious in its alternately flexible and restrictive approach. I could pick any background image or music I wanted from my hard disk, but I could only use preset button designs and layouts. Despite my huge collection of typefaces I was limited to those that were built-in.

I picked what I wanted and went back to step 2's main screen, which displays your work in progress. That was when I noticed that instead of fifteen buttons for each imported item, I had over 300. It wasn't hard to figure out why: the automatic scene-detection feature, which appears in many such programs, was on by default. Since one of the clips was a music video and the other from an action program, the quick cuts and edits generated hundreds of individual scenes. So I went back to step 1 to turn off scene detection and re-import my clips--only to find that in so doing, I torpedoed my menu layout choices. (To be fair, this didn't happen in subsequent tests. It may have been something I did.)

After painlessly recreating my menu, I discovered that even with scene detection off I had far too many buttons. Chomping on a red jellybean in frustration, I moved on to the second part of step 2. (I suppose that could have been called step 2.5 or, more accurately, step 3, but Pinnacle probably didn't want to destroy their "easy as 1-2-3" metaphor.) This is where individual clips can be trimmed, merged, or further divided; individual images can be selected for the main menu's buttons; and the settings for transitions between clips can be set. I picked some nice button images, merged my rogue clips together, and returned to the preview screen; everything was fine.

Then I went on to step three to burn the disc. The total work time, from opening the program to starting the burn, including all mistakes and restarts, was 24 minutes.

In short: Wow. I didn't even have time to finish my second Coke.

So yes, it was quick and easy, and for that Pinnacle should be commended. I like some of the little touches, like the fact that deleted clips can be easily recovered at any time. I like being able to edit video clips and pick specific thumbnail images in Express for last-second tweaks that inevitably crop up. I especially like how the preview mode is so thorough: everything, including the audio, plays just as it would on a DVD player, and you can use the on-screen remote to test navigation and effects.

But I feel I should reserve some of my praise. There's the aggravation of a scene detection option that seems to kick in whether I select it or not, but most of all I'm annoyed that I can't customize button appearance and position, nesting menus is impossible, and I'm stuck with the same backgrounds for multiple menu screens. I realize that other packages with these features are more expensive, sometimes very much so. (MGI's $129 VideoWave 5 is a notable exception to the pricey-but-flexible rule--its DVD authoring features are an adjunct to its main function of video editing, but its menu customizability runs rings around Express.) Considering the rest of the program is reasonably well thought out, this lack of choice is a bit bewildering.

It should also be noted that Pinnacle is still working out the kinks in getting Express to work with Hewlett-Packard's dvd100i DVD+RW drive. While applying a patch (automatically downloaded when I ran Express) got it working on my system, Pinnacle's online support message boards seem to indicate that some dvd100i owners are still having trouble getting problem-free performance.

Pinnacle has made good on their claim that Express is quick, easy, and maybe even fun. But you should carefully consider your authoring needs and keep an eye on support before jumping in.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (April 2002)
All prices quoted in Canadian dollars.