Most video editing suites are aimed at either the consumer or the video pro. But what about business users, who fall squarely in the middle of these two categories?
Today's midlevel editing packages offer a good deal of flexibility and power when it comes to working with videos. In fact, features that used to be available only in professional editing software a few years ago are now commonplace, like the ability to remove jitter from footage.
Of course, professional-level video editors provide support for professional-grade cameras and other hardware, and they allow for more detailed tweaking during the editing process.
But midlevel applications offer ease of use, a valuable commodity for business users who may not have a great deal of experience with video. These users might need that much more guidance in the form of tutorials or walk-throughs (at least at first), but they also need a program that can offer them a fair amount of power and not be hidebound by arbitrary restrictions often imposed on beginning users by "starter" software.
For this roundup, I tested four major prosumer-level video editing packages to see how suitable they are for business users who need sophisticated functionality combined with ease of use: Adobe Premiere Elements 9 Plus, Corel VideoStudio Pro X4, CyberLink PowerDirector 9 Ultra64, and Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10.0. I looked at these programs from several perspectives: how easy they were to start using, what kinds of editing-assistance features they offered for nontechnical users, and what kind of "canned" content (stock footage, templates) was packaged with each.
I ran each program on a system equipped with a quad-core Intel Core 2 Q6600 with 4GB of RAM, running the 64-bit edition of Windows 7 and using a dual-GPU Nvidia GeForce 9800 GX2. With each program, I imported video from cameras that generated .MOV-format H.264 files.
Note: Of the four applications, only Adobe Premiere Elements offers a Mac version.
These midlevel packages have some rather sophisticated features that you may want to look for. One that's quite useful, especially if you're dealing with footage created on a less-than-professional camcorder, is the stabilization function. This takes jittery imagery and automatically removes a fair amount of the shaking. However, to make this happen, a certain amount of picture information is trimmed from the edges of the frame, and the remainder is made larger to compensate for the lost edges. The more shaking there is in the video, the more trimming that's required.
Another feature can be used to add interest to a video: It automatically edits clips together using a given visual theme or by following certain parameters about the content of the footage. Adobe's InstantMovie feature does this; ditto for CyberLink PowerDirector's Magic Movie Wizard. This feature seems mostly useful for generating filler montages where dialogue isn't crucial, since these auto-generated edits can be rather patchy and arbitrary.
Adobe Premiere Elements is to Adobe Premiere as Photoshop Elements is to Photoshop: a version of the program that's missing some less-used high-end features but has plenty of native power and, at $119.99, a comfortable price tag. Unlike Sony's Vegas, Elements has little in the way of interactive learning, but the software does have some remarkable editing-automation features on top of an interface that strikes a decent balance between usable and powerful.
On opening Elements, you're greeted not with the app's main interface but with a floating window that lets you choose from existing projects, launch a new one or organize project media. The actual program interface itself has a preview/clip-editing window, a timeline and a tabbed action panel that also works as a media organizer. One major downside: The app takes a good deal longer to load than the other programs reviewed here; the plug-ins in particular take a long time to enumerate and load.
Another Premiere feature that makes things easier are its two views: timeline and scene editing. Timeline mode is the standard editing model used by most video-editing programs, where the size of each clip is dependent on its length. Scene mode shows each clip, plus its effects and transitions, as single frames all the same size. You can switch back and forth between the two without losing any of the changes made in either mode. Some of the more advanced functions, like motion tracking, are available in either mode.
Several major features in Elements are aimed at speeding up the editing process. Premiere's InstantMovie function automatically creates montages from footage you provide based on controllable parameters, such as the number of effects to be included -- although the results are, again, best for generating filler.
More directly useful is the Smart Trim function, which allows Premiere to analyze video in a project and automatically suggest what to trim from clips, such as blurred footage or long periods of inactivity. You can adjust the parameters for the detection algorithms used, such as quality and interest.
The trims are just recommendations and not actually enacted unless you approve them, and many of the suggestions that come up in the middle of a clip -- as opposed to the beginning or end -- seem arbitrary. Be warned that clips are analyzed as they are dropped into the timeline -- and the analysis process holds up the entire program. One three-minute clip with a lot of motion took almost as long to analyze as it did to play back in toto.
Another intriguing function, carried over from previous versions of Premiere, is motion-tracking mode, which lets you automatically track a moving object and attach almost anything to it, from effects to captions. It works best for clips where the camera is still; I had very little luck automatically tracking moving objects within a moving shot. Again, the process of analyzing clips will take time and prevent you from doing any other work while it happens.
Premiere also features an image stabilizer, which generates good results, although occasionally it adds a misshapen black border at the edges of the image to compensate for the lost edges.
At a Glance
Adobe Premiere Elements 9 Plus
Adobe Systems Inc.
Price: $119.99 (after $20 rebate)
Pros: Works with other Adobe applications; WebDVD exports to Flash; motion tracking
Cons: Long load time; limited video exports
Prerecorded content for Premiere is limited to themes -- title and menu templates. A basic set of those is installed by default, but you can install more items from a second included DVD if you wish. There's also additional material in the same vein available for download from Photoshop.com, but you need to set up an account there to access it.
I wasn't too thrilled with how few online video sites you can export directly to -- choices are limited to Adobe's own Photoshop.com, YouTube and the podcast-hosting outfit Podbean. It would be nice if direct uploads to other sites, such as Facebook or Vimeo, were also available. But H.264/HD uploads to YouTube are supported, and I especially liked the WebDVD function, which converts an entire DVD project authored in Premiere into Adobe Flash -- videos and menus -- for uploading to a Web site or to the Photoshop.com hosting service.
Adobe Premiere Elements 9 also comes in a slightly slimmed-down version that doesn't give access to the libraries of themes and other extras, and gives users 2GB of online storage rather than the 20GB that the Plus version supplies. It costs $79.99 after a $20 rebate.
Adobe has been taking steps over the past few revisions of its flagship products -- Photoshop, Premiere, Flash -- to make them all work more tightly together. To that end, if you have a major existing investment in other Adobe products, Premiere Elements is worth trying. But it's also worthy of attention for its assisted-editing features, and its export-to-Flash function is valuable all by itself.
Image stabilization, smart trimming and motion tracking using Adobe Premiere Elements 9 Plus.