Stephen Porter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World.
There's good news and bad for those in the market for a desktop non-linear editing (NLE) system. The good news—thanks to recent advances in computer hardware, dropping prices, and the proliferation of sophisticated software features—there has never been a wider selection of high-quality products to choose from. While the market leaders may be Adobe's Premiere, Apple's Final Cut Pro, and Avid's Xpress DV, there are also impressive offerings from the likes of Media 100, Pinnacle, Matrox, Leitch, and Canopus.
The bad news is that it's never been more difficult to find clear and compelling differences between the products. Indeed, differentiation is more subtle than ever, meaning that users who want to find just the right system must be extra diligent in doing their homework.
With that said, here are a few thoughts you might want to keep in mind when shopping for a new NLE system.
- Assess your needs: The first step here is to figure out how much you want to spend. Prices range from $549 for a copy of Adobe Premiere up to $40,000 for a turnkey 844/X system from Media 100, with a wide range of offerings in between. If you have a small budget, your choices are obviously going to be more limited. But don't immediately assume that a lower-priced product can't meet your requirements. All of these packages offer professional-quality capabilities, and even most of the low-end products provide an upgrade path so they can grow with your needs.
|Pinnacle's new desktop non-linear editing software, Edition 5.0, was designed to provide tighter integration between its video editing and DVD publishing functions.
The next step is to ask yourself several technical questions. How many streams of video do you typically work with? How much compositing work do you do? How complex are your composites? How much real-time performance do you require? Do you need support for both analog and digital video? Does your video have to meet SMPTE specifications? Must you have a system that supports both Edit Decision List (EDL) import and export or other interoperability options such as for Open Media Framework (OMF) and Advanced Authoring Format (AAF)? Simply by answering these questions, you'll be in a better position to determine what you require in terms of speed, quality, and performance. It will also help you decide whether you'll need to spend several hundred or several thousand dollars.
- Evaluate input options: One mistake people make when purchasing a desktop video editing system is that they think too narrowly about the kind of support that's necessary for video formats. If you're sure that you'll be working only with DV video, then a software-only product may do the job. Most computers now ship with IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports, making it easy and inexpensive to connect a DV camera or deck.
However, if you expect to input video in Betacam format, the FireWire port won't do you much good. For that, you'll want analog I/O support, which you can usually pick up in the form of add-on boards. However, be aware that the analog component format is going to provide you with better quality than the consumer-oriented composite and Y/C, or S-video, formats offered on many boards. Similarly, if you expect to be using Digital Betacam, you'll probably want an NLE that supports serial Digital Interface (SDI). And if you plan to work with HD video or even uncompressed standard definition (SD) video, then you're going to have to be ready to spend still more money.
Certainly anyone interested in the HD format will want to check out the new HDX Technology from Media 100. According to the company, an HDX-equipped 844/X HDX system converts HD source material in real time with 10-bit or higher signal precision to an enhanced internal SD format. With HDX, Media 100 users can reportedly utilize the full range of real-time, high-quality editing and compositing capabilities of 844/X on captured HD images.
- Evaluate output options: As important as it is to have support for multiple input options, it may be even more important to have support for multiple output options. The days when editors output only to videotape are now long gone. As Richard Townhill, Adobe group product manager says, we're living in the age of "edit once, publish many times." That means you want to be able to publish not only to tape in VHS, DV, and Beta formats, but also to CD-ROM, DVD, and the Web.
Fortunately, most programs now support that kind of output flexibility. The difference is the ease with which such publishing is done. One company that hopes to play up its advantage on that score is Pinnacle, which has announced Edition 5.0, the new version of its desktop editing software. According to the company, Edition 5.0 will offer tight integration between the video editing and DVD publishing functions. "Many systems use separate programs for each function," says William Chien, Pinnacle product marketing manager. "With Edition 5.0, DVD authoring will be integrated into the editing process. For example, you will be able to drag a menu onto the timeline."
- Beware of real time: Virtually every professional desktop-video product on the market these days claims to offer real-time performance. But the term means different things to each vendor. Some programs let you render one or two streams of video in full resolution in real time, while others claim to let you render four or more. Adobe Premiere and Apple Final Cut Pro both offer real-time preview, which basically means they let you see your work in real time, but only in a low-resolution format. Pinnacle's Edition DV software offers background rendering, which means that while one piece of your project is rendering in full resolution, you can be busy working on something else.
|Leitch's dpsVelocityQ has the ability to mix uncompressed and compressed video in real time.
If you primarily work on projects that require simple cuts and dissolves, you may find that a dual-stream real-time system or even a real-time preview system will be good enough. But if your projects involve multiple DVE effects (such as picture-in-picture), more than two layers of video, or 32-bit video (such as animated logos) overlaid on your production in real time, you'll probably need more than real-time video layers. One system designed with real-time performance in mind is Leitch's dpsVelocityQ, which features simultaneous full-quality playback of four video streams, six graphics streams, and four real-time 3D DVE effects.
Of course, if there's one thing you can be sure of, the claims about real-time performance are constantly changing, as vendors actively seek to make their systems faster and faster. For example, although Pinnacle's Edition DV program has supported only background rendering until now, the company says its new Edition 5.0 program will be the first to support both background rendering and real-time preview. "Edition 5 will use both the CPU and the GPU to render in real time," says Pinnacle's Chien.
Similarly, Media 100, which has been heavily promoting the fast performance of its 844/X system, is now touting its recently released Version 2.0, featuring new real-time color correction capabilities as well as an Xblur option that offers real-time Gaussian Blur effects.
- Evaluate the interface: Perhaps most difficult to rate is a program's interface. While most of the programs out there tend to be built around a timeline metaphor and offer similar kinds of editing capabilities, the way individual features are accessed can vary significantly.
One advantage that Avid's Xpress DV product has is the similarity between its interface and that of its big brother, the Avid Media Composer. If you are working in an Avid environment, or have the expectation that one day you will be migrating to an Avid Media Composer, the decision to buy Avid Xpress DV can be a fairly easy one.
But for most vendors, the challenge of convincing users that their interface design is superior to that of their competitors is extremely difficult. "Interface design can be important," acknowledges Pinnacle's Chien, "because it can really affect a user's workflow." But he admits that trying to communicate the advantages of a particular interface design to users via advertising or quick demos is almost impossible.
So what's a confused user to do? Well, if you've got the time, the best option is to take home trial versions of various packages and experiment with some real-world projects. Or perhaps you can spend a day or two in a vendor-sponsored seminar where you can run a program through its paces. If neither of those options is practical, then you'll have to rely on the advice of reviewers, friends, colleagues, and online user communities before taking your own leap of faith.