Edit Video on Your PC
Digital video tools get more powerful and easier to use every year, and that’s especially true when it comes to the video editing software that targets nonprofessional enthusiasts. Every year, new formats, new techniques, and new capabilities trickle down from professional-level software. That’s a good thing, because higher-quality video content produced by nonprofessionals is exploding in volume. Phones that record in 4K, DSLRs, 360-degree VR video cameras, and action cams that can capture motion-picture quality video all contribute to this explosion in video content. Given how cheap storage media is, the only limit on how much you can shoot is how tolerant your subjects are and how much time you have for both shooting and editing.
Multicam and More
Advanced abilities continue to make their way into accessible, affordable, and consumer-friendly video editing software as each new generation of software is released. For example, multicam editing, which lets you switch among camera angles of the same scene shot with multiple video cameras, used to be a feature relegated to pro-level software. Now this and many other advanced effects are available in programs designed for use by non-professional enthusiasts.
Another impressive effect that has made its way into consumer-level video editing software is motion tracking, which lets you attach an object or effect to something moving in your video. You might use it to put a blur over the face of someone you don’t want to show up in your video. You specify the target face, and the app takes care of the rest, tracking the face and moving the effect to follow it. This used to be the sole province of special effects software such as Adobe After Effects. Corel VideoStudio was the first of the consumer products to include motion tracking, and it still leads the pack in the depth and usability of its motion-tracking tool, though several others have followed suit.
Support for 4K video source content has become pretty standard in video editing software, but the support varies among the products. For example, some but not all of the applications can import Sony XAVC and XAVC-S formats, which are used by Sony’s popular DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, camcorders, and professional video cameras. The same holds true for the relatively new H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) standard.
Several of the products here (Adobe Premiere Elements is a notable exception) still support 3D video editing if that’s your thing, though the this has been replaced by 360-degree VR footage like that shot by the Samsung Gear 360 as the current home-theater fad. As is often the case, our Editors’ Choice, CyberLink PowerDirector was the first product in this group to offer support for this new kind of video media. Other programs have jumped on board with 360 VR support, including Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Magix Movie Edit Pro. Support varies, with some apps including 360-compatible titles, stabilization, and motion tracking. PowerDirector is notable for including those last two.
Video Editing 101
Of course, none of the extras matter if an app can’t do the most basic editing tasks. At this point, however, all of the products included here do a good job of letting you join, trim, and split video clips. They also let you make use of special effects such as animated transitions, picture-in-picture (PiP), chroma-key (the technique that lets you place a subject against any background, often known as green screening), and filters that enhance colors or apply creative effects and distortions. They also let you add a multitude of timeline tracks that can accommodate video clips, effects, audio, and text overlays.
Where the Action Is
Many video editing apps now include tools designed to please users of action cameras such as the GoPro Hero4 Silver. For example, several offer automated freeze-frame along with speedup, slowdown, and reverse time effects. CyberLink PowerDirector’s Action Camera Center pulls together freeze frame with stabilization, slo-mo, and fish-eye correction, and color correction for underwater footage. Magix Movie Edit Pro 2016 Premium includes the third-party NewBlue ActionCam Package of effects. And Wondershare Filmora lets you subscribe to new effect packs on an ongoing basis.
Titles That Zing
I’ve been seeing a lot of attention paid to creating title effects in the applications over the past year. Apple Final Cut Pro X has added 3D title creation, which is pretty spiffy, letting you extrude 2D titles and rotate them on three axes. PowerDirector’s Title Designer offers transparency, gradient color, border, blur level, and reflection in titles; and Magix has impressive title templates, complete with animations. Look for an application that lets you edit titles in WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) mode, so that you can type, format, and time it right over the video preview.
Video editing is one of the most computing-intensive activities around, so you’ll want the best laptop or desktop you can afford if you’re serious about cutting your own movies. Most applications help speed up the editing process by creating a proxy file of lower resolution, so that normal editing and previewing aren’t slowed down by the huge full-resolution files. Particularly intensive is the process of rendering your finished product into a standard video file that will by playable on the target device of choice, be that an HDTV, a laptop, or a smartphone. Most of the software can take advantage of your computer’s graphics processor to speed this up. Be sure to check the performance section in each review linked here to see how speedy or slow the application is.
Other measures of performance include startup time and simple stability. Again, video editing is a taxing activity for any computer, involving many components. In the past, video editing programs took longer than most other apps to start up, and unexpected shutdowns were unfortunately common, even in top apps from top developers such as Adobe and Apple. In my testing this time around, however, program crashes were few and far between across the board. The stability situation has greatly improved, but the complexity of the process, which increases as more powerful effects are added, means crashes will likely never be fully eliminated.
Free Video Editing Software
If you don’t want to invest a lot of money and effort into your video editing exploits, there are a few free options. Of course, if you use a Mac, the excellent iMovie comes with it. For PC users, Windows 10‘s Photos app now lets you trim and draw on clips. In the upcoming Fall Creators Update, those capabilities will be supplemented with more features, including clip joining, and auto creation of movies with soundtracks.
There are also some free video apps on the Windows Store, including Movie Moments, PowerDirector Mobile, Movie Maker, and Magix Movie Edit Touch. Some of these are quite basic, but the Magix app is fairly capable, with clip joining, transitions, and effects, in a very touch-friendly interface.
Free video editing software often comes with legal and technical limitations, however. Some widely used codecs require licensing fees on the part of the software maker, meaning they can’t offer free software that can handle these standard file formats. That said, the impressive open-source Shotcut does a lot of the same things that the paid applications in this roundup do, including things like chroma-keying and picture-in-picture. Shotcut is completely open source and free, while another free option, Lightworks has paid options that remove a 720p output resolution limit. Note also that both Shotcut and Lightworks run on Linux as well as Windows and Mac.
What About Apple?
Though Mac users don’t have the sheer number of software choices available for PCs, Apple fans interested in editing video are well served, by four products in particular. At the entry level, the surprisingly capable and enjoyable-to-use iMovie comes free with every Mac sold since at least 2011. iMovie only offers two video tracks, but does good job with chroma-keying, and its Trailers feature makes it easy to produce slick, Hollywood-style productions.
In the midrange, there’s Adobe Premiere Elements, which is cross-platform between Macs and PCs, and offers a lot more features and lots of help with creating effects. Professionals and prosumer have powerful, though pricey options in Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro. Final Cut is a deceptively simple application that resembles iMovie in its interface and ease of use, but it offers massively deep capabilities, and many third-party apps integrate with it for even more power. It also makes excellent use of the Touch Bar on the latest MacBook Pro, as shown in photo above. Premiere Pro uses a more traditional timeline and adds a large ecosystem of companion apps and plug-ins. It also excels in collaboration features.
We still live in the days of talkies, so you want to be able to edit the audio in your digital moves as well as the images. Most of the products included here offer canned background music, and many, such as Pinnacle Studio, can even tailor the soundtrack to the exact length of your movie. All of these programs can separate audio and video tracks, and most can clean up background noise and add environmental audio effects such as concert hall reverb. A couple of the products have recently added an auto-ducking feature, which lowers background music during dialog—a definite pro-level plus.
What’s Not Here
There are more video editing software applications than we can fit into this roundup of the best options, which includes only software rated three stars and above. The best known among them is probably Vegas Movie Studio, which was recently acquired by Magix from Sony. Sony’s product used a very cluttered interface that more resembled high-end professional video editing software from the early days of the craft. Magix has made some progress in simplifying it and bringing it up to par with the competition, but more work is needed for it to be included here. Another program, VSDC Video Editor Pro, simply has too outdated an interface, making common tasks difficult. There are a couple more interesting applications—NCH VideoPad and AVS Video Editor among them—that we simply haven’t tested yet, but plan to put through their paces later this year.
The Finish Line
The video editing application you choose will depend on your budget, the equipment you’re using, and how serious you are. Fortunately, you’re spoiled for choice with the products available. Dig into our in-depth reviews of enthusiast-level video editing software reviews linked below to see which is the right one for you.
One note about the features table at the top of this story: Check marks represent differentiating, above-the-call-of-duty features, rather than essential ones. So, just because Nero Video and Wondershare Filmora don’t have any checks, it doesn’t mean they’re not good choices. In fact, both offer decent basic editing on a budget.