January 2003|Once upon a time digital video editing was effectively a bailiwick of the Mac OS. If you were a serious non-linear editor, you were a Mac user. Then came the Windows NT/2000 juggernaut, and today most heavyweight digital editing manufacturers spend a lot more R&D away from the Mac OS. Did that end Apple's Pied Piper past with creative professionals? For some it did, but Apple started playing a new song and now has a whole new following.
Almost single-handedly over the last couple of years, Apple initiated a new digital editing revolution with its Final Cut Pro non-linear editing software, creating a world where any editor could afford a high-quality editing solution and every desktop could be an editing station. And the trend has been so compelling and successful for the platform that Avid Technologies has come back (figuratively, since it never completely left) to the Mac in a big way.
Now, with the ever-present Abode Premiere, Final Cut, and a brand new version of Avid Xpress DV for the Mac OS, there are three very capable editing options for Mac users, along with two more consumer/prosumer editors. How do those three applications compare, and when is one better than another? The prices ($549, $999, and $1,699 respectively) seem to suggest a hierarchy— but is there one? And how does editing on the Mac compare with the options on Windows? Is there an advantage given Apple's development and integration of FireWire or history as a creative platform?
As with EMedia's snapshot of Windows video editing software last month, we let the companies speak for themselves: Richard Townhill for Adobe, Bill Hudson and Brian Meaney for Apple, and Steve Charin and Michael Philips for Avid. However, since two of the three software editing solutions are also available on Windows and were covered last month, we focus here on the platform differences and how each compares with the other Mac competitors. And, rather than treating each product separately, we've grouped them by topic in order to highlight the differences.
EMedia: All three products target the broadly categorized corporate and industrial user, as well as event videographers, independents, and so-called DV filmmakers, a new class of aspiring storytellers armed with capable DV camcorders, one of these desktop systems, and some creative ideas. Who is your target market and what's different on the Mac?
Adobe: For both platforms, about 65% of Premiere users are in business, utilizing video to turn some kind of profit. Because Premiere (now in version 6.5) has been around so long, it has dedicated users that reach all the way up to broadcast, although broadcast is clearly not the primary focus and no one really expects Premiere to compete with, for example, Avid's Symphony [online finishing system]. On the other hand, most Premiere buyers do look at Final Cut, although not feature-by-feature, since Final Cut tries to include more compositing options. Obviously, the price difference makes Premiere more appealing to budget-conscious users. There's probably a degree of overlap with Xpress DV, too, but less so due to Avid's positioning as an offlining system for higher-end Avid systems.
Apple: The scalability of Final Cut Pro makes it a broader solution than [Premiere or Avid Xpress DV], since it can work natively with DV and FireWire or with a variety of hardware cards, like Pinnacle Systems' CineWave for high-definition video editing. However, because Final Cut (now in version 3.0) is so affordable, while still delivering a very high level of editing functionality, its real power is making anyone an editor, whether their primary task is editing, animation, 3D graphics, audio, Web design, or something else. Final Cut gives them the ability to pre-visualize their work without exporting to a different workstation or involving time-consuming file and workload sharing.
Avid: Avid builds products for video professionals and that's true for Xpress DV (now in version 3.5). They may be corporate or independent, but their business is using video to tell stories or deliver messages. In addition to being a compelling desktop solution, Xpress DV also has the advantage of being project-compatible with other Avid tools. Because Xpress DV shares the code base with Media Composer, one facility—be it a post facility, a school, or a corporation—can leverage its investment by extending the number of editing clients. For example, one Media Composer can have many Xpress DV clients working on the same product. Editing is Avid's business, and we're not dipping our toe into video. Our products are constantly updated with new versions roughly every six months.
Premiere's low price makes it the clear choice for Mac hobbyists and "enthusiasts" looking for more sophistication than what they'll find in Strata DVpro or Apple's free and decidedly consumer iMovie. Final Cut does have a very broad appeal because of its breadth and functionality. However, it's a stretch to say broader than Premiere's, given Adobe's more than one million users at all levels of production. But Final Cut probably has broader appeal across different professional creative disciplines that may have an editing component, such as compositing, 3D graphics and animation, modeling, etc. Premiere also works with a similar, if not broader, range of hardware. Avid Xpress DV's target market is mixed, perhaps confusingly given Avid's messaging. The company promotes Xpress DV as a gateway to higher-end and higher-priced Avids and as a competent standalone product. Competitors can rightly point to Avid's history of functionally hamstringing "corporate-level" products so as to not compete with Avid's higher-end products. However, Xpress DV is a very solid, professional editing product in its present form, and its upward compatibility is a big plus for those "in the business" or aspiring to be professional editors. The caveat is that it works with DV files only and does not support analog or other digital I/O. Can Avid continue to endow Xpress DV with features, risking the company's higher-end lifeblood? With Apple selling Final Cut for less than its relative market value in order to sell computers and bolster the platform, Avid faces a tough fight. On the other hand, given the status of Avid's interface in the industry, they probably have a right to charge more for Xpress DV.
Long-form Editing, Streaming Output, and DVD Publication
EMedia: All three of these products can handle long-form work. How do these long-form editors handle different output formats and what are the platform differences?
Adobe: Premiere's philosophy, and indeed Adobe's philosophy, is "produce once, publish everywhere." Premiere can handle projects up to three hours in length and for Mac supports direct timeline output to QuickTime and Real (it also bundles Real Producer). Unlike Avid Xpress DV, which was created for long-form work, if not offline editing for higher-end Avid systems, and Final Cut, also geared toward long-form work, Premiere has a long tradition of supporting multimedia creation, and streaming is a continuation of that. For DVD, there is no DVDit!-like bundle with the Mac, but iDVD is free and takes a DV file directly, so there's really no need for another entry-level authoring tool. On the higher end, Premiere has the ability to insert markers on the timeline during editing and move those markers to Apple's DVD Studio Pro as chapter marks. That's the same integration that exists between Apple's own Final Cut Pro and DVD Studio Pro.
Apple: Final Cut Pro handles long-form work extremely well, with a vast array of keyboard shortcuts and multiple ways to perform most operations to serve different individual editing habits. Final Cut supports editing in 24fps, which you can't do with Avid Xpress DV unless you move up to a different Avid editor. The recent addition of OfflineRT, Final Cut's offline resolution for DV editing, lets users fit as much as 40 minutes of raw footage per gigabyte of hard drive space, about 4X that of native DV. That ability to edit in draft mode—imagine 24 hours of raw footage on a PowerBook—then to re-capture the original full quality for final mastering makes remote and notebook editing not only possible, but very efficient. For output, Final Cut Pro is based on QuickTime and QuickTime Pro, so whatever export functions are possible with QT, Final Cut can do as well, including recent additions like MPEG-4 and other popular streaming formats. Final Cut can export MPEG-2 directly from the timeline for DVD Studio Pro authoring, and Final Cut reference markets will also open in DVD Studio Pro as chapter marks. Workflow is key and Apple is constantly working to enhance that.
Avid: After twelve product generations, Avid continues to add functionality to Xpress DV that enhances its long-form ability, such as real-time transitions and color correction, audio editing, and a completely configurable interface to suit any individual's work habits. Xpress DV relies on QuickTime and QuickTime reference movies, for import directly into other applications. There is no DVD authoring software bundle on the Mac, since iDVD is free from Apple, although there is an export-to-DVD Studio Pro script in the goodies folder of the Xpress DV install discs.
For a straight long-form editor, it's very hard to beat Avid. Other products have individual features with compelling advantages that win users, but Avid is essentially the default and the one interface that someone breaking into the industry for more than personal projects probably needs to know. On the other hand, market success shows Final Cut has sufficient editing functionality (if not clever new paradigms) and attractive compositing abilities, not available in either of the other tools. On a feature basis, Premiere is deceptively deep. Its front-level drag-and-drop interface is straightforward, but drilling down in the menus, the effects, the titling, etc. yields thorough editing functionality. The caveat is not so much the missing features as the drilling down itself, which slows editing compared to the higher-priced tools. Of course, Premiere does lag behind Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress DV in terms of more advanced functionality, real-time color correction, media management, and editing fluidity. All three products now support software-based real-time effects preview, although the methodologies differ. Premiere 6.5 always tries to preview everything in real-time, but only to the computer screen and not to an NTSC monitor or a DV device. Success depends on processor and RAM, and slower systems or complicated passages will cause degraded preview quality or dropped frames. Conversely, Final Cut has select tagged real-time transitions and effects that don't leverage system strength. There is also no preview to DV. Avid has the best implementation because, like Premiere, it tries everything but adds a toggle for output to DV if your system is fast enough. It also offers helpful feedback if your system isn't able to handle everything. Premiere's multimedia heritage gives it an advantage with streaming output and DVD production on projects with multiple videos, since it matches Final Cut's functionality in terms of exporting chapter marks to DVD Studio Pro. All that said, the differences are small and none of these products offers thorough integration with DVD authoring at this time.
EMedia: None of these products was designed for neophytes. Editing is a craft, and to do it efficiently takes some expertise. How is the learning curve?
Adobe: Because Premiere shares its basic interface with very popular Adobe products like Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, etc., and leverages normal Mac conventions, users with basic computer skills have a good head start. Premiere's drag-and-drop interface helps get new users doing basic editing fairly quickly.
Apple: The learning depends on one's background, although Apple has followed normal computer conventions wherever possible, and that helps new users. Anyone who has editing experience on another non-linear editing system should be fine. Interestingly, we've found that new users don't take the time learning Final Cut as they normally would learning another system, reading manual, doing tutorials, because Final Cut is from Apple and they just expect it to be easy. That's both good and bad. It's nice because it means that we've had some good success constructing the basic interface and that features like the drag-and-drop pop-up windows and queues really assist new users. However, make no mistake, Final Cut is a very serious and capable editing tool with many levels and some areas, like effects editing and compositing, can get pretty deep very quickly, and users need to understand that. Apple does, as do many other organizations, offer Final Cut training classes.
Avid: If you've used an Avid interface before, you'll feel at home in Xpress DV, and vice versa. And, since Avid is the model for most other industry interfaces, using one of those offers a big head start.
With Version 5.0, Adobe changed Premiere's interface in two big ways. First, it adopted a consistent Adobe look and feel and that's a clear advantage. Second, it abandoned its former A-transition-B style timeline in favor of a two-window source/ program and video/cut-away timeline that is more consistent with the industry. Ultimately, that was a positive step as well, especially as video editing has become more vertical, or layered, with more effects and overlaid video clips together in the timeline. However, it increased the initial learning curve. Nonetheless, of the three leading editing applications on the Mac, Premiere remains the easiest to learn, especially for computer users moving to video editing. Adobe is among the best at bundling helpful tutorials, although both of the other products have good ones as well. Adobe's Classroom in a Book series is also top-notch, going into great detail over several chapters and lessons. And with more than a million users, there is a wealth of other published material, print and Web, as well as a huge user community in Web forums and regional user groups. Final Cut's drag-and-drop pop-up windows are a nice touch, especially for new users and new editors, but both Final Cut and Avid require patience to master. What's more, in some ways, like its relative lack of some expected drag-and-drop functionality, Avid's interface can be somewhat counter-intuitive. The payoff is that once you've learned it, with keyboard shortcuts, streamlined editing, and a completely customizable interface down to the buttons, it turns out to be the most efficient of the bunch.
The Big Mac Picture
Apple didn't start the software-based editing video revolution—in fact, Premiere was the standard-bearer for years—but Final Cut Pro put the hammer down with very professional functionality. Thanks to the timely proliferation of DV camcorders and other affordable video production devices, Final Cut's success has effectively legitimized Open System editing for software on both Windows and the Mac OS. So, where does that leave editing on the Mac? Neither Premiere nor Xpress DV has any particular benefit in the Mac version over Windows and each one supports both operating systems to reach the widest audience. In fact, Avid includes the installers for both platforms in each box sold. Apple claims that its invention of QuickTime and FireWire—as well as ownership and integration with the hardware— led to efficiency within Final Cut, but that's a stretch at this point. In fact, Apple's current implementation of real-time preview in Final Cut is arguably the weakest among these three tools, even though they own the hardware. And Microsoft has a functional FireWire driver and A/V infrastructure that several companies now leverage with good results. And ultimately, there are more editing, authoring, and streaming options available on Windows at virtually all levels. On the other hand, Final Cut is, of course, Mac-only and truly brought the Mac back from near video-editing extinction. That alone is testament to its functionality and value both within Apple and in the field. All three companies rightly point to Apple's free iDVD and the undervalued (features-to-price) DVD Studio Pro as advantages to working on the Mac. The success of Final Cut has clearly brought a vibrancy back to video editing on the Mac, and the addition of Xpress DV, along with Premiere's continued presence, are a critical next wave of the revolution Apple started. Except for the Final Cut team itself, Apple should relish Avid's renewed interest in the platform, because for the Mac to adequately serve the creative professional, there needs to be a range of choices, functionality, price points, and products. Avid's presence makes that big-picture future a little more secure.