Video Editors for Tech-Savvy Business Users

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.

Useful features

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 9 Plus

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.

Bottom line

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.

Corel VideoStudio Pro X4

When I first fired up Corel VideoStudio Pro X4 and saw its interface, with tabs labeled Capture, Edit and Share, I said, "That makes sense."

Further investigation confirmed my impression that VideoStudio has a very practical, easy-to-understand user philosophy. Click each tab, and you see a different set of controls relevant to that function, enabling you to focus on that one task. With Capture, the timeline vanishes and is replaced with information about the clips you're importing; Edit restores the timeline and the explorers for transitions, effects and titling; and Share lets you view the whole project in the preview window and select from a number of export options.

Like Adobe Premiere, you can switch between storyboard (which Adobe calls "scene") and timeline editing modes. The former makes it easy to cobble footage together shot by shot; the latter allows for precise frame-level adjustments. Using storyboard mode makes it a bit easier to see your entire project at a glance, and makes handling transitions and effects that much easier as well. Click a button to the left of the timeline and you can switch between views at will.

The Instant Project function, accessed from a button just above the timeline, is not a movie-creation wizard, as the name might imply. Instead, it creates a generic movie template in the current timeline, with either opening or closing titles plus transitions between a dozen or so placeholder clips. You then replace the placeholder items in the template with your own clips, edit the titles and transitions, and adjust the length of each clip as needed. It's not a bad way to jump-start an editing project, or to get a feel for how editing works with a timeline.

A number of basic template styles (different opening graphics, different typefaces) are included by default, with more templates (called Style Packs) available from Corel as downloads. Those themes are what amount to canned content for the program; there's not a lot in the form of stock footage. Projects can also be exported as templates for easy reuse by others -- a handy way to enforce consistency of look and feel for clips within a company or department.

X4 features a few plug-ins from the NewBlueFX family of effects -- mostly artistic effects like noise removal or a filter to simulate camera shake. Most people will find the camera shake removal filter (one of Corel's own standard plug-ins) to be more useful.

Another intriguing addition in X4 is the ability to perform stop-motion animation or time-lapse photography, either by importing multiple images or capturing them from a device at regular intervals.

The Share tab could also be named Publish, since that's what it amounts to: writing a project out to DVD or tape, or uploading it to a video-sharing site such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook or Flickr. One important sharing function is, oddly, not found in the Share tab but in the program's File menu: the Smart Package feature, which bundles all of the needed files for your project into a single folder, so it can be used on another computer or across a network. You can also export to a Web page, but that option isn't too useful; it amounts to automatically creating a Web page with a link in it to the video.

At a Glance

Corel VideoStudio Pro X4

Corel Corp.

Price: $99.99

Pros: Easy-to-navigate tabbed interface; timeline and storyboard mode for editing

Cons: Full-screen-only mode is annoying

It's possible to convert exported movies to 3D -- either as anaglyph (red/blue) or side-by-side image streams -- but this is not much more than a novelty. You simply set a depth value for the movie, and the exporter synthesizes a 3D image from the existing 2D video.

There are a few cases where VideoStudio's interface is a little too simple for its own good. For example, when the program is in focus, it takes up the entire screen. It can't be run in a window alongside other applications, although you can bring other apps into focus above it. I'd bet this would annoy more than just experts.

Bottom line

In sum, VideoStudio has many concessions to less-video-savvy users, but it can be a little too simple for its own good.

Creating an instant project and switching between timeline and storyboard modes with Corel VideoStudio Pro X4.

CyberLink PowerDirector 9 Ultra64

PowerDirector 9 comes billed as the "first native 64-bit consumer video editor," which means it can use more than 4GB of RAM in systems that have a 64-bit version of Windows.

Like VideoStudio and Premiere Elements, CyberLink PowerDirector 9 has a tabbed interface designed to give the nontechnical user a leg up. In this case, the tabs include Capture, Edit, Produce and Create Disc.

The timeline at the bottom can be switched between storyboard and conventional timeline modes, and a number of sub-elements of the interface have organizational tabs (in much the same manner as Vegas' Project Explorer). Click on a clip in the timeline, and a set of tabs appears above the timeline that brings up different properties or editing functions for that clip: Edit Audio, Power Tools, Fix/Enhance, Trim, Keyframe and so on.

The way these tools are presented isn't terribly consistent, though. Modify (which lets you apply things like chroma-keying or masks) opens a pop-up window, but Power Tools (advanced editing functions like cropping/zooming) appears in a window that replaces the project organizer.

PowerDirector, like Elements, provides many automatic and assisted-editing options, although the mileage you'll get out of them also varies. Magic Movie Wizard most closely resembles Premiere Element's InstantMovie function: Pick a series of clips, select some background music, choose some basic parameters (e.g., ratio of videos to photos, if you have a mix of the two), and the resulting montage will automatically replace any existing footage in the timeline.

The results can be further edited and fine-tuned. As with InstantMovie, you're better off using this to assemble footage that doesn't depend on dialogue, since the edits can be rather arbitrary.

At a Glance

CyberLink PowerDirector 9 Ultra64

CyberLink Corp.

Price: $94.95

Pros: Automatic image-correction functions; native 64-bit application

Cons: Some inconsistencies in the interface

The Magic Style function lets you apply a style template to clips already in the timeline. Magic Cut lets you automatically trim footage based on specific kinds of action you want to include or exclude -- e.g., "scenes with people speaking" or "scenes with moving objects." Its detection heuristics are surprisingly accurate and worked well on a variety of clips I tried. Magic Fix automatically attempts to correct bad lighting, shaky camera movements and video noise, and -- best of all -- lets you preview the changes in a split-screen view.

The Produce tab renders video for output, providing a bunch of common-sense defaults but also allowing advanced users to create their own output profiles. You can select a file type, a target device or a video hosting site. Only YouTube and Facebook are supported in that last category, but uploads for both can be HD (up to 1920 x 1080). Create Disc sports all sorts of authoring options, for both Blu-ray and standard DVD, and chapter points for DVDs can be inserted directly into the timeline during the editing stage.

If you want to save a bit of cash, PowerDirector 9 also comes in a simpler $64.95 Deluxe edition that doesn't offer 64-bit capabilities and doesn't burn to the BDXL or AVCHD formats.

Bottom line

Despite PowerDirector 9's power features vis-à-vis 64-bit processors, the program's day-to-day features will be more important to most people. The best of those features -- Magic Fix and the detailed export options -- are worth checking out.

Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10.0

Vegas is a high-end tool that's been made more accessible to users on the low end. It doesn't make as many concessions toward nontechnical users as some of the other programs here, but its learning curve is not so severe that newcomers will be totally lost. It's a program that you can grow into over time, and the amount of power you get for the price ($99.95) is remarkable.

From the outset, the program strongly resembles other professional-level products, like Adobe Premiere. The timeline at the bottom automatically presents several pre-labeled, commonly used types of tracks: text, video overlay, main video, voice-over, music and sound effects.

At the top are various dockable panels: Project Explorer (which includes media for the project, but also has tabs for transitions and video effects), Audio Mixer, Clip Explorer (for viewing and editing individual clips) and Preview Window. If you have multiple monitors, the preview window can be dedicated to an entire display of its own.

Vegas helps beginning users with its interactive tutorials, which cover a great deal of the program's functionality in a succinct and easy-to-digest manner. The tutorials interact directly with the program itself, so you work in real time with the functions they're talking about -- in other words, you can call up a tutorial on a given aspect of the program and apply it directly to what you're working on. This goes a fair distance toward making up for the lack of things like automated content-creation tools.

You also get a lot of stock audio content -- more than 300 clips of varying lengths and styles -- which helps make content creation that much easier.

A number of Vegas' features make it a little easier for users who are new to video editing. If you overlap two clips on the timeline, the program assumes you're cross-fading between them and automatically creates that transition. This automatic cross-fading behavior can be turned off if you don't want it, but it's a timesaver. Changing the transition type is as easy as right-clicking on the default transition and selecting a new transition from a list. Double-clicking an edited transition shows you its properties.

At a Glance

Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10.0

Sony Creative Software

Price: $99.95 (package), $94.95 (download)

Pros: Interactive tutorial; canned musical content; professional-level video editing features

Cons: No storyboard editing mode

Like Adobe Premiere, Vegas has its own image stabilization plug-in, which zooms in a good deal more than Adobe's own feature. It's not a problem with slightly jittery videos, but if you've got a very shaky shot, you can end up with footage that's too zoomed-in to be useful. Use it with care.

Vegas Movie Studio exists in a couple of different incarnations, depending on your needs. The Consumer edition ($49.95) leaves out the DVD authoring, image stabilization and color-correction/chroma-key tools (among others), while the Production Suite edition ($129.95) adds many sound effects and audio tools. Above them all is Vegas Pro 10 ($599 and up), which includes many advanced features such as editing and compositing 3D footage, native support for many high-end digital video cameras (like the Red One), and support for gigapixel images.

Bottom line

There are a couple of things missing that would have made the program more accessible to less-video-savvy users -- such as a storyboard-style editing mode, which is included in Corel Video Studio Pro. But on the whole, Vegas is a pro-level product whose learning curve is offset greatly by its interactive tutorial function.

Conclusions

None of these applications fails at its appointed task -- producing professional-looking videos -- but there are differences.

VideoStudio has a decent mix of features and supports a wide range of sites to upload to, but its automated-editing tools are fairly simple-minded, and its quirk of taking up the whole screen is annoying.

Premiere Elements has the best collection of truly useful editing assistance features, like Smart Mix, and those who have an existing investment in Adobe applications may want to stick with the company. However, PowerDirector has many of the same features (except motion tracking), plus native 64-bit support -- and it loads a great deal faster.

In the end, Sony Vegas Movie Studio has the most raw power of the programs here. It's also much tougher to get started with -- which is why I was grateful it had an interactive help system to flatten the learning curve. That makes Vegas highly worthwhile for those who want to learn and use a no-concessions, pro-level app instead of a program that's heavier on the hand-holding.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications, including InformationWeek and Windows Magazine.

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