When friends or family members you haven’t seen in years suddenly show up at your front door, the proper thing to do is invite them in, find out whom they’re married to these days, and then reminisce about old times over a tall glass of Guinness. What you don’t do is drag out a two-ton box full of photo albums and Super-8 tapes and bore your company to tears, like you might have done before the digital era drop-kicked that kind of coma-inducing behavior into obsolescence. That might still work for your computer-illiterate parents, but this is a different time, and you’re much more likely to have your memories and adventures preserved as digital bits scattered all over your hard drive. In the back of your mind, you keep meaning to organize your digital photos, home movies, and even your epic music collection, and wouldn’t it be rad to mash them together? After all, a home-brewed DVD with a custom soundtrack and visual effects would dazzle your friends and relatives in ways a simple photo album and unorganized video can’t.
This is where fully fledged media suites come into play. They not only help you organize and spice up your digital collection, they’re also capable of converting music and videos into formats better suited for portable devices, like your handheld game player, smartphone, or tablet. Today’s media suites are all about managing and manipulating your content so you can view it whenever, wherever, and however you want, and not simply burning to disc like you did in the 1990s.
To help you choose the right one, we rounded up three of the biggest, most popular media suites around: CyberLink Media Suite 9 Ultra, Nero 11 Platinum, and Roxio Creator 2012 Pro. Each one brings a barrelful of tricks to the digital party, so we narrowed our focus to the tasks you’re most likely to use over and over again. Specifically, we’re testing for Blu-ray/DVD/3D playback, DVD/Blu-ray burning, basic video and photo editing chores, and transcoding. Is there a suite that stands head and shoulders above the others? Let’s find out!
Comparing media suites isn't easy. Each of the three suites in this roundup comes with a laundry list of features and bullet points, and it really starts to get overwhelming when you consider that each of the individual programs included within each suite has its own list of selling points. This chart compares the three on a macro level, skipping over most of the features that apply to all three suites—like making DVD backups, for example—and focusing instead on differentiating features that actually matter to the end user. Are you rocking a touch screen? Roxio is the only one with a mode specifically for touch screens. Is overburning important to you? Nero does it; the others don't. This isn't by any stretch an all-inclusive list of features, but it does reveal some key differences that could play a part in your decision to drop a wad of cash on one suite over the other.
Nero 11 Platinum
CyberLink Media Suite 9
Roxio Creator 2012 Pro
Social Media Integration
To say Nero’s been around the block a time or two is like saying Brett Favre’s played in a few football games: both are gross understatements. If you’ve been building computers for any length of time, or have ever purchased an optical recorder, then you’ve probably come across Nero in some shape or form. It’s been around since 1997, back when Bill Clinton was still president, the Internet was an infant, and Windows 95 ruled the roost. Back then, there wasn’t a need for media suites, and you would use Nero Burning ROM for burning copies of audio CDs, backing up data to optical discs, copying games, and, well, not much else. Computers and technology have changed significantly since then, and so has Nero, which is now a multifaceted suite of media tools with a price tag to match its robust feature-set.
Nero 11 Platinum is Nero AG’s (formerly Ahead Software) top-of-the-line software suite that retails for $110. It includes 10 individual programs of various utility, each of which fires up independently of the others. You would think that wielding so many individual programs would turn into an organizational nightmare, but Nero does a good job of wrangling them into a Welcome menu that lists each one in a sidebar. Navigating within each program is another story entirely.
Our biggest gripe with Nero is the steep learning curve, at least compared to the other suites in this roundup. That’s too bad, because underneath the clunky controls, there’s a lot you can do with Nero. We got our first taste of sour grapes when trying to edit movies with Nero Video. This brings up a Welcome screen with six tiles: Capture, Edit & Import, Create & Export, Projects, Tools, and Product Info. Logic dictates that we should start with the Edit & Import tile, but your only options are to Make Movie or Slide Show, Import from AVCHD Camera, Import AVCHD from Disc, and Import AVCHD from Hard Drive. That’s fine if your video is AVCHD, but what if it isn’t? If you choose one of the AVCHD import options, Nero freaks out and tells you it can’t recognize your video because it’s the wrong format. The video editor loads anyway, and once you dismiss the error message, you’re free to drag-and-drop your non-AVCHD video into the editor and begin manipulating it. Alternately, you can choose the unintuitive option of Make Movie or Slide Show to edit your flicks. Yet another way to get to the same place is through the Create & Export tile, which brings up a window to import and then edit your videos. It’s all very redundant and bound to confuse your mom and dad, who just want to add some pizazz to their vacation videos.
Once you’ve stumbled through the front door and are finally able to edit home movies, Nero provides an assortment of tools to spruce up your clips, all of which are organized within a fairly feature-rich dashboard. New to Nero 11 is an Express Editing configuration that lets you sprinkle in video effects, clipart, text, speech bubbles, picture-in-picture effects, and add other snazzy doodads by dropping them into a storyboard format. You’re given a generous amount to play with, such as 50 transition effects alone, made even more robust by being able to tweak each one’s properties. Even with the Express Editing feature, it’s still a bit more complicated than it needs to be, but if you take the time to learn the interface, it’s possible to produce a prosumer-grade video.
Nero Recode offers a far easier UI to work with, and it’s a piece of pie to convert your HD videos into mobile-friendly formats for viewing on the go. If you want to port video shot from your Flip camera over to your smartphone, for example, all you need to do is drag and plop the video into the indicated box and select the device you want to watch it on. There are preconfigured profiles for most major gadgets, including the iPad, iPod, iPhone, PlayStation 3, PSP, and Xbox 360, as well as a catch-all category simply called Mobile devices. It’s curious Nero opted not to include profiles for some of the more popular Android devices, like the Xoom tablet and Galaxy smartphone, and it’s even more quirky that you can’t create your own profiles, though you can edit any of the existing ones and adjust the audio and video settings to suit your specific gear. More savvy video buffs will appreciate additional fine-grain control in the form of being able to choose the specific resizing method and deinterlace mode.
While Nero doesn’t make it obvious, it does support overburning, a sometimes buggy technology that allows for recording audio and data beyond a disc’s rated capacity by filling in the lead-in area of a CD or DVD. Blu-ray playback and burning are also supported, but not 3D.
Some basic photo editing tools are included in Nero, with an emphasis on basic. Serious photographers will want to steer clear, but for things like cropping and removing freaky red eyes, it gets the job done. There are also a handful of effects to play with, for the 1 percent out there who actually use these gimmicks. Nero placed a much greater emphasis on organizing and sharing photos (and other media) than it did on manipulating them, and it appears to have been bitten by the app store bug. Nero Kwik Media is Nero’s new front-end for rounding up all your photos, videos, music, playlists, slide shows, photo albums, and more. It’s sort of a hyper version of Windows 7’s Library feature, and you can add functionality by downloading plugins through Nero’s Market. Most of the plugins are already included with the Platinum suite, but you’ll want to grab Nero Kwik Faces so you can tag your pictures and later search through your photo library by friends and family.
With a little more TLC to the UI, this could be the media suite to beat. As it stands, it’s the one that gets beat.
CyberLink Media Suite 9 is available in three different flavors and subsequent price points: Centra ($70), Pro ($100), and Ultra ($130). Ultra is the only version that supports Blu-ray playback, which seems like a hefty premium, especially over the Centra package, but if watching Blu-ray discs is all you’re after, CyberLink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra software sells for a more reasonable $100. PowerDVD 10 BD Express is included in CyberLink’s flagship media suite reviewed here, in addition to tools for Blu-ray and DVD authoring, transcoding, photo and video editing, and data burning to a variety of formats and media, including BDXL discs.
Like Nero, CyberLink shoehorns nearly a dozen different programs into a single media suite, only CyberLink does a far superior job of organizing them within a front-end that creates the illusion it’s all just one piece of software. CyberLink sometimes ruins the illusion by requiring individual updates for each program and making attempts to upsell many of them (lame!), but otherwise it offers a dexterous UI that bounces you from program to program without a hint of clumsiness. The main menu contains a row of labeled icons along the bottom: Movie, Video, Photo, Music, Data & Backup, Device, and Utilities. Clicking any of them instantly brings up a list of related tasks at your disposal. If you want to rip an audio CD, you’ll find that option by clicking—you guessed it—Music, with additional links to Play Music, Make an Audio CD, Make an MP3 Disc, Make a WMA Disc, and Edit Audio. We found we couldn’t rip directly to MP3, but had no problem converting to that format. Each option fires up the appropriate program and discards the main menu you were just in, and when you’re finished fiddling around and exit a program, CyberLink shuttles you back to the main window. It’s all very slick, and smooth to boot, which is surprising when you consider how big and heavy this media suite is (around 2.4GB).
We were really awestruck by how insanely easy it is to convert videos to play on a plethora of portable devices and media players. CyberLink’s MediaEspresso software is billed as an “ultra-fast universal media converter,” and it’s one of the cogs included in this wonderful machine. A MediaEspresso Windows gadget sits at the bottom‑right of the desktop in the shape of a coffee cup and changes shape depending on what portable device you plug into your PC. Attach an iPhone 4S, for example, and the coffee cup turns into an iPhone. More than just eye candy, MediaEspresso works behind the scenes, loading the appropriate profile for your gear—when you drag and drop a video you shot with your pocket camera into the widget, it immediately starts transcoding it into a format that works with your iPhone, Galaxy S II, Zune, or whatever. There are preconfigured profiles for more than 90 devices, as well as catch-all profiles in case your specific model isn’t in MediaEspresso’s database. It’s a crapshoot when you start getting into the latest hardware: MediaEspresso has profiles for Asus’s Transformer tablet and the HTC Flyer, but not Motorola’s Droid X2 smartphone. Of course, you can always edit any of these profiles, or even create your own.
CyberLink’s video transcoding is not only super simple, it’s also fast—and capable of cleaning up your media. There are a few video quality enhancements you can enable to improve the overall lighting, remove noise, and improve sharpness. In many cases, these optional enhancements result in better‑looking videos, though they can sometimes add significantly to the time it takes to transcode a video. And while CyberLink supports GPU acceleration, there are some notable omissions, like AMD’s 5700 and 5800 series graphics cards.
Should you want to watch movies instead of transcode them, CyberLink’s PowerDVD software is another capable tool. It supports Blu-ray, 3D, and HD video files, and comes with an assortment of gadgets for videophiles who like to spend as much time tinkering as they do consuming. You can play with the lighting, aspect ratio, and audio, and can upconvert movies or convert them to 3D on the fly. In 3D mode, you can adjust the 3D scene depth with a slider to reduce (or induce) eye fatigue, and there are options for both stereoscopic and anaglyph (red and cyan glasses) 3D modes. Very cool.
We weren’t quite as impressed with the process of editing and touching up photos. This is one of the few areas where CyberLink feels a little bit clunky, and before you can edit your snapshots, you first have to import them. Doing so brings up a new window and requires a few mouse clicks, and then you have to hit the Back button to see your imported photos. Right-clicking your photos gives you the option of editing them, and as is common with a jack-of-all-trades suite such as this one, CyberLink leaves a lot to be desired. You’ll find only basic enhancement options like crop, red-eye removal, and some color‑fixing dials, along with a handful of special effects, if for some reason you really want to make your photo appear old and yellow (CyberLink calls it “Antique”). You can also touch up videos with similarly basic controls, as well as remove camera shake.
For editing movies, CyberLink includes the complete retail edition of PowerDirector 8 Ultra, which is both a blessing and a curse. There’s a learning curve associated with full-featured editors, and this one is no exception, though it’s nowhere near as complicated as something like Sony Vegas. Spend some time learning the interface, and it won’t be long before you’re dazzling friends and family with B-movie conversions of your home videos.
What’s left is mostly standard fare, things like burning disc images, creating disc labels, and backing up data. But these things, along with everything else, are generally better than the competition, and everything is extremely well organized.
CyberLink is fast, flexible, and easy to use; just the way we like it.
The way we see it, $130 is a big investment for software, even a fully loaded media suite. So once we resign ourselves to spending a jester’s ransom for a chunk of computer code, the very last thing we want to see is a banner ad on the main screen proposing we drop another 40 bucks into the till, yet that’s the first thing Roxio does as it tries to hawk a USB capture device for converting video from VHS, Hi8, and V8 to DVD. But hey, you’ll save $10 off the list price, so there’s that. With a little digging, we discovered you can remove this and other solicitations by heading to Tools > Preferences and unchecking the box that offers to “Display relevant production information and offers from Roxio.”
First impression out of the way, Roxio quickly gets to work atoning for its money-grubbing introduction. The main menu isn’t as sleek or slick as CyberLink’s, but it’s just as straightforward and easy to navigate. A total of seven frequent tasks appear on the home screen so you can jump right in and copy a disc, burn an audio CD, or edit video, among other things. On the left side of the menu are five additional tabs to choose from—Data/Copy, Video/Movies, Music/Audio, Photo, and Learning Center—and each one brings up a new set of options.
Roxio is the only media suite in this roundup to give any serious consideration to photo editing. It’s not nearly as robust as Photoshop, GIMP, or even lower-level consumer editors like Photoshop Elements, but where CyberLink and Nero offer only a bare-bones editor, the one built into Roxio offers quite the expansive toolset. The basics are there, like red-eye removal and color enhancements, but so is an advanced tool that’s slightly similar to Photoshop’s awesome spot healing brush for removing blemishes from photos. There’s a wrinkle removal tool to help you stay one step ahead of father time, and another one for touching up scratches, although both of these are little more than glorified blur brushes. A second tab introduces more editing utensils, including a cloning tool we didn’t expect to find. One of the most useful items is a customizable touch‑up brush with nearly a dozen different uses. You can stroke parts of your photo to turn it black and white or apply certain effects like lighten, darken, sharpen, soften, desaturate, and more. You’re able to fine-tune each brush, as well, adjusting the size, edge fading, and transparency level. On top of it all, Roxio provides a plethora of special effects, clip art, frames, and other items so you can tap into your inner Rembrandt (or Picasso, as it were).
You can also convert 2D images into 3D in a variety of formats, including anaglyph (old-school blue-and-cyan glasses) and both side-by-side (Nvidia 3D Vision) and top/bottom stereoscopic configurations. What’s more, Roxio affords a bit of fine-grain control over how the final image will look. Don’t fret, tweaking a 3D image isn’t as complicated as it sounds, at least not in Roxio. You start by opening a 2D image in Roxio’s 3D Photo Creator. The photo you select is automatically converted to 3D, but before you save it, you can adjust its 3D effect using a graphical dial in the edit window. There’s also a grayscale button, in case you find it easier to work your 3D mojo without color (this is just for editing—it won’t save your photo in grayscale), and a crop tool. When you feel you’ve leveled up your 3D editing skills and are ready for a bigger challenge, Roxio provides a second method for creating 3D photos by letting you select independent images for both the left and right eye. In other words, it won’t be long before you start driving your family nuts by insisting they hold a pose while you take multiple shots from different angles. Stay still, Bobby!
Creating a DVD movie is just as easy, albeit harder to find because the option is not clearly labeled on the main menu. Whereas there’s an option to “Create 3D Photos” on the Photo tab, there’s no “Create 3D DVDs/Movies” under the Video/Movies tab. To get to it, you click “Create DVDs” and then you can select either 2D or 3D. There are two options for 3D movies, standard definition (DVD) and high definition (AVCHD Blu-ray). Both support anaglyph and a wide range of stereoscopic formats.
Whether you’re editing a 2D or 3D movie, the process is fairly straightforward and easy. Roxio uses a storyboard format in which you drag videos, photos, and music to wherever you want them to appear in your timeline. There’s an option to stabilize video, and a whole bunch of special effects and transitions to spice things up. If you want to take the lazy route, another option is to have Roxio automatically edit your videos by choosing from a set of themes, but the results are often hokey.
Many of Roxio’s abilities come with an advanced option, and that includes ripping music. Clicking Rip is the fastest way to get the job done, but selecting Rip-Advanced gives you access to higher bitrates. Roxio supports a medley of audio codecs, including AAC, AC3, FLAC, MP3, MP3 VBR, OGG, WAV, and WMA.
Transcoding video is equally versatile and virtually dummy-proof. It’s not quite as streamlined as CyberLink’s program, but there are a plethora of device profiles to choose from, both by type (tablet, smartphone, etc.) and brand. Unfortunately, while you can edit any of these profiles, you can’t save the changes or create custom ones. You can, however, pull source video from online sites like DailyMotion, YouTube, and, ahem, other types of Tube and convert them to your specific device.
Roxio isn’t as slick as CyberLink, and it lacks features like face tagging and overburning. But it’s easy to use and is the only media suite of the bunch to include a photo editor that doesn’t feel like an amped‑up version of MSPaint.
Our DIY mentality doesn’t just apply to hardware and building PCs, it’s applicable in the world of software, too. Each one of these full-fledged media suites will set you back a Benjamin or more, and one thing they all have in common is that each is really just a collection of individual programs served on a pricey platter—some more elegantly organized than others. If you’re willing to give up certain premium features and don’t mind managing multiple applications on your own, it’s entirely possible to put together a low- or no-cost home‑brewed media suite of your own. Consider this your penny-pinching cheat sheet.
Overcoming the Blu-ray Blues
Getting a Blu-ray movie to play on your PC for free is tricky, though not impossible. There just aren’t many free players out there, and if you find one, be careful—it might be a rebadged (and unauthorized) version of a paid program (i.e., pirated). In most cases, your Blu-ray drive or BD-equipped PC should have shipped with a lightweight player. If it didn’t, or if you bought your system used, you can either pay a small premium for a dedicated player app, or rip your Blu-ray and view it on VLC (free, www.videolan.org ) or any media player that supports MKV (Matroska) file formats. MakeMKV (free, www.makemkv.com ) is a popular program that decrypts and rips Blu-ray discs to MKV, though you’re technically circumventing copy protection here. As long as it’s for fair-use backups, we don’t have a problem with that.
Burn, Baby, Burn!
Again, your optical drive should have shipped with at least an OEM version of Nero or some other disc burning software, but if not, there are plenty of free alternatives to do the trick. And if you’re using Windows 7, you can burn CDs, DVDs, and BDs without any third-party software, including ISO and IMG files. Alternately, both CDBurnerXP (free, www.cdburnerxp.se ) and ImgBurn (free, www.imgburn.com ) work well.
Whether you’re looking to touch up a photo by adjusting the brightness and removing those evil-looking red eyes, or you want to go crazy with layers and an advanced toolbox filled with virtual utensils, there’s a free photo editor out there tailor-made just for you. For the former, Google’s Picasa 3 (free, www.picasa.google.com ) is a no-cost editor nearly identical to the one built into CyberLink’s Media Suite 9 Ultra. It’s great for making quick edits and even shows a histogram and camera information. Another option is Photoshop. No, not the über-expensive photo editor, but the online version (free, www.photoshop.com ), where you can store, edit, and share photos at no cost.
For professional-level editing, GIMP (free, www.gimp.org ), is a free, open-source alternative to the mega-version of Photoshop. It’s arguably just as powerful and fleshed out, and you can do some amazing things in GIMP, once you've learned the interface.
Lights, Camera, Action!
If you’re rocking a copy of Windows 7, Microsoft’s Windows Live Movie Maker (free, www.microsoft.com ) is sufficient for basic video editing with transitions and other effects, but it’s not a high-level editor by any means. Alternately, Avidemux (free, www.avidemux.org ) and VirtualDub (free, www.virtualdub.org ) are both general-purpose editors with a wider range of codec support, but they’re a bit intimidating for less savvy users. There isn’t much middle ground here, and this is one of the areas you sacrifice by rolling your own media suite.
Rip It and Rock Out!
Ripping your gnarly collection of audio CDs to MP3 format so you can listen to those old-school Beastie Boys beats on your media player is easy. But ripping archival-quality MP3s from CDs? That takes a little more work than those one-click solutions you’ll find in Windows Media Player and iTunes. If that’s something you want to do, you’ll need an audio grabber—Exact Audio Copy (free, www.exactaudiocopy.de )—and the LAME MP3 encoder (free, www.lame.sourceforge.net ). Once you’ve gone and grabbed those, point your browser to our online guide to ripping high-quality MP3s .