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Review: Avid Xpress DV 3.5
Posted Oct 1, 2002 Print Version     Page 1of 1
  

synopsis: The power and facility Avid (www.avid.com) has bestowed on Xpress DV 3.5 (($1,699) make it the top choice for DV editors who have worked on an Avid system before, though a difficult one to learn for Avid neophytes. It's more expensive than just about any product in its class and its advantages can be rather subtle if you're just getting into editing. Yet if you are committed to learning the craft, Avid's interface is hard to beat and has plenty of room for growth in Xpress and its older siblings.

If there's a name that's synonymous with non-linear editing, it's clearly Avid. Avid's been around for more than a decade and, while they may not have been first to market with a computer-based video editor, history may indeed write it that way. Today, Avid absolutely dominates the high-end editor market. Two key statistics from its résumé tell part of that story: 98% of the current prime time television lineup is edited on Avid systems, and all five of this year's Oscar nominations for Best Picture were edited, at least in part, on the company's equipment. And if you're trying to break into the field of video editing, Avid's is the interface you have to know.

More than ever before, Avid Xpress DV 3.5 leverages that proven interface in what amounts to the company's most aggressively priced professional editing product to date. That alone should be reason enough to take Xpress DV very seriously if you're in the market for a DV editor. It now shares much of the look and feel of the higher-end tools and it is project-file compatible with higher-end Avid finishing tools, making it a powerful offline tool for traveling, editing in-the-field, or taking home for Avid Media Composer studios.

But that's the high-end; what about Avid Xpress DV on its own as a primary editing tool? Can it compare with the six-figure finishing systems that remain Avid's main focus? Avid's past is littered with "corporate"-level editing systems, many of which the company has left awkwardly under-featured to prevent them from competing with the top-of-the-line siblings that are Avid's bread and butter. What's more, the original Avid Xpress was one of those corporate tools, clinging to legacy M-JPEG hardware long after the DV writing was on the wall in big letters. Has Avid finally bestowed on Xpress DV its birthright as an industry-leading product, or is it left to pick from the feature scraps of its self-important broadcast-oriented siblings?

Avid's marketing is hedging a little, praising its offlining prowess, but this Xpress DV holds very little back. It gives digital studio users an Avid they can use and, with Xpress DV version 3.5, one that now equally serves both Mac OS X and Windows XP Professional. (Version 3.5 leverages DirectShow components not available in Windows 2000, thus 2000 users must upgrade to XP or stick with version 3.0.)

Open DV
With Xpress DV version 3.0, Avid finally unbundled its software interface from proprietary or exclusive OEM hardware—a huge step toward making it an open-system product. Previous versions of Xpress, and indeed any Avid product, were tied to pricey and even obsolete hardware, something Avid justified in the interest of consistent, if not flawless, system performance. Yet with DV, digital compression is done in the camcorder and transferred over a common protocol (FireWire), making Avid's grip on exclusive hardware passé and its fine software effectively overpriced. Now, at $1,699, Xpress DV is still more expensive than its competition—Pinnacle Systems Edition, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Adobe Premiere—but that's fine given the Avid interface's status in the industry.

Unbundling the software marks a critical step for Xpress DV, opening the door for editing in the field, on a plane, or at home on a FireWire-equipped notebook computer. Indeed, we tested Xpress DV on a Dell Precision Pentium 4 notebook (although it could have been a G4 Titanium PowerBook), edited a project on a cross-country flight, and burned a DVD when we got back to the studio. Project finished.

Still, the number of tested and qualified systems for Xpress DV is quite short, relatively, and that will be frustrating for a potential buyer with a non-qualified computer. However, we'll explain later with Xpress DV's real-time effects why system performance is so important with Xpress DV and why Avid remains prudent by being deliberate with its approval list.

Xpress DV is now more open with its interface. Past versions of Xpress featured a somewhat simplified version of Avid's well-known editing interface and that still exists in Xpress DV 3.x for current users. It has the same project bins, the same Sequence window, and the single project—or composer—viewer window. However, Xpress DV also now adds the rest of what other Avid users would expect through a configurable and highly personal interface. You can manually move and set buttons and windows to suit your editing if you like; but even more helpful, Avid has given you the ability to toggle between different work environments.

The pre-3.0 Xpress interface is called the "Basic" view, but right below that in the toolset menu is "Source/Record Editing," which is Avid's professional and familiar two-window, "Big Trim" look. That's not to say that you get all the functionality of uncompressed finishing systems; however, if you learn Xpress DV, you'll probably feel comfortable sitting at one of those in the future. Xpress DV comes with three addition "Toolsets" beyond the two above—for Effects Editing, Audio Editing, and Recording, or capture—and toggling back and forth remembers the previous position and state of each. You can also "Save Current" to create your own interface presets.

Real-time
As with Apple's Final Cut Pro, which EMedia reviewed in August (http://www.emedialive.com/r8/2002/sauer8_02.html), Avid now supports software-based real-time preview of unrendered transitions and effects. Yet Avid's method is quite different from Apple's and is ultimately much better, giving users greater control and leveraging as much system speed as they have. Where Final Cut marks specific effects and transitions as real time-enabled, Avid leaves it up to an individual computer, as well as user predilection.

To begin with, you toggle real-time preview on or off at any time by clicking a button above the timeline, and there are a couple of reasons why you might turn it off. First, Xpress DV typically sends video playback to both the on-screen Composer window and to your attached DV camcorder for NTSC viewing. With real-time preview enabled, you won't get output to DV, just the sub-sampled, on-screen window. Of course, that's where many editors train their eyes nowadays anyway to avoid constantly turning, but it's a personal preference.

The second reason to disable real-time preview is that if your system isn't fast enough, it will try anyway and drop frames. That might be helpful and it might not, but it's also where Xpress DV really gets smart. Xpress automatically places a green dot on any effects bin or timeline segment that should perform in real-time given the specific system CPU. As a point of reference, on our 2.0gHz, 512MB RAM, testbed Dell notebook, all visual transitions had a green dot, although Avid claims to have targeted a relatively modest 750mHz system. Alas, simple audio crossfades don't, and that's indicative of the ways audio gets the short end of the stick in Xpress DV.

But what if you have multiple simultaneous effects or transitions? The only barrier to real-time preview of multiple effects is your system's speed and performance, and Xpress DV reports helpful feedback if there are playback issues. If your system drops frames during real-time preview, Avid places a colored bar in the timecode track of the timeline to explain. If the bar is Red, it's showing you the area that your system could not play in real-time. If it's Yellow, it's saying your system played, but dropped frames during playback. And if it's Blue, it's telling you that the problem was getting data from your disc and not caused by a slow processor. Of course, you can use that information to upgrade your system as needed. But wait, there's more…

Xpress DV has two more ways to help you facilitate smooth real-time preview. First, you can adjust the image quality of the video preview, setting it for either "High-Quality" or "High-Performance." With higher quality, you'll hit the limit on simultaneous effects preview a lot quicker as your system spends more resources decoding a perfect picture. High-performance only does a partial DV decode, effectively displaying a softer image, and is able to play more layers smoothly.

Second, you can "pre-fill" system RAM with up to ten seconds of your timeline and thus achieve smooth real-time preview of even more layers. The rub here is that you'll also have to wait for up to those ten seconds for the "real-time preview" to start. Of course, if you've got a complicated sequence that might take a couple minutes to render, that ten-second wait is a fair tradeoff. The other option is to spend five or six digits on one of Avid's completely real-time finishing systems, and in that light Xpress DV starts to feel like a pretty fine, affordable solution.

Real Editing
Real-time effects previews are the most visible upgrade to Xpress DV, but there's a lot more that both moves Xpress DV into greater feature parity with Avid's higher-end products and that leverages DV editing specifically. Bins and project windows now feature tabs for quicker toggling between asset views (i.e., as text, picons, picons with comments, etc.) and between asset and effects bins. Also, a new SuperBin effectively acts as a dock for all other open assets bins, rather than having them all open separately and cluttering your desktop.

DV-specific features include a new Avid DV codec which you can install on non-Xpress systems for opening media files in other applications, like Adobe After Effects or other paint or compositing programs. Avid also leverages the information stored in the DV header to automatically create "sub-clips" from one long capture. In other words, you can capture an entire DV tape at once and Avid's "Scene Extraction" will separate each take into a different clip in your asset bin.

Avid Xpress DV has never really been the system of choice for the editor interested in creating fantastic, over-the-top, custom effects, and it still isn't. Final Cut, Pinnacle Edition, and even Premiere do a better job at letting you do the fanciest effects. Avid's products, while capable with custom effects editing, tend to focus on the more commonly important task of facilitating professional editing. On the other hand, Xpress DV does take a nice step forward with new Keyframing abilities.

Keyframes aren't entirely new, but now almost every parameter of every effect can be keyframed individually. Keyframe graphs for each parameter offer both a visual aide for how the parameter is set to change over time and also for adjusting keyframes in one of four different manners—shelf, linear, spline, or bezier—for very nice control.

Finally, with the 3.5 release, Avid has brought near Symphony-like real-time color correction to Xpress DV for both Mac and Windows. It's undoubtedly a reaction to Apple adding some real-time color correction to Final Cut, but that's just a boon for the user. Photoshop-style Curves adjust specific color shades and color wheels separately change shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. You even have the ability to use the eyedropper to locate, copy, and leverage specific colors from points in the video. With Vectroscopes, waveforms, and more, Xpress DV packs finishing system power in a $1700 product. You can even save color correction settings as preset to use on other takes.

Finishing
Avid Xpress DV can output MPEG files and comes bundled with Sonic's DVDit! for Windows, but there's no further integration between the two as yet, nor with Apple's iDVD or DVD Studio Pro on the Mac. Still, the combination does allow effective two-step output to DVD. Not bundled, but available for Xpress DV for an additional $2500 (ah, that sounds more like Avid) is the PowerPack for Xpress DV. It includes features like FilmScribe for editing film source material and generating edit lists, Avid Illusion FX and full versions of Boris FX and Graffiti to augment custom effects creation, and an automatic image stabilization feature for smoothing awkwardly shot source footage. It's not a package you'll need for basic editing, but does include some nice options.

With or without the PowerPack, the power and facility Avid has finally bestowed on Xpress DV are likely to make it the top choice for DV editors who have worked on an Avid system before, as well as anyone who wants to do so in the future. It's a proven interface that, in what is now a remarkably similar form, has been used by top editing professionals. And that alone is high praise.

However, that's not to say that Xpress DV is a hands-down winner for any DV editor. It is more expensive than just about any product in its class and its advantages, in the big picture, can be rather subtle if you're just getting into editing. Indeed, Avid's interface tends to assume past experience and is not the friendliest to the neophyte editor. Yet if you are committed to learning the craft, Avid's interface is hard to beat and has plenty of room, plenty indeed, for you to grow in Xpress and its older siblings.

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