What’s the Best Video Editing System?
By Lee Rickwood
It still depends on what you are editing.
Several years ago, VideoUniversity published Doug Graham’s excellent article, What’s the Best Editing System? And while lots of technology has changed, the basic answer that Doug put forth back then still holds true today – the answer, he said, is ‘What do you want to do with it?”
With all the choices for video editing hardware and software out there, you are still best served before making a purchase decision to ask yourself a bunch of questions- then, go ask the dealer or vendor. Ask yourself what your goals are for video editing, and what you hope to accomplish.
Are you a hobbyist who wants to make better home movies? That will point you in one direction. Do you want to go a step further, and start a video business, producing business videos, wedding videos, special interest videos or legal videos? These goals lead to other answers. And if you are aiming high, with broadcast TV or documentary film festivals in your target, well, that’s another answer – and probably a few more dollars.
Ed Note: This is amazing PC editing software at a
ridiculously low price. I use it and swear by it.
Each of these video scenarios, as Doug first pointed out, has a different set of video requirements – both in terms of the equipment most suited for the job, and in terms of the skills most required to make best use of the gear you choose.
Your choice will be some combination of hardware and software. The hardware is a computer and accessories such as extra storage drives and maybe a ‘capture card’. Software is a dedicated program for editing video, much like a program for word processing. Some editing systems are complete hardware and software packages making them dedicated editing appliances, such as those from MacroSystems, like the Kron or Casablanca, or even the NewTek Toaster system.
Another question to ask is how computer literate or tech savvy are you? The answer will steer you one way or the other. Mac users getting into video will find it pretty easy to get started – most of what they need is built right into their computer. The hardware needed, in this case, is some sort of DV or FireWire capture card that brings video into the computer, and the software, like iMovie, which is usually included with a new purchase.
And while there are now PC makers, VARs and integrators who will pre-install a DV capture card or build an entire turnkey system for you, some Windows PC users will find they have to add their own (in my case, it was a card and software bundle from Canopus) DV capture card to the system, one that’s compatible with the computer, with the editing software being used, and with your needs and abilities.
Even at the beginner level, there are an amazing number of choices out there – capture cards used to get video from your camera to your computer can be found starting at $30. At the other side of the scale are really high-end cards that can cost thousands. Canopus, Matrox, Pinnacle, Digital Rapids, Aja and Blackmagic are among the many capture card makers out there.
The more pre-configured a video editing system is, the more expensive it will be. If time is money, and for many small business operators, that is the case, spending a little more up front may save you time, frustration and money down the line. In general, too, more expensive systems run faster. You can get going quicker on them, and they have the horsepower to do the job at hand faster, getting your final product ‘out the door’ in less time.
The less expensive a system is, the more time it will take to get running the way it’s supposed to (and the more add-ons you may have to get later on). You are the one who will have to work out potential computer bugs and system incompatibilities, so assess your tech comfort level carefully.
Buy or Build?
As Doug originally wrote, “The extra money you spend in getting a turnkey system is well worth the extra time it takes to build and debug your own.”
Knowing that there are very capable and very confident folks out there, and some great home-made editing systems as well, you should again make your own best assessment here.
As many who have built their own editing system will advise, keep cool! That means not only having patience and long fuse, but also plenty of space and good fans for the PC interior. There is a lot of heat built up during many of the horsepower-intensive digital video editing processes – you don’t want a meltdown – for yourself, or your PC!
One approach to computer hardware specs is to ignore the maximum ratings, and watch carefully the minimum. For example, a hard drive rated at a minimum spin speed of 5400 rpm is probably too slow for your needs. Video storage drives generally need 7200 RPM. Don’t worry about a computer’s peak transfer rate – a sexy number in some cases, but for video, look for a good sustained throughput.
Some systems come with two or four GB of RAM – but consider that, at the minimum, even the operating system may need that much. So, think about doubling or tripling the RAM to get the best performance from a system built to edit.
A single CPU processor chip, no matter how high its rating, will generally not be as good as a computer with multiple processors – the advantages of Quad Core processing for video editing are pretty big, no matter the clock speed rating number.
One number you will want as high as possible is storage capacity. You will use up whatever space you have, I can guarantee it! Get more storage!
We used to talk about needing one gigabyte of storage space for five minutes of video. This amounts to about 13 gigabytes of hard drive space for an hour of DV or HDV video. Newer high definition formats need even more space, in some cases, over 500 gigabytes per hour of video! Yikes!
So get a dedicated, high capacity drive. Never use the computer’s internal system drive for video storage. You may even want several drives for storing video. Consider putting them in a type of RAID array or SCSI chain that can protect against data loss while actually speeding up edit time.
And don’t forget the fan to prevent overheating the computer. All the processing and drive spinning can generate a lot of internal heat, and that heat can negatively affect your computer and your editing experience. Big towers or PC cases can also help with cooling, even if they do not fit ‘on the desktop’.
Speaking of available real estate, if you intend to do a lot of editing on longer shows or documentaries, consider a pair of large LCDs on which to work, not just one computer monitor. The added screen space will help a great deal in seeing and navigating the user interface of an editing program.
There’s a certain comfort level you will want with the look and feel and design of a software program’s user interface, too. This is not just about your eyes; it’s about efficient, effective and creative workflows. You will be spending hours staring at the user interface, so make sure you like it and that you can find your way around it reasonably quickly.
There’s not necessarily a wrong or a right here – something like overall color scheme will be an individual preference (and they may be customizable in some editing packages) but just how the screen is laid out, and how quickly you can find the specific editing tools you need while looking at that screen, are important personal points to consider.
So, you should get a hands-on demonstration of various video systems and software packages.
Generally, this means going to a video equipment dealer or vendor, but it can also mean checking out your friend’s or acquaintance’s video system. Check your nearest local video association. It’s a good idea to to attend a nearby video trade show, where there are bound to be several demos available. Try online searching for a dedicated user group on a certain editing program.
And take a ‘test spin’ whenever possible – at a dealer’s shop, if necessary, but also look on the Web for those 30 day free trial offers. This is a partial list of free demo software. These may not be the full sticker price software programs that they let you download for free, but they should be enough to help your assessment.
Here are some points to look at and compare:
Ease of Use
No matter what level of video editing you wish to do, the process generally requires you to make multiple decisions, and to choose multiple commands. These should be easy to find, easy to read, easy to use. One or two clicks should make an edit. Don’t be satisfied if it takes several clicks and menus to do one basic task.
Video Capture / Playback Compatibility
More on this later, but for now match your current camera or anticipated recording format to the edit system you are looking at. Make sure they are compatible ‘on the way in’. Today, good video editing systems will work with several sources, like DV/AVCHD/miniDV camcorders, or VCRs, DVDs and even TVs. Just make sure it matches your needs.
Likewise, if you want to view your final edited program on something special, like a DVD or Blu-ray, an iPhone or iPad or Internet stream, make sure the edit system is compatible on the ‘way back out’ too.
Specific Editing Tools
Video editing systems will use one of two main approaches to editing on screen – the timeline and the storyboard. Some editing programs do both (Corel, Cyberlink, NewTek, Premiere among them) but if you are a fan of one or the other, it can influence your decision.
The storyboard is like a newspaper comic strip. It generally consists of small, square, on-screen icons or thumbnail pictures that represent individual video clips. You can grab these icons and drag and drop them around the computer screen to rearrange your program sequence in a simple, straightforward manner.
The timeline is a side-to-side linear representation of a program, often using colored boxes to represent individual video clips. Timelines can generally show a much longer program running length, and they can also show multiple tracks for both audio and video. Dragging and dropping those coloured boxes on the timeline is one way to edit (and you should be able to put little pictures from the video clip into the colored box, as a helpful reminder).
Basic editing commands like capture or record video, cut and paste video clips, and so on are pretty standard, no matter what the system.
But more specific editing tasks (like slightly trimming a clip, starting a picture before its sound or vice versa, or even adding simple titles on screen) are features that start to separate one system from another. The more sophisticated editing systems will help you correct for bad lighting, different aspect ratios, even different video qualities, but these will be features found in more expensive systems.
More than simple straight cuts between video scenes, it’s important that a system allows you to add special transition or video effects. Many programs out there today come with an entire library of effects, or filters, or transitions, all designed to give your video ‘a certain look.’
And while a library of built-in effects is nice, you might find that better still is a more powerful program that lets you create, or customize your own effects (and then save them for later use). Don’t forget to assess and compare the audio and photo editing tools inside a video editing program. Good audio, in fact, can make or break a good video, so don’t shrug it off. Control over volume, panning, EQ and other aural aspects is good to have, as is precise edit ability with both spoken words and music tracks.
The Dreaded ‘R’ Word – Render
Today’s editing programs require powerful computers to handle the amount of video and effects processing. Not that long ago, most video editing was called ‘render intensive’, and almost everything we tried to do took extra computer processing time – create a special effect, then grab a coffee while it renders!
Today we have faster processors and more of them. But now we’re trying to work with uncompressed HD video in some cases, so rendering and processing speed can still be an issue.
Some editing systems that claim ‘real time’ capabilities may actually mean what they say, but be aware that some claims are highly qualified – it depends on the type and quality of video, the type and intensity of edit process, and particularly the type and specification of the host computer and CPU.
If you are planning to edit HD videos laden with special effects, you will need more power and your edit will take longer. But if you are only doing straight cuts between basic captured video scenes, the requirements for the best editing system will be much less.
Good editing programs will let you tweak your program to your heart’s content – or to your client’s budget says stop! But once you’ve finished, you have to get the edited program out of the computer and onto some viewing or screening format. These days, a lot of videos go straight to YouTube. Some editing programs list YouTube as a user selectable choice, right in the main menu. Flash video, MPEG-1 or maybe 4, even AVI or WMV (Windows) or MOV (Apple QuickTime) are handy and popular video formats, and they should be part of a good editing program’s export choices.
For output to discs, an MPEG-2 and or Blu-ray format choice is crucial. Note that some editing programs do have DVD authoring tools built in, but again, depending on your needs, you may want a dedicated DVD program with more capabilities.
For any software, especially more complicated video editing programs, good documentation and various avenues for Help is important. Look at built-in or online Help tools and tutorials, and find out about online support from tech department or user communities.
Taking another cue from Doug Graham’s original article, I am not going to tell you which edit system is “the best” for you. As you have read, that really depends on you, and what you need to do with the system. But among your choices will be products from companies like those listed below, all of which have several different products to offer, and many happy editors who are using them.
Most Popular Editing Programs
From its entry level iMovie editing software, running on an iMac or iBook, up to the top of the line Final Cut Pro Suite running on a multi-processor tower, with Final Cut Express in between, Apple has editing packages that meet just about every need. Nice is the fact that Apple makes the hardware and the software.
From the lite version of its editing program Premiere Elements, to the full up big brother, Premiere CS Production Suite, Adobe has a range of software products and price points for video editing. The software runs on Windows or Macintosh PCs
Avid Media Composer is a powerful SD and HD professional video editor for Mac or Windows. Media Composer (now v 5.5) is Avid’s top video editing program, but the company (owners of Pinnacle) also offers less expensive more consumer-oriented editing software.
Vegas Pro, now v 10, is Sony’s comprehensive video editing software for Windows PCs (and its own VAIO laptops), designed for professional audio and video production, as well as DVD and Blu-ray Disc authoring. Sony’s Movie Studio Pro has nearly all the feature of its big brother, Vegas Pro, at 20% of the cost. Even Sony Vegas Movie Studio, for less than $100, is seen as an amazing value for video editing.
Digital Video Storage Requirements
This chart shows some of the hard drive space requirements for each hour of digital video being stored. The higher the video quality, the more storage space is needed. Other media assets, of course, take space, too. Generally, audio files for a video edit do not need much space, but building and saving special effects or heavy composites does.
(GB = gigabytes)
Format Number of GB per Hour of Footage
HDV 720p 11
HDV 1080i 13
XDCAM EX 20
ProRes 422 1920×1080 66
ProRes 422 HQ 1920×1080 100
Lee Rickwood is an accomplished freelance writer/editor and award-winning independent media producer, based in Toronto.
The Art of Film and Video Editing takes you beyond the hardware to the art of editing. This 9-part article is comprehensive course in the art and styles of editing. Don’t miss it. It includes videos.