Ahead pushes Nero digital format for DVDs

Ahead Software and ESS Technology announced a major development this week for Ahead's Nero Digital video format. ESS will incorporate Nero Digital support into the next version of its Vibratto chip. ESS chips power the digital video processing in many consumer electronics DVD players. Players featuring the new chip will begin appearing later this year.

The Nero Digital format combines the MPEG-4 video standard with MPEG-4 AAC audio. The resulting file size is greatly reduced compared with the standard MPEG-2 DVD-Video used in DVDs today--up to 10 hours of Nero Digital video can fit on a single-layer DVD, as opposed to just 2 hours of standard MPEG-2 video.

Until now, Nero Digital worked only on a PC. If you encoded a compilation disc of your favorite over-the-air TV show recordings in Nero Digital, you couldn't watch them on your TV using your DVD player.

Smaller File, More Content

As noted, the benefit of Nero Digital is the ability to compress more video onto a single DVD--up to 5 two-hour movies on one DVD. In addition, unlike competing MPEG-4 video options, Nero Digital supports features consumers now consider standard on DVD videos (which use MPEG-2)--including chaptering, subtitles, and multilingual soundtracks.

Ahead is the maker of Nero 6 Ultra Edition, a PC World Best Buy pick earlier this year in our roundup of DVD/CD burning suites. The update of Nero 6 Ultra Edition due in October will let you encode video (using ReCode) and transcode video (using NeroVision) to Nero Digital format. (Ahead codeveloped Nero Digital with Ateme, a French company with expertise in video and signal processing.) "Nero Digital is not just for now and today. For next-generation DVD, we need H.264--and we will have support for that format in the next few weeks in Nero 6 Ultra Edition," says Udo Eberlein, president of Ahead. H.264 is the next evolution of MPEG-4; Eberlein notes it uses a better quality encoder than H.263. Nero Digital currently employs H.263; when the new version of Nero Digital comes out, it will continue to support the older format, and add support H.264 as well.

H.264 has gained much momentum lately, with companies that support either HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc announcing support for the codec. HD-DVD and Blu-ray are the two blue-laser optical formats competing to succeed DVD.

Improved Compatibility

Chips that support Nero Digital can read any video content encoded using one of the many variants of the MPEG-4 standard. Unlike earlier video compression standards, the MPEG-4 standard has a fundamental "container," or core set of programming instructions, that defines it. This allows programmers to make improvements to the standard while retaining backward compatibility with earlier iterations.

However, audio playback support will vary. Take the example of DivX, a competing MPEG-4 variant that uses MP3 audio. Since Nero Digital supports AAC, and not the lower-quality MP3 audio, a DivX-encoded disc would be able to play back audio only if the DVD player had its own support for MP3 audio. (Many DVD players use chip sets like the Vibratto II, which supports MP3 playback.)

Eventually, MPEG-4 playback support will be more prevalent in DVD players. But for now, support is limited--and often limited just to DivX. "We're trying to get a new solution out that's better than old ones, but that doesn't entirely neglect what the old ones are doing," Eberlein says.

Part of the compatibility problem arises from the variations between MPEG-4 encoders. "There are different flavors of MPEG-4. We're trying to clean up this mess with Nero Digital, to ensure maximum compatibility," says Eberlein. "In terms of competing with DivX, they've had a lot of trouble with their compatibility between versions. The burden [of knowing] is ultimately on the consumer's back."

Nero Digital will support all standards of MPEG-4; according to Eberlein, the company is the first to market with a codec that can handle any MPEG-4 file. "At the end of the day, we're not confining the user to just Nero Digital," he says.

By partnering with ESS, he adds, "we think we'll be able to reach a large number of CE devices by providing a bridge between the CE manufacturers and Nero."

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