Been putting your videos up on YouTube and feel you're ready to join the pros? These video editing packages will give you the tools you need without breaking your budget.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 6, 2007

18 Min Read

Video editing for the PC has become a lot like image editing: easier, and a lot more automated. In both cases, users can choose from a broad range of tools to accomplish tasks that used to take a lot of manual drudgework. For example, today's video editing tools let you add canned music to fit a specific length of video, clean up image noise and fixing a shaky camera shot.

Consequently, while the level of polished in the finished product is always going to be up to the creator, novice video developers will now find it a lot easier to pass themselves off as professionals -- or, at least, as reasonably skilled editors.

For this roundup, I looked at consumer-level video editing applications from Adobe, Cyberlink, Pinnacle, and Ulead, each for about $100. All of them offer the same basic mix of functions: importing video from a variety of sources, editing, audio dubbing, effects and transitions, both timeline and storyboard editing modes, and exporting to a variety of formats (including, as one case, uploading the results directly to YouTube).

What I found most eye-opening is the smattering of pro-level features that have started to work their way into consumer video products:

  • HD support. High definition is no longer something that costs $50,000 to shoot -- consumer HD cameras that shoot 1080i are now available for around a thousand dollars. Likewise, drives that support the HD-DVD and Blu-ray disc formats are now available as PC peripherals, although still at premium cost. Not all the products discussed here can render out to an HD format, but they can all accept HD video as an editing source.

  • Direct editing of MPEG. Because the MPEG video standard is designed for playback and not editing, it’s traditionally not been supported in video editing products. However, now that more consumer-level video devices record to MPEG, many editing applications support it, typically by performing nondestructive preprocessing on MPEG files where needed.

  • Multichannel audio. Home theater systems with five or more channels are no longer boutique items; many electronics stores sell 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 audio systems complete with amplifier, decoder, and speakers all as one package. In the same way, support for multichannel audio in video apps isn’t as exotic a feature as it used to be.

    Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
    I’ve long felt that Adobe intended Premiere to be the staple for video editing in the same way that Photoshop is the staple for image editing. (This hasn’t exactly come true: Avid Xpress has typically been the high-end video suite.) Premiere supports the use of Photoshop plug-ins, for instance, and the two are sold together as a high-end suite.

    Premiere’s feature set and functionality will appeal to people who need a fairly robust editing tool. (Click image to enlarge.)

    When the $649 price tag for Photoshop became a real issue for some people, Adobe cut out some of the less-used features (like CMYK support, which wasn’t needed for Web design) and created Photoshop Elements at a much more affordable $99. In the same vein, Adobe Premiere Elements (also $99) loses some of Premiere's rarely-used high-end features -- such as support for frames up to 4,000 pixels in size, and the ability to remotely control professional VTR equipment -- but the end result doesn’t feel crippled in any way. Actually, the fact that Premiere supports a lot of nominally professional features (such as HD, multichannel audio, and MPEG-4) makes it feel less like a consumer product that’s been bulked up and more like a professional product that’s been slimmed down.

    Many Ways To Import
    There’s a slew of different ways to import raw media into Premiere Elements. Each project comes with a Media Bin, an organizer to which you can import by pointing at specific documents or folders, or by simply dragging and dropping files. Aside from the usual support for capturing video from DV tape, there’s a Media Downloader function which can batch-acquire video from still cameras, camera phones, video cameras that shoot direct to hard disk or memory cards, and even from existing DVDs (although you can’t acquire video from copy-protected DVDs).

    Once you’ve loaded the Media Bin, you can just drop files directly into the project timeline and start working on them there, or double-click on a clip to open it in a sub-window where you can trim it down and then insert it. By default, Premiere supplies you with three video tracks, three audio tracks, and two auxiliary sound tracks (music and narration), but you can have up to 100 of each. If your project’s destined to end up as a DVD, you can insert DVD chapter point markers in the file while you’re editing the raw footage. I liked how the program makes it easy to work with clips of almost any size -- when I imported a 45-minute clip and wanted to trim it down, I discovered that the sub-window clip tool lets you zoom in and out on the area being edited very easily.

    Premiere Elements comes loaded with various effects and lettering templates: fade-ins and fade-outs, flying titles, bumpers, and so on. The content of the templates is the most obvious sign that Premiere Elements is a consumer-level product, as they’re all fairly generic and consumer-themed: "Wedding," "Birthday," etc. That said, it’s easy enough to create your own title blocks, and there’s even ways to create credit crawls.

    The whole existing galaxy of Premiere and Photoshop plug-ins (which easily number in the hundreds) can be used with the program. I already have my own arsenal of PhotoShop plugins, so I was able to make them work in Premiere Elements by just copying them to PE’s own plugins directory and restarting the program.

    Burn To A DVD
    A DVD authoring engine is part of the package; the DVD creator has themed templates which you can use as-is or customize freely. If you’ve already scene- and chapter-marked your project, the DVD creation process is almost automatic -- all you have to drop is drop in a template and burn if you’re in a hurry. Unfortunately, Premiere Elements doesn’t give you a lot of rendering options: you can set the bit rate, the audio type, and the presentation (widescreen or full screen), but not much more than that, so this is in many ways the least flexible part of the program.

    One thing that did impress me was the wealth of standalone file output options (which include scenarios like output to iPod or cell-phone video formats). I was also able to export raw MPEG and get much more precise control over the output than I could in the DVD creator. In other words, there’s a lot about Premiere Elements that you won’t quickly outgrow.

    Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0
    Adobe Systems, Inc.
    Price: $100 ($70 upgrade)
    Summary: Adobe’s consumer-level version of their Premiere video-editing suite isn’t missing anything that most people will ever notice, and accommodates pros about as comfortably as less ambitious users.

    Cyberlink may be most familiar to many users through their excellent PowerDVD product, which is widely bundled as a freebie with DVD drives and preinstalled on many PCs. I’d known they had a number of other video solutions, including PowerDirector, but this was the first time I’d gotten a good look at any of them. The application is mainly for less technically inclined users who want to create video and get a fair helping hand.

    PowerDirector’s “Magic” processing tools, like Magic Style, provide an automated way to generate a themed video production from raw footage.
    (Click image to enlarge.)

    PowerDirector has the same sort of tabbed interface as VideoStudio and Pinnacle Studio: Capture, Edit, Produce (i.e., export to various formats) and Create Disc (burn to CD/DVD). Capture isn’t just used for acquiring video from a DV camera—it can also be used to acquire voice-over audio from a microphone, music from a CD, broadcast TV content, or HD video. PowerDirector also offers H.264 support, renders videos directly for the iPod and PSP, exports to both standard-def and HD tape, and even uploads finished products directly to YouTube or MediaMax. I suspect videobloggers will probably love PowerDirector for that last function alone; the total collection of features makes PowerDirector into a pretty good videoblogging production system.

    A lot of the way PowerDirector works is vaguely reminiscent of Pinnacle’s product. There’s a fixed number of tracks in the editor (one video, one effects, one picture-in-picture, one title, one music and one dialog track), but you can stack multiple effects on the same clip.

    Making Video Magic
    PowerDirector also sports a set of “Magic” processing tools, which can clean up raw footage or process unedited clips into a watchable if canned-looking production. Magic Fix stabilizes video shake where possible, and Magic Clean removes noise. Magic Style produces a finished (if, again, canned-looking) production in a variety of standard styles: Wedding, Christmas, and so on.

    Magic Cut, the most striking of the automatic processing functions, takes a longer video and automatically trims it down to a given length by letting you specify what kinds of scenes to keep or delete -- “Scenes with people speaking” vs. “Scenes with zoom/pan,” for instance. As with Pinnacle Studio, I had fun feeding it raw footage to see what came out the other end, and even if the results were pretty dizzy-looking I could still use them as a starting point for other things.

    PowerDirector also includes a feature found in two of the other programs in this roundup: SmartSound Quicktracks. Quicktracks lets you generate high-quality background music in a huge range of styles, and which can automatically be sized to fit any piece of video without clumsy edits or fades. However, a lot of the content is only available at additional cost -- the fee for individual clips varies from $6.95 to $19.95 depending on the quality, but you can also acquire whole volumes of music for a flat fee ($49.95 to $99.95).

    The more I worked with the program, the more I found nice little touches that appealed to me. For instance, projects can have chapter marks automatically inserted for DVD authoring -- you can insert chapter marks at each clip, every X minutes, or put X chapters through the whole production. Click on “Pack project materials” and every file needed for the project is copied to a specified directory.

    Finally, when you export a project, the exporter only recompresses video when it’s absolutely required, which saves processing time. (PowerDirector supports importing HD video, but it won’t burn them out to HD-DVD or Blu-ray Disc—although you can generate HD-compliant MPEG standalone files in up to 1080i resolution.)

    CyberLink PowerDirector 6
    CyberLink Corp.
    Price: $90 ($60 upgrade)
    Summary: Despite some pretty heavy limitations on the program’s design, it’s a pretty good program for less technical users who want a fair amount of guided assistance in creating their videos, and the direct-to-YouTube export function makes it well-suited for video bloggers.

    Pinnacle Studio Plus 10.7
    Pinnacle was another one of the first among video-capture and -editing products for the PC. It's now a division of Avid, creators of video-editing suites used in Hollywood, so I was curious how much of Avid’s finesse has trickled down into their Studio consumer products. The answer depends on which version of Pinnacle Studio you buy: the basic Studio version ($50), the Studio Plus Titanium Edition ($70), or the Studio Media Suite Titanium Edition ($100). The more advanced the version, the more professional features you get -- for example, HD support and auxiliary photo/audio editing is added at the $70 level.

    The more expensive the version of Studio you buy, the more professional the feature mix, but even the basic version has the tools to let beginners dive in.
    (Click image to enlarge.)

    Studio’s main interface is split into three tabs: Capture, Edit, and Make Movie (Make Movie is actually the program’s export to DVD/file/tape function). In the Capture tab, you plug in your camera and acquire footage either in native DV mode or as an MPEG file -- which saves a good deal of space, since DV footage uses approximately 15GB an hour. (MPEG support isn’t active in the program by default and has to be enabled manually by clicking on a licensing confirmation box, probably for the sake of tabulating licensing costs for MPEG.)

    Captured footage can automatically be broken into scenes based on its time codes: When you switch to the Edit tab and select an imported file, you can view it either as a single block or subdivided into its component scenes. I ran into a bit of a problem when trying to import a 2GB MPEG file -- the program took quite a while and gave me no progress feedback while doing so. It did eventually import the file successfully, and I had no trouble editing the imported clip.

    The Edit tab gives you three possible editing views: timeline, storyboard, and a text-only view that lists all of the clips/effects and their durations. When you insert a transition between two clips, the clips are telescoped together on the timeline in the spot where the transition is placed instead of having the transition broken out on its own track (Premiere behaves like this, too). You can change the transition’s span by dragging its edges, or by right-clicking on it to edit its properties in detail.

    High-Quality Transitions
    Transitions and other effects are rendered to high quality in the background while you’re doing other work. This really helps if you have a dual-core or multiprocessor computer, but this function can be toggled off if it slows your machine down too much. The resulting preview files can be rendered as DV (for best quality) or MPEG (for minimal size).

    Pinnacle bundles a staggering number of transition effects with the product, but the vast majority of them (about 800 total) are only available as premium content which can be licensed individually or purchased in bulk for $99 per volume (there are about 400 effects in each volume). You can use the effects without paying for a license, but they render with a watermark over the image. This breadth of bonus material is probably the program’s biggest asset (although it won’t be as appealing if you're on a tight budget). And If you’re ambitious (like me), you can use Hollywood Fx, which ships with Studio, to customize the transitions even more.

    Another nice feature is the SmartMovie function: Specify a style ("Music video" or "Slideshow"), and your clips are garnished with music by SmartSound Quicktracks -- an automatic music-generation feature also available in Cyberlink PowerDirector and Ulead VideoStudio. None of this is any substitute for actually assembling the footage yourself, but you can use the end results as a starting point for your own work. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have great fun feeding these functions different clips and seeing the results.

    A completed project can be rendered to DVD, tape, or standalone files; the last option comes with presets for devices such as PlayStation Portable (PSP), iPod, and so on. The most recent version of Studio (10.7) adds the ability to author HD-DVD format files onto standard DVD discs -- although the runtime you’d get on a conventional DVD would be correspondingly limited, of course.

    One small but not fatal gripe: The number of video and audio tracks is fixed -- one video, one title track, one voice-over track, and one audio and music track each. That said, you can stack plug-in effects on a single clip by editing the clip’s own properties (Premiere works much the same way), so these limitations aren’t as dire as they might seem. Studio also supports picture-in-picture effects via the overlay channel, in somewhat the same way that Cyberlink’s product does.

    Pinnacle Studio Plus 10.7
    Pinnacle Systems, Inc.
    Price: $100 ($20-$30 upgrade, depending on previous version number)
    Summary: The more expensive the version of Studio you buy, the more professional the feature mix, but there’s also a clutch of tools to let beginners dive in and start working.

    Ulead VideoStudio 10 Plus
    Ulead (now part of Corel) broke into the marketplace in the late 1990s with video and image-editing suites that competed directly with Adobe’s applications. VideoStudio 10 Plus is the latest version of their video editor, and it’s as worthy a competitor for Premiere as Ulead’s PhotoImpact has been for PhotoShop -- as well as being a bit more amateur-friendly.

    Ulead’s gallery of effects can be previewed with little delay, and the tabbed interface makes workflow all the easier. (Click image to enlarge.)

    The interface is broken out into a series of task-based tabs: Capture, Edit, Effect, Overlay, Title, Audio, and Share (i.e. export and burn) . The user can go back and forth freely between these tabs as needed; they don't constrain the user’s workflow, just guide it. I first encountered this design in Ulead’s DVD Workshop and liked it then -- I felt it took a lot of the "What do I do next?" guesswork out of the program.

    VideoStudio gives you a choice of editing clips in a timeline or storyboard format, with up to six video overlay channels, a titling channel, a narration channel, and a music or conventional audio channel. If you’re trying to edit video that’s too unwieldy for your PC -- for example, if you’re working with high-definition clips and your PC can’t play back an HD stream in real-time -- the "Smart Proxy" feature lets you generate and edit low-resolution proxies for the video in your project. The choice of codec and image dimensions for the proxy is entirely user-configurable -- which I especially liked, since I could use specific codecs for as a space-saving measure.

    Nifty Canned Content
    The application includes a number of preconfigured transitions, video filters, and titling templates. The program displays the effects of applied transitions and filters immediately, instead of forcing you to wait for them to be rendered before they're visible. The previewed results don't play back at full speed, however.

    An even niftier type of canned content comes in the form of SmartSound Quicktracks, the automatic background-music generation system also included with Cyberlink’s PowerDirector and Pinnacle Studio. Finally, I also liked that I could use some Flash animations as footage.

    Completed projects can be exported to a variety of video file formats, including AVI, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DVD, DV tape, and WMV (for online sharing). The file and DVD output options have many additional choices within them -- the MPEG2 output option, for instance, lists eight separate device profiles under it alone.

    One thing I especially liked was the "Export as first clip" function; this automatically uses the video properties from the first clip in the project for the exported material. It’s a nice way to export in as close to the source material’s native codec as possible without recompressing, which is especially useful for movies built from already lossy MPEG clips.

    The export-to-DVD tool crams an amazing amount of functionality into a very streamlined interface, and includes pro-level options like not having to recompress existing DVD-compliant MPEG files and native support for HD-DVD. Other tools packaged with the program include the Movie Wizard, which lets you generate template-based movies from supplied video clips, and the DV-to-DVD Wizard, which converts unwieldy DV footage into slightly easier-to-handle DVD/MPEG format clips. The latter is great if you’ve got a carton of DV tapes you’ve never been able to work up the nerve to sort out -- like me.

    Ulead VideoStudio 10 Plus
    Ulead Systems, Inc.
    Price: $100 ($45 upgrade)
    Summary: Ulead’s gallery of effects can be previewed with little delay, and the tabbed interface makes workflow all the easier to get a handle on.


    In any product roundup, each application tends to have a clear winner for a given audience, and that’s true here.

    CyberLink PowerDirector 6 is best for beginners, and its direct-to-YouTube export also makes it handy for video bloggers. Adobe Premiere Elements 3.0 retains almost everything from its more professional bigger brother (barring really high-end features), and Pinnacle Studio's add-on content is great if you have the cash for it. Finally, Ulead VideoStudio 10 Plus comes off as the most balanced and does nicely in just about every category, especially when batch-importing from DV and exporting to DVD.

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