4 video editors: Pro results for ambitious amateurs

Video-editing software now offers features formerly only available to pros. We review four of the top packages (with video examples).

With HD-resolution cameras now standard-issue items in smartphones, 4K-resolution cameras falling into consumers' hands and multi-core processing power standard issue on desktops and laptops, the need for video editing suites with high-end features has moved into the mainstream.

In this roundup, I explore four well-known video editing packages -- Adobe Premiere Pro CS6, Corel VideoStudio Pro X6, CyberLink PowerDirector 11 and Sony Vegas Pro 12 -- that are suitable for the ambitious amateur or for the professional who wants to complete a quick project. These are available both as standalone items and as parts of larger suites or packages, and there's a price range and a feature set for most every budget or need. (Note: Only Adobe offers a version for Mac users.)

What constitutes a "high-end" feature -- or product, or suite -- is at least as much about implementation as whether or not it's included. For example, 4K-resolution video (3840 x 2160 pixels), used by a growing number of consumer-level devices, is supported by all the products in this roundup. However, not all of them support Redcode, the 4K video format generated by Red pro-level cameras. Not a big deal to those editing cellphone footage, but a potential deal-killer if you end up working with such high-tier technology.

To that end, I've looked at each of these products with an eye towards how well they handle top-of-the-line features like 4K support, general usability, value for the money and bonus features. My test system for this roundup was an Intel Core i7-3770K quad-core (eight-thread) system running at 3.5 GHz, with 16GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD system drive and a 2TB secondary drive; NVIDIA loaned me a Quadro 5000 GPU.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6

Standalone: $799 or monthly starting at $19.99. Suites: CS6 Production Premium ($1,899); CS6 Master Collection ($2,599); Creative Cloud, ($49.99/mo. w/annual commitment, $74.99/mo. cancel at any time) OS: Windows 7 and later, Mac OS X v10.6.8 and later

Adobe has done a lot of work with Premiere Pro -- both as a standalone product and as part of the Adobe Creative Suite -- so that video professionals will take it more seriously. With each successive revision Premiere Pro has become more tightly integrated with Photoshop and other Adobe products (and vice versa).

In addition, Premiere Pro CS6 has gained features to keep it competitive with professional-grade editing products. Among the biggest new additions, and one sure to be attractive to high-end camera users, is native support for footage from 4K-resolution camera systems: the Red Epic, the Red Scarlet-X, the ARRI Alexa series and the Canon Cinema EOS C300, among others. A great deal of processing power and throughput is needed to handle these files (a single minute of Redcode footage can eat up 4GB). However, Adobe has made it possible to speed up the process considerably with its accelerated Mercury Playback Engine -- provided you have a graphics card that supports it.

A professional-level program for a professional audience, Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 introduces a new pay-as-you-go licensing for both the suite and the standalone program.

The Premiere user interface hasn't been changed a great deal over the previous version, but a few incremental tweaks here and there do make it easier to work with. For example, editing clip boundaries can now be done by dynamically sliding an edit point, typing a number (such as -5 frames from the current point) or by using a side-by-side editing view that shows where one edit ends and another begins, and which can be adjusted by either mouse or keyboard controls. I'm comfortable editing right in the timeline, but veteran editors used to a side-by-side view from other products will like this.

Premiere Pro CS6 introduces a few new plugin effects for processing problematic footage. The Warp Stabilizer, for instance, uses image-synthesis algorithms to correct for camera shake. Previous plugins of this type either zoomed in on the image or left black borders around it as part of the compensation process, but Warp Stabilizer attempts to reconstruct the edges of the image as well. It's best used for individual moments in shots that need it, since it takes a long time to process footage (almost 20 minutes for a single 45-second clip, even on my multi-core system), and can introduce some artifacts of its own, mostly at the edges of the images.

The same goes for the Rolling Shutter Repair plugin, which corrects wobbling or skewing artifacts common to some CMOS-based camera sensors but can introduce other artifacts unless it's used carefully.

One truly useful new feature inspired by Photoshop, Adjustment Layers, lets you apply effects to whole groups of clips at once. You no longer have to add those effects to each clip and tweak them separately, which was clumsy and time-consuming.

Other new pro-level feature tweaks include an easier-to-work-with color-correction plugin (you can also use Adobe SpeedGrade as a more high-end substitute), better handling of multi-camera footage (you're no longer limited to a maximum of four cameras) and pixel-level support for high-resolution screens like the MacBook Pro's Retina Display.

A big selling point for Premiere Pro has been its close integration with the rest of the products in the Creative Suite, especially in terms of workflow. Sequences created in Adobe After Effects, for instance, can be launched from Premiere Pro by simply double-clicking on the sequence in a project timeline or asset list. Changes made to any such object are automatically updated in the Premiere timeline. The same goes for almost every other kind of Adobe file type, such as Photoshop image files.

The single biggest change to both Premiere Pro and Adobe's entire Creative Suite isn't in the software, but the licensing. While you can still purchase the boxed products (Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 retails for $799 and the Adobe Creative Suite 6 Master Collection for $2,599), both the individual programs (including Premiere Pro) and the whole of Creative Suite can now be licensed on a month-to-month basis.

Premiere Pro alone can be rented for $29.99/month or $239.88/year. Creative Cloud, the newly rebranded, pay-as-you-go version of Creative Suite, offers every program in the suite (including Premiere) for $49.99/month if you agree to a one-year commitment, $74.99/month if you want to be able to cancel at any time. Thirty-day trials for individual apps and for the whole suite are also available.

Bottom line

Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 is a top-of-the-line, professional-grade product that also commands a professional price. The new pay-as-you-go pricing, though, may open up the product to a new audience.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 allows multiple timeline sequences within a project; there is a revised color-correction plugin; the software corrects shutter-roll problems.

Corel VideoStudio Pro X6

$79.99; Ultimate edition, $99.99 OS: Windows XP and later

Corel's press material describes VideoStudio Pro X6 as being for "multimedia enthusiasts, action videographers, educators, and social media marketers." In other words, folks who use prosumer-level hardware and expect professional-looking results, but can't afford to waste time learning the arcana of a program like Adobe's Premiere Pro.

The latest incarnation, VideoStudio Pro X6, keeps the simplified workflow of previous editions (the "capture/edit/share" tabbed interface), with most of its changes under the hood or outside the program itself in the accompanying suite of products.

The motion-tracking function in Corel VideoStudio Pro X6 makes some normally very difficult processes (such as blurring a license plate) easier.

While the suite has been enhanced to support 4K video footage, it does not support importing Redcode at any resolution. It does, however, support AVCHD 2.0, which most consumer and prosumer video cameras shoot natively. To keep your system from choking when working with 4K footage, a "Smart Proxy" function generates low-res copies of footage for the editing process, similar to the same feature in Sony Vegas Pro.

One example of how VideoStudio Pro tries to package high-end features for non-technical users is the motion-matching function. Take a clip, mark an object in it with either a bull's-eye or with an area selection tool, and the program will attempt to follow the movements of that object and generate a motion path for it. You can then attach other objects to that motion path, such as a text label, or re-use the motion path elsewhere. Area-selected paths can also be used to generate a mosaic effect over part of the image as a way to, for example, quickly blur out faces or license plate numbers.

Powerful as this function is, it does require guidance. When I tested it, I found that the most accurate tracking came when I selected an object as close to its center as possible, or avoided objects that changed rapidly in size (in other words, quickly came closer or moved further away). On the whole, though, it's still far less tedious than trying to match-move things entirely by hand.

VideoStudio X6 includes a screen capture program called ScreenCap X6, which all by itself is a value-add: People editing tutorials or demonstration videos will love it. You can pick an individual application window to record from via a drop-down menu, draw a rectangle on the screen to delineate where to record from (you can automatically constrain the rectangle to the aspect ratio of your display), or simply capture an entire display. Audio can be captured simultaneously from a microphone or from the system's main audio channel.

When you're done, the resulting capture is added automatically to a VideoStudio Pro clip library and can be used immediately in a project. The number of frame rates you get for a given clip will vary depending on your hardware, but the program will attempt to capture at 15, 25 or 30 fps.

My one big complaint with ScreenCap X6 is that you can't adjust the capture area while recording -- in other words, you can't zoom in or out. You have to stop recording, alter the capture zone and start again.

Speaking of capture, owners of DSLR cameras -- such as my Canon Rebel XS -- can use them as full-motion video capture sources if the camera supports it, or use them to perform remote-controlled stop-motion capture. Note that any camera that works as a capture source can perform stop-motion capture, but with a DSLR's lenses you generally get much better capture quality than, say, with a webcam.

Video projects can be exported to a wide array of formats; for example, you can export a file encoded as H.264 or WebM so that you can embed it into an HTML 5 page. Projects can also be written to DVD or Blu-ray, exported to tape and tapeless cameras or uploaded directly to popular video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo. All of these options are wizard-driven, and can either use canned presets for common media types or be hand-tuned for the best results (for example, one-pass vs. two-pass compression).

The Ultimate edition of VideoStudio X6 includes a passel of add-ons, essentially plugins integrated into the main program. Among them are SmartSound QuickTracks, an audio library that adds automatically generated soundtracks to videos in a variety of styles, and adds a number of third-party effects from proDAD, such as RotoPen (which lets you draw on an image) or Mercalli, a video-stabilization plugin about on a level with the one in PowerDirector. One add-on that is a full program is Boris Graffiti 6, a very powerful titling and text-animation tool. It requires a good deal of expertise to use since it isn't anywhere nearly as straightforward as VideoStudio X6 itself, but its output is extremely slick and professional.

Bottom line

Corel VideoStudio Pro X6 is clearly aimed at non-technical users, but contains some powerful features, has a great titling add-on "Boris Graffiti" as part its suite bundle and supports many top-of-the-line video standards.

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Corel VideoStudio Pro X6 has a new task-based layout; there's a useful screen-capture feature; you can track the movement of an object and then overlay it.

CyberLink PowerDirector 11

$54.99; Ultra edition, $79.99; Ultimate edition, $103.99; Ultimate Suite edition, $199.99 OS: Windows XP and later

CyberLink PowerDirector 11 takes some of the high-end features from Adobe's and Sony's products, and wraps them in an interface reminiscent of Corel's for ease of use -- right down to the "Capture / Edit / Produce / Create Disc" workflow menu along the top of the screen. While the results aren't as full-bore professional as the Adobe and Sony suites, they're still impressive, especially at these prices.

The friendly approach is clear from the beginning. When you launch the program, you are given three options. First, you can run the full-featured version of the program. You can also fire up a stripped-down Easy Editor, which builds movies according to existing themed templates. Finally, you can launch an even more basic slideshow-creation tool. (You can always open projects created with one of the simpler wizards in the full editor later for more precise work.)

CyberLink PowerDirector 11's "content-aware editing" can automatically apply fixes for common issues such as shaky video or bad lighting.

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